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Tailor industrial design courses to meet changing demand

By Zhao Chao | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2014-08-10 14:15

Schools' Poorly planned expansion of activities or growth simply for growth's sake are potential recipes for disaster

Over the past decade, China has witnessed an explosion in its industrial design education sector, with many new departments opened within universities and other establishments to satisfy an ever-growing number of students.

But this phenomenon is coupled with another trend in which more and more aspiring Chinese designers are heading for the West to earn not only a foreign degree but also what they believe to be a guaranteed golden rice bowl.

In addition to toughening competition from overseas, a gap in quality and resources between the best Chinese design schools and the rest is also widening, meaning that China's more than 1,000 schools now offering courses really need to think hard about their future development.

Each year, more than 10,000 design students leave those campuses, with many finding that the skills offered are not up to scratch in an increasingly demanding industry, meaning it would be harder to get a job. Their expectations of a career as professionally trained designers are often being dashed before they ever start, and already the situation has led to an exodus of some of the country's best future design talent to overseas schools.

Through my role at Tsinghua, I have had the chance to share my thoughts on international education through various academic exchanges over the years.

In developed countries such as the United States, Britain and Japan, the decision to expand their design education sector has been carefully based on the economic principle of domestic supply and demand, with their pace of growth always well calibrated to match.

More importantly, the top overseas design schools have been able to maintain their reputation by adhering to strict standards of teaching quality.

Only those students who manage to meet the high demands being set are allowed to graduate as trained, market-oriented designers.

Inevitably there are some who fail.

But this is in sharp contrast with Chinese design schools, where more often than not, simply gaining admission to study is a guarantee of qualification.

Having said that, it is only fair to say, too, that the most successful design companies both in China and elsewhere have continued to look beyond just a piece of paper when considering an application.

People from very different educational backgrounds have always been able to compete on an equally footing for jobs in our industry.

Whether a student is trained at Tsinghua or at London's Royal College of Art matters not nearly as much as their ability to be creative and to demonstrate a genuine ability to work as part of a team.

China's industrial design education sector is still relatively young, around 30 years old.

And many of our top schools, including my own, are on a par with Western counterparts.

Bloomberg's Businessweek magazine has ranked Tsinghua's Academy of Arts and Design, to which my department belongs, and the Design College of Shanghai's Tongji University as among the world's top 60 design education institutions.

Traditionally a country's design training sector has mirrored the growth of its manufacturing industry, and so it has been for China.

As the country has grown into the world's second largest economy, the Chinese design market has expanded exponentially, meaning the creation and growth of not only some excellent local design companies, but also the arrival here of some of the world's top agencies in search of business.

At a time when many manufacturing industries in the West have struggled, China gained the advantage, offering huge career potential for its design students.

But its design colleges should have been making a lot more of what the market here has to offer, and they should have adapted themselves, as conditions changed.

They should now be focusing on developing more specialist disciplines, carefully tailored to meet shifting industry demands.

But equally they should be working together, and not in competition with each other. This sector, possibly more than many others, demands quality and precision, rather than volume.

Poorly planned expansion of activities by any institution, or growth simply for growth's sake, are potential recipes for disaster for the sector as a whole.

I would also urge any student, too, who thinks that gaining a foreign qualification guarantees success to think again.

The author is head of the Industrial Design Department of the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University.


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