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Outside the Box

Bringing Originality to Chinese Industry

By staff reporter LI YUAN

IN a moment of revealing insight, Henry Ford is said to have remarked, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

This quote goes some way in explaining the relationship between originality and industry, and apparently had a big influence on former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. When it comes to China's originality trailblazers, Bai Minghui and Zhao Yu are two names that definitely spring to mind.

Sticking to the Original

Born in the 1980s, Bai Minghui is making a name for himself in China's design community as the founder and head designer at Oneday Studio. His wallets made of Tyvek (a papery but tear-resistant, waterproof and recyclable synthetic material) are enjoying wide popularity.  "Tyvek was invented by DuPont in 1964 and has been widely used in industry. The material is completely recyclable; at present more than 90 countries do so," explains Bai. Working from a simple blueprint and introducing artistic elements to add value to his final product, Bai's inspired designs are selling like hot cakes.      

The Tyvek wallet is by no means Bai's first success. He tells of one episode in which, after graduating from university, he uploaded some of his simpler hand-drawn designs onto his blog. They proved popular but readers thought he was joking when he said the designs were for sale. Bai realized he needed a "carrier," i.e. a vessel for his artwork, and hit on the idea of T-shirts. A total of 300 such T-shirts printed with his designs were subsequently sold out in a matter of days. Bai says this was the first time he experienced the joy of product design. "The only difference between design and art is practicability," he notes.   

The success of his Tyvek wallet has inspired Bai to go on to design a range of other products, such as retro cassette-like businesscard holders, film roll flowerpots and lampshades, and magazine cover-resembling pillowslips and hanging mirrors. Sold in stores as well as on-line, his whole range sells well.       

Nowadays, Beijing is home to a burgeoning number of shops selling creativity-heavy products. "Designers approach their products in different ways: some do it for the money, others to fulfill a childhood dream and still others as a form of social commentary. Whatever the reasons, these thinkers are the driving force of the movement towards greater originality in Chinese product design. And of course, such products expand purchasing possibilities for the modern Chinese consumer," says Yang Yun, the Beijing manager of Xindingyi Culture Media Co., Ltd.    

Over the past three decades, the material wellbeing of Chinese people has developed dramatically. Consumption patterns have shifted from bare essentials to increasingly higher-end products. "People now demand products of a more personalized nature," Bai notes, offering an explanation of current demand trends.   

 With no specific training to speak of, Bai relies on gut instinct when in design mode. His guiding principle is that every product should be the answer to a particular question faced in everyday life.

"In my view, cassettes and film rolls are containers of memory; business card holders and flowerpots are containers too, hence my combining these memory-type elements in their design," he explains. Similarly, his magazine cover pillowslip and mirror designs bring celebrity to people's daily life and give them a sense of escapism in the home. "And of course, I have plenty of fun creating my designs," Bai reminds us.     

Cartoonist and sketcher Zhao Yu, who also goes by the moniker Black Lichee, is another member of China's originality pioneers. Zhao doesn't allow himself to look at other people's work, and he finds this helps him creatively. "Jimmy" (a renowned domestic artist) used to be my favorite cartoonist, but when people said that my work was similar to his, I decided the only place in which I'd search for inspiration in the future would be my own head. I still have to consciously try not  to copy Jimmy's style when I draw."

Zhao feels that he's currently at the peak of his creative abilities, and has quickly gone from penciling out simple figures to publishing cartoon books and now cooperates with companies in developing products. He channels new ideas every day and sees no problem in profiting monetarily from his work, saying, "My love of drawing is not for money, but of course earning it helps me to keep doing what I'm doing."

Indeed designers in general have become more pragmatic and practical in recent years in the quest to transform their concepts into marketable products. As Beijing manager Yang Yun notes, "Originality and industry are related to each other like fish and water – without industry, originality can't grow and spread, while through originality industry flourishes and diversifies."  

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us