Design from Taiwan and Impactful Cultural Exchange: An Interview with Shikuan Chen

Image08_International Design Policy Conference_Shikuan Chen

Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je declared at the World Design Capital Taipei 2016 International Design Policy Conference last October, “Design is not just about seeking aesthetics in objects, it is about an attitude in thinking.”  Indeed, through their designs, commercial products and public works often reveal aspects of cultural identity, social mindsets, and trends.  As something tangible, they are a form of soft power, contributing to how their place of origin is popularly perceived.

Best known for being a progressive democracy and its food culture, Taiwan has an active design industry.  Taipei was selected as the fifth World Design Capital in recognition for its “innovative use of design for economic, social and cultural development”.  As can be seen in Design Boom, Dezeen, and in the book Taiwan by Design, Taiwanese designers have shown ingenuity in incorporating technology into everyday life, environmental concern, an appreciation for traditional culture.  Here in New York, there are many students from Taiwan at BFA and MFA design programs at local institutions like Parsons School of Design and Pratt Institute.

What makes a small place like Taiwan such a design dynamo?  How is design related to attitudes in thinking and cultural exchange?  What does it take for a cultural product or idea to make inroads to an audience?

We spoke to Shikuan Chen, Vice President, Experience Design at Compal Electronics Inc., a member of the Advisory Board for World Design Capital Taipei 2016, and a speaker at the “Design for Social Impact” session at the International Design Policy Conference for his take.

At the Design for Social Impact session at the International Design Policy Conference, you listed a number of phenomena that have changed behaviors which in turn influence design trends.  How do these phenomena start and spread?

Many factors can generate mega trends & phenomena.  For instance, a movement of a philosophy, a change in political environment, or even a single piece of technology/product (think about iPhone!).  In the past, we (the design community) normally tracked mega trends on a decade-base, as it takes time to form a global trend, and it does not transform into something else just over night.  But nowadays, due to the ubiquitous connection of our world, trends start and end faster, but at a much larger scale thanks to modern technology (i.e. Pokemon GO).  It is therefore much more critical and essential for designers nowadays to understand, analyze, and further interpret mega trends, if we’re to achieve a better penetration of the mass market.

You also discussed Taiwan’s impressive recycling rate and how it relates to awareness of how a product is produced.  Can you elaborate how Taiwan’s success with recycling was achieved and how it developed the awareness you describe?  In what ways have Taiwanese consumers demonstrated an appreciation for or perhaps demand quality manufacturing and products?

Taiwan, and to be exact, Taipei City especially, started a series of recycling-concern policies and garbage disposal rules as early as some 24 years ago.  The momentum was generated due to the small size of our island, and thus environmental-friendly concern has always been a survival matter as well as political priority throughout the years.  The concept of the importance of recycling/sustainability knowledge has been an important course in our elementary schools, and hence it is now considered a lifestyle mindset among our citizens.  The extent of citizens’ sustainability awareness demonstrates also in most marketing/sales figures of nowadays products, such that most people are willing to support better built quality products and understand a certain price has to be paid to achieve in building a better tomorrow for our offspring.

Tell us about the design industry and education in Taiwan.  Why are there so many design programs and Taiwanese interested in design?

Again, because of our small country, in scale and in population, we do not enjoy richness in natural resources.  As such, the Taiwanese government many decades ago decided that the country has to build its strength based on a strong economy as well as strong creativity.  We have design institutions (e.g. CIDA, Taiwan’s industrial design association) established as early as half a century ago!  Design education policy rapidly expanded & flourished due to the encouraging actions & support from the government.  And when the foundation is solid, entire industries start to benefit from the injection of the creative force.  It is thus mentioned in our media, as the new “soft power” of our nation.

What makes Taiwanese designers unique?

There is nothing too diverse in the design courses setup in Taiwan compared to other/western countries’ design education.  The skill, the knowledge, and the foundation of design philosophy are basically still based on the Bauhaus design education system a century ago.

However, as exporting trade has been a major national asset as well as a strong source of our economic growth, Taiwanese people understand it is extremely important for our products to be able to stand out in the crowd if we were to survive well in the global trading environment.  It is fair to say creativity and design DNA is in our blood as well as in our mindset, as this is considered the main resource we have today.

