DESIGNER GAINS FOOTHOLD IN CHINA
HONG KONG — The creative minds of TECA are at work designing remote controls, headphones and the packaging for your next set of sunglasses. Founded in Britain in 1998, the company was the country’s first product design firm to set up permanent offices in China. After setting up an office in Hong Kong in 2004 and working there for about a year, Andy James Lee, Teca Studio’s founder and design director, realized he was going to mainland China almost daily to meet with manufacturers and other business contacts.
Founded in Britain in 1998, the company was the country’s first product design firm to set up permanent offices in China. After setting up an office in Hong Kong in 2004 and working there for about a year, Andy James Lee, TECA founder and design director, realized he was going to mainland China almost daily to meet with manufacturers and other business contacts.
So he decided to see whether he could hire qualified engineers and move his operations to Shenzhen. But things did not go quite as he had expected.
Not speaking Chinese, and not knowing where to start, he visited a government job centre and asked whether it would be possible to recruit three or four employees who were proficient in Pro Engineer, a software program that requires significant training. The people behind the counter told him he would need to fill out paperwork and have his business registered.
“I walked off,” recalled Mr. Lee. “Then all the guys came out from behind the counter, chased after me and said, ‘I can use Pro Engineer, give me a job!’ I was astounded.”
That experience gave him a sense of just how deep the pool of qualified employees in Shenzhen might be. And it was a sign that having a local partner, who could help navigate the ins and outs of how to get things done in the city, would be a good idea.
TECA approached one of its suppliers in Shenzhen for assistance in helping the company set up an office and find staff. Eventually, TECA formed a partnership with a Chinese design company.
“We could teach and mentor and help their business,” said Mr. Lee of his new partner, noting that the first university courses in industrial design had begun in China only 15 years ago. “We could teach quality standards, and such, and we got help with staff, recruiting and business management.”
Being in Shenzhen gives TECA some unique advantages. Unlike other design firms, whose involvement with products may end when they hand over drawings to clients, Tecatech often helps customers find factories and oversees the production process.
“We meet manufacturers regularly, supervise the tooling, even send engineers to go live in the factory. You can say to an employee, ‘I’ll pay you a bonus, you go work in the factory, tell me everything that happens.’ We can give the customer a direct line of information so they know how to handle things with the manufacturer,” he said.
Designer salaries in Shenzhen are much lower than they would be in Britain. According to Mr. Lee, 4,000 renminbi per month, or $585, would be a typical wage.
In England, a worker at the same level would be paid about £2,500, or $3,800, per month.
Wages increased sharply in 2009 and early 2010 but have leveled off, said Dina Guth, TECA’s business director.
Along with its Chinese partner, the company now has about 40 designers in Shenzhen, and employs five to seven people in Britain who deal with European clients.
By Chinese standards, it is a small operation — one Shenzhen firm has nearly 1,000 designers.
TECA has designed DVD players for RCA and sunglass cases for Prism, a high-end maker of eyewear.
As they built their staff, Mr. Lee and Ms. Guth came to realize that their Chinese employees and Western employees approached design differently.
“The skill level, in terms of software and execution of work, is higher in China than in the U.K. — the people may be more qualified to go straight into a job,” Ms. Guth said. “They have a good skill base. But whether they have been trained as creative thinkers is another thing.”
The company set up some workshops to explore the differences. Through questionnaires, they found that Chinese designers drew inspiration from poetry, the Chinese landscape and even Chinese food.
They gave the technical features and functions of products priority over style and beauty.
Creating new designs for their own country was cited as the most important aspect of the job.
For British designers, in contrast, “building a new brand name” was a top priority, and music, film and the Internet were bigger sources of inspiration.
“There are also differences in the way people like to work. The Chinese like to work as teams, and it’s common that one person will start something and hand it off to a colleague to finish,” Ms. Guth said. “Western designers see design as a personal expression.”
TECA has sought to work with these differences to enhance the company’s creativity and productivity.
“It’s an amazing process to see this big culture clash,” Mr. Lee said. “The European guys, who can be more about the conceptual process and hand sketches and the bigger picture, gain speed of working. We are working long hours, weekends, at a very fast pace. Every product we work on is manufactured within weeks or months. And they are learning to apply the computer software at a high level.”
Published by JULIE MAKINEN
NEW YORK, USA, June 16 2010
New York Times – Designer Gains Foothold in China With a Local Partner’s Help
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