René Chen
Feb 13, 2018

The imitation game is killing Chinese design creativity

'Walk first, die first' might hold true on battlefields, but the instinct to avoid risk is devastating for design creativity—and for brands—in China, writes JKR's René Chen.

The imitation game is killing Chinese design creativity

99% of our clients’ briefs ask for an innovative design that cuts through. It has to be unique and stand out from the clutter. But when we do that and present it back, the feedback is too often: “This is brilliant! …BUT it’s unseen in the market. It’s too much of a risk to take. Let’s go for the safe option.”

China is not lacking in creative minds. So why are we still labelled as a country of imitation, not innovation?

The sad truth is that creative bravery is what the nation is lacking. It’s the cowardly risk-averse mentality that has drowned out countless original ideas that are truly innovative, instead seeing brands rely heavily on market trends tried and tested by competitors. Groundbreaking, truly innovative design is rare because following the crowd and copying the masses poses less risk.  

Surely, we should be embracing trouble in order to produce the most exciting, provocative work? Brilliant minds don’t follow orders, they rebel and change the status quo.

This mindset can be incredibly damaging. Some say new ideas are too risky because no one in the field has ever done it before. But surely that’s a good thing? Consistently, Chinese businesses are sticking with the safe options for fear of the different, the unknown. No wonder China is often labeled as a copycat.

As a designer with over 20 years of experience in the brand design industry, this devastates me. Not just because these original designs are being copied, but more because of the loss of Chinese innovation and creativity that this approach has caused. For too long there has been an overwhelming propensity for imitation. It might be the greatest form of flattery, but quite frankly it’s lazy, uninspired and dull. And this doesn’t seem to be in line with the image projected of the world’s biggest economy.

So, why does China choose to be a copycat instead of an innovator? Since ancient times, we have been educated by our ancestors to conform: be obedient, follow the trend, go with the flow. The Chinese concept of “shun” (follow/obey) often comes up in our daily lives, and we have become prone to acquiescence. Indeed, there is a saying in Cantonese: “walk first, die first”—meaning that if you take the first step, you are dead. So never be the first one. History and tradition are dictating our ability to take risks.

In today's society, if you can just listen to whatever you are told and stick to the brief, you won’t get in trouble. Great. But surely, we should be embracing trouble in order to produce the most exciting, provocative work? Brilliant minds don’t follow orders, they rebel and change the status quo.

The issue of imitation has almost become a phenomenon—especially in the design industry in China, where it is getting worse and worse. Applying this “go with the trend” mentality to creativity can be fatal for a designer. Ultimately, it means that he or she is lacking unbridled creativity, whether by restriction or, worse still, habits developed through years of skirting risk and doing just enough. A designer trapped in this cycle accepts anything and will not challenge anyone. In other words, they stop asking, 'Why not?'.

But if we actually take a look at the world, many of the greatest innovations and inventions were born from exactly that question. Steve Jobs is an iconic example. His inquisitive mind and ability to question why computers were designed with little thought to aesthetic led Apple to launch the vibrant, colourful iMac series in 1999. It was truly impactful at that time.

The core issue behind why Chinese designers tend to copy others and lack innovative ideas is that they do not ask “why not”. But I believe the change will only come when both designer and brand change their ways.

You need to be brave enough to take risk, even to face failure. If you do not have the courage, the only thing you can do is to copy others.

Designers often still play a very passive role while the client retains control of the ultimate design decision. There is still a great challenge to overcome. The client has a myriad of conflicting issues to deal with before any decision can be landed on, many of which are completely out of their control or would have significant impact on the bigger brand picture. Often this means the most creative design may be lost in favour of a safer, tried-and-tested option.

Applying this trend-led mentality to brand building is like poison. Once the trend has been adopted it is very likely that the brand will lose its own true identity as it conforms. External evidence is sought to confirm feasibility and essentially, the brand ends up looking to the example of others for validation. In doing so it follows others’ lead. Brands that do this lack confidence.

Yet the most important driver of innovation is confidence itself. You need to be brave enough to take risk, even to face failure. If you do not have the courage, the only thing you can do is to copy others, as only by following can you achieve a sense of security. And this becomes a vicious cycle; you start copying and this in part further damages any sense of independent courage.

We need to break this vicious cycle—and it is possible. Consider Lego. Back in 2000, the rise of the internet and success of video game companies changed the face of toys and entertainment. Facing unprecedented competition, Lego's business took a huge hit, and management did not know how to deal with it. The brand became lost and chose to follow the trend, launching a series of products that had nothing to do with the brand's heritage and niche.

Of course it failed, and the brand plummeted towards bankruptcy. It took a new CEO and a brave new management team to break the cycle and stop following trends, an act that had been slowly killing the brand. Product innovation returned to the core value of the brand: the brick itself. In other words. Lego moved from following the trend to following its true self. From losing itself to being true to itself. 

Nowadays many Chinese still label westerners as bold and willing to take risk. But I often ask myself, are Chinese people so timid and afraid to take risks? Couldn't we accept something bold and creative? Or designs that seem a bit risky? I think so. The Chinese market is characterised by its ability to adapt with incredible pace and voracity, so what on earth are we afraid of?

Designers and creatives are often perceived as a bunch of mavericks who never follow logic. But this is not a bad thing. Follow your heart, be true to yourself: this should be the spirit of creativity. It ought to be in the blood and bones of every thinker and maker.

Throughout my career, my creative ideas have been rejected many times. Countless. But it did not stop me from innovating. From pursuing limitless creativity and enviable work with ideas at the heart. On the contrary, it gave me the conviction to dare more and embrace the risks.

I want the world to know that Chinese creatives, thinkers, innovators and designers are fighting against the odds. Here, we have a group of designers who are creative and adventurous, bold and responsible, and have ownership at the same time. They might work as partners with their clients, ask 'why not' and find confidence in independence. So, I urge our industry to be courageous, to defy trends and ultimately follow your heart and be true to yourself.

René Chen, is partner at Jones Knowles Ritchie Shanghai.

Campaign Asia

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