Am I a Chinese whisperer? by Simon Curlis

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Abstract

A decade ago comparatively little was known about design in China, either in Australia or overseas. The existing sentiment was overwhelmingly that China was a looming threat to Australia’s manufacturing industry and that her design sector unashamedly copied everything. Industrial design in Australia has been concerned about a diminishing client base and how engagement with the Chinese manufacturing sector might adversely affect professional practice.

A Eurocentric view prevails in Australian design. On top of that, a parochial approach has meant Australian designers and manufacturers have missed out on opportunities to engage with China in a meaningful way. This study seeks to demonstrate where previously unexplored potential exists for meaningful and mutually beneficial interactions between the two countries, rather than maintaining the current antagonistic design relationship.

Through striving for an earnest and deep interaction with academic, business and social ecosystems in China, this study uses long term observations and experiences to speculate on developing ongoing and meaningful interactions. These include engagement through academic and commercial projects with the aim of transforming Australian and Chinese designers’ practice.

The process of converting these understandings into theoretical models has been transformative. It has enabled sharing and discussion of the significance of this learning, and offered insights for others to use in understanding China within a broader design discourse. These models offer opportunities to examine the Australian design context as well as opportunities for recasting the role of design. This includes capitalising on existing expertise and industrial capacity while investing in market opportunities, which are innovative, uncontested or unattractive to centres of economic activity orientated towards mass manufacture.

The significance of this research has potential far beyond its immediate results. There is tremendous potential in transforming Australian designers’ understanding of China and encouraging ‘engagement with’, rather than ‘employment of’ China. This opens up exciting and highly beneficial platforms for long term, ongoing projects both in the academic and business ecosystems.

The Chinese field trips, combined with integration of Chinese modes of teaching, designing and producing have altered this writer’s identity and approach to design and the world considerably.

The pursuit of academic publication, discussing models and methods for understanding China, will open up the possibility of further design relationships between Australia and China. These publications will be supplemented by a website with links to enable China-Design to be accessible to emerging designers and design graduates. This will be combined with designing and providing training programs for teaching staff in Melbourne, to assist with the introduction and dissemination of these models as a means of connecting with China. Continued trips to China, engaging with academics and students, will allow for a continued deepening of understanding and engagement.

Year: 2015
Examiners: Dr Rafael Gomez, Dr Carlos Alberto Montana Hoyos  Supervisors: Assoc Professor Soumitri Varadarajan

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