Good Design Is More Than Good Business

These products from Taipei company Kimu represent a second wave of Taiwan design.

In the process of becoming an innovative industrial design hub, Taiwan has had to quietly overcome entrenched ideas about a perceived lack of creativity.

A focus on innovation and style is transforming Taiwan into a center for post-industrial design. Local design talents work behind the scenes to create cutting-edge electronic products for the world’s major corporations; but they also develop their own brands or set up design studios and marketing agencies.

“Designed in Taiwan,” as opposed to “Made in Taiwan,” has been a mantra for industry leaders and the government since the 1990s, when China started flexing its manufacturing muscles, slowing Taiwan’s economic growth. Moving up the value chain hasn’t been easy, despite significant central government support, but it has borne fruit.

In 2016, that progress was recognized when Taipei was designated that year’s World Design Capital. Last year, Taiwan for the first time made it into the top 10 of the World Design Rankings, popularly known as the “Olympics for Design.” The United States came first, followed by China and Japan. Taiwan was in eighth place, ahead of traditional design giants like Germany and the Nordic countries.

Onetime IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson famously said: “Good design is good business.” These days the slogan might be better stated as, “Good design is more than good business.” It can also transform the environment and improve quality of life, and that is precisely what a new wave of designers is intent on doing.

Whether in integrated chip design, state-of-the-art electronics products, imaginative interior design, fresh fashion, leading-edge architecture, or branding, Taiwan’s designers are now among the frontrunners internationally, says Mark Stocker, head of Taipei- and Shanghai-based brand-strategy consultancy Direction Design Group (DDG). He is also Chief Branding and Public Relations Advisor for Taiwan’s annual Golden Pin Design Awards.

The Golden Pin is the most influential design award in the “huaren” (華人) world – broadly speaking, areas with a substantial Chinese-speaking population. 2018 marked a departure for Golden Pin as it opened up to the world, rather than requiring entries to have a partner in a Chinese-speaking country or region. As a result, a record 7,572 product designs and concepts were submitted.

Stocker has lived in Taiwan for nearly three decades and has witnessed the transformation of its design industry. This development is considered to have been kickstarted in 1979 when the Ministry of Economic Affairs set up a Department of Industrial Technology to advance industrial design and technology. As part of this initiative, new courses and centers of learning were set up to help a fresh generation of designers become creative rather than merely imitative.

In the mid-1980s, Stocker notes, Taiwan gradually began to move beyond its traditional forte of original equipment manufacturing (OEM) – making a product entirely according to the customer’s specifications. The next step – original design manufacturing (ODM) – added the capacity to work with the customer on product design. That then led to the creation of novel products and brands in what Stocker refers to as the first wave of Taiwanese design.

“It peaked in the early 2000s. By that time, Taiwanese designers were winning more iF and Red Dot awards than designers in famously design-oriented countries like Denmark, Italy, and France,” he notes, referring to the two most prestigious international design competitions.

“In this first design wave, Taiwanese designers strove to mimic the design practices and aesthetics of the West,” Stocker says. Given that Taiwan’s economic miracle was built upon exports to the West, the ability of Taiwanese designers to produce designs welcomed by Western consumers was highly valuable.

However, “with a global economy, it doesn’t make sense to have just Western design anymore,” Stocker says. “Previously there were no design awards for a billion-plus person market, and people didn’t understand what it means to be huaren. But now there is such a thing as huaren design and a huaren aesthetic.”

“The first wave of Taiwanese design is now being overtaken by a second wave,” says Stocker. “This is inspired not by the West, but instead by the cultural consciousness of a new generation of designers.”

Since 2003, the government-backed Taiwan Design Center in the capacious Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a onetime tobacco factory, has tapped into local lifestyle and culture to promote a new Taiwan design aesthetic.

As the nation’s institutes of higher learning churn out ever more design graduates who are culturally confident, the Center holds an annual Taiwan Design Expo to create a moving blueprint for the industry, while the Taiwan Creative Expo explores contemporary themes in a more artistic way. The Center also sponsors the Golden Pin awards.

The industrial side

Another influencer at the forefront of Taiwan’s design transformation is Shikuan Chen, chief design officer and senior vice president of marketing and innovation at Compal. Worth more than US$11 billion, Compal designs and builds electronic goods for Fortune 500 companies such as Apple, Dell, and Lenovo. There’s a good chance your notebook or tablet was designed and made by Compal, even if the badge has a different name.

