From afar, China seems like an emerging design powerhouse. Every year, more than 10,000 students graduate from the mainland's 400 design schools. Chinese brands such as home appliance maker Haier and computer manufacturer Lenovo, which produce innovative technologies, are succeeding worldwide.
Companies are setting aside billions of yuan for research and development over the next several years. But the picture up close is less inspiring, particularly where design skills are honed: at school.
"I've experienced both highs and lows with regard to design - sometimes in the same day, sometimes simultaneously," says Ben Hughes, who is working at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Two years ago, he quit his job teaching industrial design at Central Saint Martins in London, moved to Beijing and began working at the academy's small but emerging school of design.
"Sometimes [students] can leave me exasperated through their lack of knowledge of design, practical skills and insight, but then the same student can amaze me with some excellent work the following week."
Hughes says the biggest problem is the lack of incentive to innovate, a by-product of the mainland's cheap manufacturing and weak intellectual property laws.
"There is clearly an awareness that certain imported products, services and media are better designed," he says. "Sadly, the desire to emulate this all too often results not in engaging with a design process, but by attempting to replicate those products, services and media at a reduced cost."
Even worse, he says, "much of what is labelled as design in China is solely linked to lifestyle, luxury and aspirational consumption rather than reflecting people's real life experience. The public could be forgiven for thinking that it is simply fluff". Yet China's unique culture, fast-changing society, and persistent social and economic problems cry out for good design that meets Chinese needs. That's the goal of a new non-profit design competition, "dn: Design for the Real China", which was launched in April by design educator Tong Lan with support from Hughes. It differs from established competitions like Red Star and Red Dot by offering a blank slate.
"Because of the scale and diversity of China, it would be patronising of us to suggest that we knew all about the problems that exist," says Hughes. "For this reason we ask participants first to identify the problem they are solving and then show us their solution."
Anyone can join - young, old, professional, amateur, Chinese or foreign - and present their concept in a short video. Entries will be categorised based on the number of people they affect (from one to 10,000 and more). Winners will receive up to 100,000 yuan (HK$125,000) depending on the project's scale. The winners will be chosen by online voting, and Tong will make use of her design education firm to promote "all suitable entries, not just the winning concepts", says Hughes.
So far, about 50 entries have been received. The first was a skipping rope by student Shi Weilu that uses kinetic energy to power a torch, serving both as entertainment and home lighting for families in rural areas lacking a reliable source of electricity.
Hughes hopes to see many more designs before the competition closes on July 31. "It is still early days," he says. "I am counting on my experience that designers and creatives tend to leave it until the last minute to submit their work."