Taiwan Firms Shift Focus to Industrial Design

Taiwanese auto brand Luxgen fuses distinctive design with cutting-edge technology (photo: Luxgen)

 Companies are relying on designers to help them achieve product differentiation and enhance competitiveness.

In an effort to create innovative and more valuable products, Taiwanese companies have been making ever greater investments in industrial design. Spearheaded by some of Taiwan’s top companies and research centers, the effort is already paying off, earning the island accolades and design awards around the world.

The effort has been hampered, however, by an insufficient supply of experienced industrial design talent on the island. Currently, the government, enterprises, and universities are working diligently to develop Taiwan’s industrial design talent to compete in the global arena.

The Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) defines industrial design as the “professional service of creating products and systems that optimize function, value and appearance for the mutual benefit of user and manufacturer.” According to Jan Larsson, a senior marketing director at Siemens PLM Software in charge of Product Engineering Software, industrial design creates “emotional connections” between the user and the product by integrating “all aspects of form, fit and function” to engender the best possible user experience. In an article posted on OnWindows.com, Larsson observes that design can be the difference between success and failure in the hyper-connected, globalized marketplace where products need to meet consumer expectations across a wide range of cultures.

That attitude increasingly resonates with Taiwanese manufacturers. “In what is a highly competitive market, top managers must have design thinking nowadays,” notes Will Wu, director of the Lifestyle Design Center for electronics maker BenQ. The Center continuously rolls out creative designs for the company’s electronic appliances, including projectors, monitors, and medical equipment, while also highlighting green design through its substantial use of environmentally friendly materials. Since the design center was set up in 2002, the effort has won the company hundreds of international awards for industrial design, including the four major international industrial-design awards: iF and Red-Dot Awards, both from Germany; the IDEA (International Design Excellence Awards) from the United States; and G-mark from Japan.

BenQ has placed design at the top of its product strategies. (photo: BENQ)

“Instead of merely meeting the requirements of product managers, we have now entered the stage of design thinking, trying to understand the needs and aspirations of users and come up with design ideas before communicating with the manufacturing and marketing departments about their feasibility,” says Wu. The challenge has only increased as technological innovation is no longer a sufficient differentiator in the electronics market. “With diminishing difference in functions due to technological maturity, designs that can touch the needs of consumers are vital for product differentiation,” observes Wu.

As a result, the Lifestyle Design Center is staffed not only with hardware and software designers, but also researchers on consumer mentality and designers specializing in enhancing the consumer experience. Staffers must communicate with colleagues in domestic and overseas sales units and make field studies to grasp market trends and consumer needs. They also collaborate closely with the production and marketing departments during the design process to ensure that their ideas are technically and commercially feasible.

Taiwan auto design

Luxgen, the own-brand of the Yulon Motor Co., boasts a dynamic and smart design culture, in line with its position as a carmaker offering vehicles with intelligent functions catering to the younger generation. “Our main target customer group is tech-savvy and somewhat adventurous young people,” notes James Shyr, senior vice president for design of the Yulon Group’s Hua-Chuang Automobile Information Technical Center (HAITEC), founded in 2005 to build intelligent cars. “We try to appeal to young customers with distinctive design and cutting-edge technology, to achieve a market niche different from that of established brands,” notes Shyr.

HAITEC’s workforce of 1,600 includes a 100-member design team headed by Shyr and other car-design veterans with experience at leading international auto brands. Shyr is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in California, the world’s leading school for auto design, and previously worked for Citroen-PSA, Toyota U.S.A, and the Shanghai-based Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC), a joint venture between General Motors and China’s SAIC Motor Corp., where he served as the design superintendent. Chi Wu-huang, manager of HAITEC’s styling design department, is also a graduate of the Art Center College of Design and used to design cars at Opel and Mazda.

These veterans have also functioned as mentors for other members of the design team, most of whom are inexperienced when entering the company. “Auto design is the most sophisticated type of industrial design, and there are only a few colleges providing such training worldwide,” notes Shyr. “An auto designer plays multiple roles, being an artist, communicator, marketer, and engineer all at the same time. It involves not only aesthetics but also vital safety.” He notes, for example, that “a fancy headlamp may lead to a fatal incident, should luminosity be sacrificed for the sake of beauty.”

