The Great Wall (Part II): Design; the Visible & the Invisible
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Say ‘China’ and the first thing that comes to mind is probably manufacturing. Not surprising, since the country has indeed made prolific progress on many fronts, basis its manufacturing prowess. Any price tag or label that says ‘Made in China’ has probably become a blind spot for most of us. As one may argue, is there anything that’s not made in China? What intrigued me on this trip though, was the focus on ‘Designed in China’.
In a second of a series of 2-parts, here is an account of how design is a part of everyday
life in China!
Go to the international airport terminal of any city in the world and you will see multiple manifestations of the local culture or art, presented through the décor or through the overall theme of the space. Take for instance the T3 at Mumbai; the space is almost treated like an exhibition of artefacts from all over India. China was no different, except for one thoughtful detail; the exhibit showcased internationally acclaimed Chinese-designed products! Most of these products were simple everyday use objects that had won either the Red Dot or an Index Award or the coveted G-Mark.
Seeing the display, I thought back a little in time, when my partners and I were attending the Red Dot Award ceremony in Essen, Germany. I distinctly remember at least every third award being presented to design cells of international brands that were based out of China. Little wonder why the third Red Dot Museum opened its doors last November in Xiamen! The museum houses an entire section of contemporary Chinese designs, apart from the annual Red Dot winners and design classics. Although, I missed visiting the museum, I managed to catch a glimpse of a small display at Xiamen Airport. As the trip unfolded, there were even more surprises in store!
I was in China to attend the Canton Fair, one of the ‘go to places’ for every kind of sourcing in Guangzhou, one could possibly imagine. As I passed the registration office and moved towards the exhibition halls, I noticed the beautiful displays at one of the exhibits. This happened to be the Canton Fair Product Design and Trade Promotion Centre. The space outside was converted into a walk-in presentation area where talks and panel discussions on design were being conducted.
The exhibition space itself had a variety of sections, from award winning products on display, to live demos of products that were being pitched as ‘superior by design’. A little walk across the grounds of the fair led me to a hall that housed the winners of the Canton Fair Design Awards. By this time, I was pretty convinced that design was the new flavour of the season in China. As a designer I was delighted that the people in power were looking at design as a differentiator and making efforts to make it visible; not just to designers, but to an international audience and lay people alike.
Dieter Rams’ design principles state, ‘Good Design is often invisible’! This could not hold truer at the Canton Fair, as I soon learnt. Design was everywhere at the fair; visible and invisible, the latter being what one may call design thinking or systems design. Like at any international fair, the signages and way finding was top class and the information kiosks and visitor facilities in abundance too.
What stood out however were the Pantone Decks, so insightfully made available at the kiosks, in addition to the usual maps and exhibitor lists. Indeed thoughtful, since most serious buyers come to such fairs with a very specific focus. Making sure buyers get exactly what they want, right down to the precise Pantone shade, is where design thinking steps in. That was the first instance. There were several more, but one more of these truly stood out for me!
Imagine Laxmi Road in Pune or Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai on a festive public holiday. What do you see? Hordes of people of all ages, an atmosphere of celebration heightened by music, colours, a variety of wares being sold and, hold your breath, garbage; a lot of it! We often complain that garbage is a bigger problem for us than it is in the West, since we have a much larger population to deal with. Now, cut to Xiamen on May 1. The Labour Day holiday is a big celebration nation-wide. Factories and schools are closed for almost a week. This is the other time in China, apart from the Chinese New Year that people travel cross country. I happened to be on Zongshan Road, one of the most touristy destinations in Xiamen on May 1. What truly amazed me was the manner in which the garbage that was being generated was being picked up and segregated, leaving the busy street absolutely clean. The system as it turned out, was a shining example of design thinking.
There were large dustbins clearly earmarked for wet and dry waste, placed along the street at small intervals. The trash sometimes spilled over, people did drop stuff on the road, but it was cleaned up in minutes. A tiny army of women, equipped with dustpans and tong-like tools kept raiding the street and picking up stuff that was out of place. Even chewing gum or sticky papers stuck to the road were being neatly removed with these tongs and put away. The next step involved tiny closed hand-pulled carts that cleared the dustbins. The third step was the waste segregation centre, which was located in one of the busy by-lanes. The trash from all the carts was emptied here, segregated, compacted and put away in minutes. The next morning when I was passing by, a big tanker fitted with brush rollers, was washing the street.
What was inspiring and fascinating about the garbage system was that it accounted for both human behaviour and human error. It’s not that people did not litter on Zhongshan Road; they in fact did. But, the city’s public system pre-empted this occurrence and developed processes that accounted for the garbage that would be generated. Systems cannot be created without thinking of the people using them and China seems to be leading the way through design, in both thought and craft. About time Indian policymakers opened up to this idea!
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