Saturday, August 05, 2006

Notes From Design Ireland’s China Lecture


I attended an interesting evening lecture organised by Design Ireland and Douglas Wallace on Wednesday 26 July, entitled ‘China: Enigma or The Promised Land’. The speaker was Jan Stael Von Holstein, a spry little character with milk-bottle glasses and a dapper bow-tie. His background is as a serious brand consultant with Landor, Segal & Gale and EnterpriseIG all in his resume. He decamped China-side four years back to establish a brand consultancy there. His presentation was mostly an informal general-topic discussion on business in China with a design-industry flavour. Given that what little I know about business in China is that we all should know some more about it, I thought I would head along.

Big is the new big
In terms of the scale of China he spoke about five new satellite cities currently being built around Chongqing, each to house two million inhabitants and all will be finished in only two years. Ahem. There are now 400 million mobile phones in China with five million more coming on-stream every month. Other similarly mind-boggling statistics escaped my tardy note-taking.

Busy busy
He showed a series of photos he had taken of a street near his offices where a team of seven stone-masons and four assistants had surfaced the whole (long) street in only six days. As an example of his observations about the Chinese characteristics of speed and efficiency it resonated with me after watching a much larger crew take about 16 weeks to extend a small part of the pavement at the corner of Pearse Street and Westland Row last year.

Wax-on, wax-off
Getting to some more design-industry related issues he explained that, traditionally, Chinese education is very influenced by the technique of copying. The most clichéd example being students learning calligraphy by endlessly replicating the work of their mentor. In practice this manifests within their education system as a belief that if a technique is already perfect then why change it. A mindset that will tend to produce great craftsmen all right, but that does little to encourage innovation.

Branding
He spoke at length about brands in China and the requirement for practitioners to understand the unique aspects of that vast market and the myriad varieties of consumer therein. He gave some advice about brand name translation. There are three prevalent approaches to tailoring Western brand names to the Mandarin ear. Firstly, there are phonetic translations which approximates the Western sounds but have to abandon all of the received meanings. Nokia in China being an example. Secondly, there are a lot of brands who chose to translate the concept but not the sound. Finally, the most successful approach is taken by those brand names where both sound and concept are approximated. Ikea use the Mandarin characters that represent ‘good and healthy living’ which also sound like Ikea. Amusingly Coca-Cola chose to re-translate as a sound-alike that means ‘brings enjoyment by the mouth’.

Lenov-who?
Generally here in Europe and in the US we are very unfamiliar with and cannot name (m)any Chinese companies or brands. A vox-pop in the room of sixty-ish, presumably well-informed, professionals yielded Lenovo and little else. China has no global brands to speak of yet, a situation he claimed would be changing within the next two to three years. In terms of Chinese brands moving on to the global stage there are great efforts in hand to shift from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’.

Geometricologo
As an example of the current state of corporate identity design he had a slide of the symbols for the ten leading Chinese banks. Their aesthetic could most charitably be classified as being of the Seventies School Of  Corporate Identity. (Ever look at a reference book of seventies-era American identities where there are pages and pages of variations of mathematically symmetrical geometric symbols accompanied by Helvetica logotypes set in upper and lowercase? Bingo.) There does seem to lots of opportunities for identity designers prepared to bring their experience into this market. Although he said the scope for selling high-end brand and identity strategy consultancy seems quite immature and may not prove too fruitful yet. (Or perhaps he is hoping to corner that market for himself...)

Your Name Here
His talk ended with more technical information about the mechanics and practicalities of establishing an office of your business over there. To me a more likely proposition for some of the Irish architectural practices in attendance rather than the graphic design and branding consultancies.

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