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Lessons for design education in China


I have been in the design profession for 30 years, working mostly on developing visual brands for organizations, services and products. And that is what I still enjoy doing a lot. Before moving to China in 2009 I was teaching occasionally and giving design workshops in Europe and the US. Since four years ago I have been teaching branding and identity design structurally for two days per week at a new design university in Shanghai, with an international scope attended by Chinese students only.

(If you want to jump to straight to ‘the lessons’ see the end of this article.)

Crafts are king

Youngsters who want to apply for a design education in China generally bring a portfolio with drawings in pencil and ink, portraits, still-lives and paintings and watercolors of landscapes and nature. Being able to draw is a good fundament for any design education. Design education in China has its roots in crafts, with focus on making skills and high production value. Today this means learning to work well with software and digital tools. This craft-driven approach needs to change as the digital tools will develop rapidly in partly automated and easy to use software applications, that can simply be used by many people without any design training or background. We already see smartphone apps that can retouch portrait pictures in various ways with one simple tap.

A change of focus is needed

The design profession is changing rapidly worldwide. Other skills become more important. Crafting can be a part of education, but should not be the prominent skill to be taught to design students in China. Instead of using software, designers should get more involved in developing software. And the focus has to shift to the ability to come up with original ideas that can create value: financial value, social value or ecological value. Learning to collaborate with other specialist and professionals is also needed. Having an independent and well-founded point of view, based on research and insights. Being able to self-initiate and create projects. Those are what is needed in design education.

What Chinese students struggle with

I have met many talented and ambitious Chinese students with great potential and a fantastic drive, eager to learn and grow. But also many of them are struggling learning essential skills needed to become a good designer, to be ready for the future of our profession. Skills such as making ideas, critical and independent thinking, collaboration skills and presenting work in-front of a group are usually harder for them to grasp.

Why is that? What are the reasons that many Chinese students find this hard to learn? Below is an attempt to analyse the reasons and to formulate the beginning of what can be answers for improvement.

Some points I think are not exclusive for design education alone, but are more about the general educational landscape in China. Some are social and cultural conditions.

Education is competition

The competition to get into the better Chinese schools is very big. This puts a lot of pressure on Chinese families, parents and youngsters, and establishes the general the perception that school is hard, not something easy, from early age onwards. More the opposite. Education is about extra-curricular classes starting as early as kindergarten, with loads of homework, pressure, competition and stress. Can education also be something to like and enjoy?

Scores are everything

There is a dominant focus on scores in Chinese education. The reason is that the number of students willing to access good education is so big, so massive, that the only way for schools and universities to be able to select students is by looking at their scores and averages. The general educational model is shaped around learning how to get highest possible scores, not necessarily about learning useful and practical knowledge and skills.

Respect your teacher

Chinese culture is about respecting teachers, part of a stronger general sense for hierarchy than in most Western countries. You cannot openly disagree with your teacher. That is going against authority. Respect is a good thing but teachers can also be wrong. Challenging this or starting an open debate in class with a teacher is something that is hard to make happen. It needs a lot of encouragement to get it going.

Don't lose face

This respect for teachers goes hand in hand with the notion that saying or doing something embarrassing or stupid in public has to be avoided at all times. In other words, make sure you don’t lose face. Of course no one wants to look stupid, but this culturally rooted fear for embarrassment does not help the willingness to take risks, while taking risks and making mistakes is part of a good explorative design process. If you are not prepared to go too far, it is very hard to find new solutions.

Group above individuals
The group precedes the individual is an other cultural given in China. A disadvantage of this ideology is that communicating an independent and personal point of view is often hard to make happen. Personal or even radical points of view need to be encouraged in design education. It makes good designs great. That is if these individual points of view are well-founded and motivated.

Generation of the only child

In contradiction with the group orientation many Chinese students find it hard to work together in groups. Part of the reason is that they have often been raised as the only child in their families. They have grown up alone with their parents, or, if both working, with their grandparents, being the focus of the family, but with limited experience in how to relate or collaborate with their peers. Often there is a shyness to operate socially in groups.

Not exclusive for the Chinese youth is the growing phenomenon that youngsters have a strong focus on digital media. They spent many hours looking to their smartphones, even when they are sitting together in groups.

The challenges design education in China is facing are not simply solved. Some conditions are deeply rooted in the culture, others are related to the overwhelming numbers of potential students looking for a suitable study as a step to better future opportunities. It all starts with recognizing what needs changing and why it needs to change. So here are a few suggestions based on hands-on teaching design in Shanghai. I am sure this list is not complete and will need adjustments over time.

Lessons for design education in China

• Design education needs to develop from being craft-driven to a focus on creating insights and making ideas. This requires a different angle on design education, to make students ready for the future

• Design education works best in small groups of students. Students need personalized coaching to work both in team and individually

• Design is a mixture of learning, thinking and doing. It is not just theory with ‘yes' or ‘no' answers, or with scores as the primary feedback

• There are important aspects that are hard to be measured in just scores. Intangible qualities such as: motivation, zest, enthusiasm, empathy, collaborative skills, problem solving capabilities and critical thinking. They need regular verbal or written personal feedbacks

• The teacher can be wrong and can be challenged. Students have to learn that constructive disagreement, with good arguments that clarify and improve the process and the outcome, can better both sides

• Mistakes are never stupid. Mistakes are necessary steps to explore and to get to new and surprising design solutions

• A personal and individual point of view, based on research and in-depth understanding, can lead to exciting new design solutions

• Collaborating in groups can lead to bigger, bolder and better designs, more so than always working on your own

Joost Roozekrans

Brand designer, creative director and senior lecturer branding & identity design

July 2018, Shanghai