Here in New York, a lot of students from Taiwan study at design schools.  And many others also study around the world.  What does their study or work abroad provide them?  Are they different from their peers who did not go abroad?  What do Taiwanese designers who study abroad bring back to Taiwan, if they return to work there, and also to the world?

In a nutshell, “experience”!  Students/designers who have been educated/worked abroad demonstrate better understanding in cultural knowledge as well as research in consumer insights.  The design education system in Taiwan has been well-established and is famous for its strong creative orientation.   However, to gain a broader international knowledge of design cultures, the young generation of designers choose to go abroad to widen their spectrum of design/cultural knowledge.

It often seems like Taiwan is only appreciated for its cuisine.  What’s needed to expand appreciation to Taiwan’s design and innovation?

Well, if that’s true it just means that there is a lot more room for improvement for our entire country as well as design communities in this island!  We cannot convince the mass market to “understand & appreciate” our innovation & design.  It has to be the other way round: Taiwanese design and industries need to find a way to better market and manifest its own product.  It has taken us some time and effort to achieve the brand “Made in Taiwan”, and it is our vision and mission as a country, to build a “Designed & Innovated in Taiwan” manifesto in the near future!

Session Two of the International Design Policy Conference, Design for Social Impact. From left to right: Dung-Sheng Chen, Professor at Department of Sociology of National Taiwan University; Jocelyn Wyatt, Co-Lead and Executive Director of; Rama Gheerawo, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and the RCA Reader in Inclusive Design; Brian Wen, Managing Director of Continuum Greater China; Shikuan Chen, Vice President of Experience Design at Compal Electronics, Inc.; and discussion moderator, Brandon Gien, CEO of Good Design Australia

In an interview with Design Perspectives, you suggested that there is no universal design and that design is culturally based.  Foreign companies have entered Chinese markets with varying degrees of how they have catered to the local market.  It seems recently foreign companies, like Uber and Apple, have been losing ground to domestic companies.  Have you seen something similar in Taiwan?  How do cultural preferences begin, and can cultural preferences of one country be exported and influence another’s?

Yes and no.  There is a level of “universal experience” in modern technology that requires minimum cultural based understanding.  This is the ambition and hidden agenda of most global mega-companies, such that only a few product SKUs are needed to cover as broad of a market as possible in economy scale. And this means it can only be done if universal experience and knowledge can be educated and penetrated in advance, among global consumer, regardless of market segmentation.

However, the world is a huge place, and there are still many lifestyle behaviors and mindsets that are based on solid cultural foundations.  In these areas, the local consumer might seem, in the beginning, willing to explore and try out the new-new, but at the end of the day, whatever/whoever wins their heart, wins — and that is mainly based on local consumer’s appreciation of the product/service willing to listen and react to their cultural needs.  Examples do happen here in Taiwan, China, as well as many other countries, according to global business analysis.

If a certain “local cultural preference” is strong enough to export and influence other region/countries, it will then eventually become a “global/universal” experience.  This is not exceptionally, but indeed rare, in the business world.

Many people have sought to increase appreciation for Chinese culture in the United States. Either by incorporating traditional Chinese design into a product or by bringing what’s cool in Taiwan or China to the United States, like popular rock bands.  From your experience as a designer who considers the consumer and the market and as a Taiwanese who thinks internationally, do you think this is an effective approach?  If not, why not and what would be another way of promoting culture?

In our humble opinion, there’s no right or wrong in the approach. In the end, whatever works, works.  That said, it is still true, very difficult, for one culture to appreciate another.  We can only merely appreciate on the “shell level” of another culture, which most of the time is either the cuisine or the art-artifact appreciation — that is the easiest penetration route.  And if these elements/factors work well as the pilot fish to gain awareness and market of another market, then it is considered an effective tool.  And normally the best approach is to build and spread these shell-level-cultural-tools as wide as possible.

It is cool that Taiwanese pop music has started to gain attention in other countries, but in the long run, it is our wish and hope, to again, via these ground-level-cultural-elements, help drive and manifest our “Very well Designed and Innovated in Taiwan” soft power!

Lead image: Shikuan Chen, courtesy of World Design Capital Taipei 2016.

Many thanks to Kate Nicholson and Saskia Kerkvliet at ddg for assisting with the interview.