So far, Yulon has rolled out five Luxgen models: an MPV (multi-purpose vehicle), SUV (sport-utility vehicle), compact SUV, and sedan, and a modified sedan dubbed the S3EV that features a higher body and roomy interior. An electric concept-car version of the S3EV debuted in late 2015 and the conventional model is being launched this month. Luxgen’s total sales in 2015 surpassed 15,000 units in Taiwan, in addition to 65,000 units in China. “We are going to roll out new models continuously, creating an extensive lineup for the Luxgen family,” promises Shyr.

Design at HTC

The design department plays a dominant role in the operations of HTC, Taiwan’s leading mobile-phone brand, in line with the company’s product positioning at the medium-to-high end of the market. To tailor the designs of its products to the tastes of Western customers, HTC acquired San Francisco-based design house One & Co. in 2008. The studio works in tandem with HTC’s in-house department in Taiwan, enabling regular rollouts of eye-catching models, a must for surviving in the highly competitive mobile-phone market. The design department’s direct access to the corporate leadership allows it to deeply tap the company’s resources to bring its designs to fruition.

Chief designer Ken Huang compares HTC’s design-oriented culture to that of Apple, noting that HTC design also follows the principles of minimalism, humanity, and excellence in craftsmanship. Every line on the HTC mobile phone has its function and significance, according to Huang. HTC One, for example, features a curved back, making for a comfortable grasp, along with a slim, one-piece metal body and a back that also doubles as the antenna.

HTC’s new, distinctly designed RE camera offers another look at the company’s innovative design aesthetics. Shaped like a small, curved water pipe, the RE is equipped with a sensor that can activate the device upon being grasped, allowing for smooth and speedy photo and video taking. “HTC RE embodies our effort to create products with utmost beauty and simple structure that are easy to use,” says Claude Zellweger, HTC vice president in charge of design. In 2015, HTC RE was awarded an IDEA by the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Giant bicycles

Design also figures prominently in the bicycles produced by Giant, Taiwan’s leading bike brand. According to the company, Giant’s customers, especially in urban areas, have high expectations for stylish bicycles. But in addition to robust structure and attractive aesthetics, bike designs also have to take into account riding comfort and mass-production techniques. For example, to produce a model with an aluminum-alloy Y-shaped frame made in one piece, the company’s manufacturing department came up with a production process three times more complex than the usual process.

The company’s eight-member design team creates innovative designs based on market information passed back by the company’s branches worldwide, including the United States, Canada, Japan, Holland, and Australia.

In addition, Giant has joined hands with DEM Inc., a local design house, in creating a series of bike models. The “City Storm” model, featuring a patented front frame and built-in security lock, was designed in collaboration with Michael Young, an acclaimed Hong Kong-based British designer. The model earned an iF Eurobike award and Red Dot award.

Industrial design houses

The growing awareness of design in the industrial sector has given rise to local industrial-design houses. HJ Design, for example, which is dedicated to the design of machinery, started by providing services to Taiwanese-invested machine-tool manufacturers in China. “Many Chinese firms have embraced industrial design to achieve market differentiation for their products,” notes HJ founder Alisa Chao, who stresses that the firm must pay attention not only to aesthetics, but also to structure, function, operating interfaces, and ergonomics.

Chao, formerly a designer at a local machinery company, established the design house in 2012 in response to a program developed at Taiwan’s premier private-public research center, the Industrial Technology Research Institute. ITRI was encouraging the startup of machinery design houses by subsidizing half the cost of their projects.

So far, HJ has undertaken some 20 projects, most valued at between NT$500,000 and NT$1 million (US$15,625-$31,250), including one contract worth some NT$2 million (US$62,500) for the design of six machines. Aside from design, the company also engages in sales for several products, including the DTC-500m, a small high-speed processing machine developed by another public-private research center, the Precision Machinery Research Development Center (PMC). The company’s works result from collaboration between its designers and mechanical engineers, and its goal is to help Taiwanese machinery manufacturers polish their brand image and boost their export competitiveness.