Compal is an original design manufacturer for many of the world’s biggest brands. It is also an award-winning designer, as shown by these table lamps, notebook computers, and webcams.

“We’ve created many of the great products of the electronic era, which is all about Taiwan design,” Chen says. “You don’t see our face because we’re in the kitchen, but it’s us making the food, whether it’s Italian, French, or Spanish. Taiwan has great design, but no face. Now it’s time for a new generation to identify Taiwan’s face with local culture, attributes, philosophy, and design.”

Since he started at Compal nearly 10 years ago, Chen has helped change the organization from being just a manufacturer into a factory plus design consultancy. “If we were just a factory, then we would have little or no value,” Chen says. “Without research and design, we would sink.” He notes that strong design brings healthier profit margins and solidifies the relationship with the client.

Chen says he disagrees with “second wave” designers in Taiwan who “see electronics as a sunset industry” and are laser-focused on creating their own brands. “Do we need more designs for chopsticks, plates, bowls, and glasses? Not really. My thinking is that the second wave is wrong – a waste of time, too skin deep.”

He would like the next generation of Taiwan designers to think bigger by leveraging its strengths and concentrating on the huaren market, which he says represents almost a third of the world’s population.

Chen believes style is universal and that instead of looking at just the surface of a product, designers should address the “inner soul,” such as the firmware or algorithm that controls it. The analogy he uses is that of choosing a spouse. Sure, appearance is significant, but character is more important.

One of the most acclaimed second-wave designers is Pili Wu, a design graduate from Taipei’s Shih-Chien University who is in his early 30s. Wu founded his eponymous PiliWu Design Associates in 2011.

Plastic Classic by PiliWu Design Associates.

A firm believer in the dictum that “form follows story,” Wu is a darling of the design awards circuit and has worked for big-name clients such as the W Hotel, as well as smaller galleries and ceramics studios. He has created chairs based on the plastic stools you typically see at night markets, and drinking glasses made of upcycled champagne bottles. A strong advocate of local design, for many people he embodies the idea of a Taiwan aesthetic.

This “look,” says DDG PR and Marketing Project Manager Daniel Cunningham, can be characterized as modernist and eco-friendly. He describes it as a “mish-mash of influences” from Taiwan’s various ethnic groups, noting that it comes from “traditional crafts and materials, as well as local performing art and religions.”

Tea bottle and beer glass from PiliWu Design Associates.

Kelly Lin is one of a trio of designers at Kimu Design, which has also won numerous design awards, including the Golden Pin, Red Dot, and recognition at the imm furniture trade show in Cologne, Germany. Formed seven years ago, Kimu is a second-wave design studio that produces objects such as light fittings, timers, and ingenious desktop knickknacks.

A tea set from second wave Taiwan designer PiliWu Design Associates.

Lin sees herself and her Kimu colleagues as fairly low-tech and environmentally friendly designers, inspired largely by local or huaren influences. But she emphasizes that this doesn’t mean merely embellishing an object with, for example, an indigenous ethnic pattern.

“In the second phase or wave of Taiwan design, more people have started buying or using our products to discover the kind of lifestyle we have here,” Lin says. “Tourists, for example, want to bring home something of the flavor of the place they visited.”

An Asus computer, on the other hand, may be designed and made in Taiwan, but users don’t recognize this fact or feel that it is Taiwanese. “People find us because we tell a Taiwan story and, in this way, we are a brand that tries to be different,” says Lin. “Seven years ago nobody was pushing their own brand, whereas in the past three years creating a local brand has been a trend in Taiwan.”

To make a point about the influence of good design, Lin recounts a story that most Taiwanese students learn at school. It’s about a lazy woman who doesn’t care about her appearance and lives in a dirty apartment.

One day, a friend gives her a beautifully scented white flower. The woman contemplates the flower’s beauty and decides it should go somewhere nice. She finds a vase, but it’s dirty, so she cleans it. She realizes the desk she was going to put the vase on is untidy, so she neatens it. Then, looking around, she realizes the rest of the apartment is a mess, so she gives it a thorough cleaning.

After noticing her unkempt appearance in the mirror, she takes a bath and puts on new clothes. When she again looks in the mirror, she sees a beautiful woman in a tidy apartment, and thinks to herself how lovely life could be with a little more thought and effort. All because of a beautiful flower.

Lin values this story as illustrating how good design can transform not just an individual but also the environment. She believes a third wave of local designers is emerging who think along these lines. She expects that they will eventually beautify Taiwan, from the inside out, through attractive objects, sensitive interior design, and ingenious architecture.