The Definition of Foreign Designer in China

Many people thought a designer like me, an America educated and trained designer, would have more advantages over the local Chinese designers in China.

Well, I disagree because I was paid like a local designer, and my designs were criticized like a local designer. I was also asked to copy the designs from American design magazines. Meanwhile, a Caucasian person who does not know anything about interior design was hired and paid as an American interior designer, and his responsibility? Going to client meetings and just sitting there doing nothing to give the clients the impression that the design firm is more “international”.

I always heard people said “It is a privilege to be born as a white person” in the US, but I disagreed with it strongly because I was treated and paid no less than any Caucasian designer in the US, but I never expected the same saying would fit in China perfectly.

Fight against Copy Cats

As an American interior designer worked in China, I know too well about the culture of copying someone else’ designs over there. You might think the designers in China who copy other people’s designs are not creative,  but in fact, I have worked with many creative designers in China, so how come copying designs become so popular and it turns into the business norm for the interior design industry? Here are the reasons:

  • Extremely unreasonable deadlines: People around the world all have witnessed China’s rapid economy growth in the past two decades, there was a reason for that. If you can move from one project to the next faster, it means the more money you make, to both the design firms and the clients, so the time schedules set by the clients and the design firms usually are very tight compared we do projects in the US. You can easily find a 1-year long project gets done in 5 months in China. As we all know, a quick design idea might only take few minutes to generate, but a very well thought through design concept takes time, and there is no such luxury in China to allow designers really thinking deeper, so the best way to cut the corner is to copy or tweak other people’s designs.
  • Client’s requests: Unlike most of the clients I have worked with in the US who appreciated my creativity to come up with the ideas that no one else had ever thought about, the clients in China often demanded their designers to copy other people’s designs from the design magazines they read, the hotels they stayed or a store they visited. The most funny thing was one of the Chinese clients wanted me to copy a design from a design magazine and it turned out the project he wanted me to copy from was one of the projects I designed when I was working for another designer in the US.
  • Lacking 3D perception: Most of the clients I worked with or the employers I worked for in the US could visualize my design ideas simply with a free-hand sketch or a little better made hand sketches for the initial design presentations, but in China, because many clients and the designers alike never had any art or design related training, they just can’t visualize the designs without seeing a super realistic 3D color rendering done by the computer program like 3D Studio Max. As everyone knows, it is very time-consuming to generate a 3D Studio Max drawing, it is just not cost-effective, especially for the initial client meetings. So, looking for reference photos on-line or on magazines and using them as part of the design presentation becomes extremely popular and cost-effective way in China to conduct the initial client meetings. If the clients like the designs in the project reference photos, the designers are forced to go along with the design concepts or details done by other designers showing in the photos which indirectly turns the interior designers into interior copiers or interior tweakers. You might ask why those designers do not use their own old project photos? well, they do! but those old projects were also copied or tweaked from other designers’ projects. Even if some creative designers in China came up with some great ideas, their designs never could be approved by their employers because their employers could not visualize the designs without a computer generated color rendering either, and no one has time to make their design concepts in 3D Studio Max just for trying to persuade their bosses to approve the designs so that they could present them to the clients,  as the result, many great creative designs never even got the chance to reach the clients before being blocked by their employers. Frustrated, many designers in China start to look for reference photos for design ideas instead of creating their own.
  • Excessive overtime working: Because the super fast paced work environment in China, many designers are forced to work overtime constantly, 60 or even 70 weekly working hours are very common, the fatigue and stress caused by long working hours inhibited and even further damaged the designers’ creativity.

There are so many creative individuals in China who want to create but can’t. They are frustrated, over worked, and under paid. So, instead of criticizing the designers in China for being copy cats, we should blame those few on the top who made the designers copy cats.

Advice for American interior designers who want to work in China

1. If you would like to work in China as an interior designer, first of all, you will need to know how to use multiple computer added drafting softwares, here are the 4 programs you must be able to use, yes, ALL 4 of them: AutoCAD, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and 3D Studio Max, and it will be a big plus if you can operate them super fast. Revit or SketchUp? sorry, they are not popular in China.

2. You do not need to be creative. Most of design companies in China encourage copying other people’s ideas because it is faster. Project pace in China is 10 times faster than in the US, they just do not have the time for the designers to generate design concepts of their own, so copying design ideas from magazines or other projects has become the norm. Also, if you show your employer a very unique design idea, your employer will most likely to ask you show him a photo of your design ideas. You might feel strange because how you can have an actual photo of your design ideas if it has not  been built unless you copied other people’s design ideas from design magazines? That is because many employers there also do not like to take the risk to build anything that no one else has ever built before because it will take too much time to figure out how to actually build it, so if you come up with a design idea that is like a pioneer, your idea will most likely to be turned down.

3. You must be able to endure long working hours. Working overtime without overtime pay is very common in China. Because the project pace is fast, designers are constantly working overtime during the weekdays, on weekends and National holidays. Do not be surprised if you are asked to work overnight to finish a project without sleeping constantly.

4. You must be able to accept lower salary. The income level in China is not as high as in the US, so your salary there will more likely to be lower, but you definitely will feel better since the cost of living in China is also lower (except those big coastal cities such as Shanghai or Guangzhou).

5. You need to adapt the society well. Air pollution, dirty streets, crowded subway, hazardous drinking water, poisonous food, cars run over red lights, cars do not yield to pedestrians and horn constantly, people spit, liter, urination in public, jay walking, cut in the lines….etc. If you can get over these things quickly, then your life in China will definitely be much happier.