Chao is upbeat about the prospects for her company, which has just four employees – two designers (including her) and two engineers. “Most Taiwanese machinery manufacturers are small and medium enterprises, which need design service to boost the appeal of their products on the international market,” she explains.Industry-Focus-Increased-Attention-Industrial-Design-3

Even factory machines incorporate industrial design nowadays. (photo: HJ Design)

Fostering design talent

To foster industrial-design talent, the Taiwan government is sponsoring a number of design-oriented awards as motivation. Chief among them is the annual Golden Pin Design Award, hosted by the Industrial Development Bureau under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and executed by the Taiwan Design Center. The award has a history of 36 years, but repositioned itself in 2014 as “the topnotch design award for the global ethnic Chinese market,” and now accepts entries from ethnic Chinese designers around the world.

The contest covers product design, visual-communication design, packaging design, and spatial design. A panel of international judges evaluates the entries according to the four criteria of integration, innovative functions, aesthetics, and communication. The award targets designers of mass-produced works and has two subordinate awards: the Golden Pin Concept Award for concept works by young designers and the Young Pin Design Award for student works.

In 2015, some 565 works were selected from 2,360 entries for Golden Pin Design Award and were granted a Golden Pin Design Mark, in acknowledgement of their innovative quality. Twenty-nine works won the Best Design Award, including 16 from Taiwan, 10 from China, and three from Hong Kong. In addition, three winners of Golden Pin Concept Awards each received a NT$300,000 (US$9,375) in prize money.

Another major award is the annual Taipei International Design Award, which has received over 15,000 entries from designers all over the world since its inception in 2008. In 2015, the award gave out prize money of more than NT$3 million (US$93,750) to winners in the categories of industrial design, visual communication design, and space design. In industrial design, Taiwanese designers won the silver and bronze medals, yielding the gold to a contestant from Korea.

Further, every June major local ICT firms vie to win the COMPUTEX d&i award in at the Computex Taipei trade show. The award was launched in 2008 by the show organizer, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), in conjunction with iF. In 2015, a panel of international industrial designers selected 72 winning designs from 271 entries from around the world, based on aesthetics, innovation, practicality, and brand marketing. The winning products were displayed at Computex 2015 and other major international ICT shows.

Some enterprises have also held design contests, such as Lite-On Technology Corp., whose “Lite-On Innovation Award” has attracted over 10,000 entries since the competition was started 16 years ago. To cultivate auto-design talent, Yulon has given out an annual award for auto innovation since 2007. It receives some 500 entries each year, with a Nissan car as the prize for first place.

A BenQ education projector that won a Golden Pin Award honoring ethnic Chinese designers and their innovative products.

University industrial design

Many universities have set up industrial-design departments to meet the growing need for well-trained talent. National Taipei University of Technology is home to one of the leading departments, which regularly engages in industrial cooperation programs to sharpen the practical capabilities of its students. Two projects carried out in cooperation with Veterans General Hospital led to the development of “U-pants” to enable chronic-disease patients to conceal urine bags underneath their pants, and “body-turning cushions” to enable nurses to help bedridden patients turn over easily. “U-pants” was granted the Red Dot Award for design concept and the bronze medal from IDEA in 2015.

The department also encourages students to take part in design contests, both domestic and overseas. “Since our university stresses practical technology, we offer our students ample opportunities to hone their practical skills,” notes department chairman Wayne Chen. In their designs, students are instructed to take into account aesthetics, usability, market acceptance and fashion, and uniqueness.

The department is divided into product-design and furniture-design sections, with the former encompassing 3C products and auto electronics. Students have to learn not only design skills but also industrial knowledge, including materials. They are trained to utilize design tools, such as Pro-Engineering software, as well as RP (rapid prototyping) technology, using 3-D printing to produce prototypes for their designs in a matter of hours. To broaden the perspective of students, the department provides opportunities for students to study abroad, mostly for one year at universities in Britain, Germany, and Japan.

Taiwan’s premier institution of higher education, National Taiwan University, opened its D-School in October 2015, offering courses in four areas of study: design thinking, technologies for the welfare of senior citizens, design for innovative cars, and global innovation. More than 2,000 students, mainly undergraduates, competed for the 200 slots in the program. Some classes are held simultaneously with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) via videotext.

“Stanford and many other renowned universities abroad have long opened core design courses in order to boost students’ professional added value,” notes Chen Liang-gee, vice president and chief executive of the NTU D-School. “The concept nowadays is to foster ‘design thinking,’ considering issues from the angle of design with the intent of changing the world, not just from the standpoint of industrial design or merchandise design.”


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