“Made In” Is Over. Time for “Designed By”

 

Some time ago our politicians jumped on a frantic “Made in France” bandwagon that kicked up some dust around the question of French-made and French-bought. Their solution was simple, even simplistic: “By keeping production local, there will be less unemployment.” So simple, in fact, that you wonder why no one brought it up earlier.

Buying French satisfies a kind of nationalistic, quasi-moral duty, which feeds the Good Samaritan in everyone. The notion rides on a wave of citizen-driven patriotism, playing up to every populist promise. The same seems to be true in other western countries in crisis.

But recently our economists have questioned the relevance of remarks made by those seeking elected office. If you buy a Romanian-made Renault, are you buying French? How about a Toyota fresh off the conveyor belt in Valenciennes in France? Does it qualify as buying Japanese? And then there’s the likelihood that contractors bring in parts from China and elsewhere. The origins of the vehicle design and R&D are in Japan, as well as the marketing strategy. French-built, but not French.

Given that consumers have grown accustomed to affordable prices for goods over the years–to temper inflation, the bane of our Western economies–we cannot be blamed for not knowing which way is up. In this context, how can governments pretend to be surprised when we buy Chinese-, Mexican-, Tunisian- or Romanian-made products? For years these same governments oiled the wheels of their very own consumption machines. Furthermore, the foundation of most marketing strategies revolves around “cheap”. And retailers took things a step further by putting a moral spin on the “lowest price” debate, using consumer protection as a pretext. In the process, retailers made out like bandits. “Cheap” sells. It continues to lure new prey.

Knowing all this, are we supposed to believe that companies would choose to manufacture in any country under the umbrella of conscientious citizenry? Can we trust that they have the courage to put their morals before their margins, their compassion before their competitiveness? Faced with fierce global competition, are industry leaders capable of manufacturing and selling products piloted by patriotism alone? Of course not! Corporations are designed to make money, generate margins and wealth which is subsequently distributed among employees, the government, and shareholders. To forego this objective is to forego company potential and wealth creation. Our economy has gone global, and markets international. Companies have but one option: Follow suit.

Corporations are moving their businesses around the globe because this move means more business. So, what’s the problem? Efficiency, cost-cutting measures, margin management, and identifying where labor is cheapest are the basics for entering the international competition arena. If a company doesn’t do it, its competitors will.

One thing is certain. Our manufacturers will go wherever the financial climate is friendly to their goals. But in the years to come, they may be forced to repatriate as a result of rising energy and transportation costs. And so bringing production and markets closer together may be the only viable option left. In this context, inviting foreign investors becomes a virtuous circle, which reverses the “Made Outside” tendency. What does it mean, then, “to buy American” or “to buy French” if, by chance, Haier (the leading Chinese manufacturer of appliances and electronics) or Toyota become top employers in France and the U.S.?

It is clear that Western businesses need to equip themselves with the necessary manufacturing operations that enable them to sell to the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and soon, the rising middle classes in Africa.

In this context, the “Made In” voyage seems to be coming to an end while “Designed By” is about to set sail. It’s the latter label that will symbolize value, product quality, and image. Instead of defending the old-fashioned “Made In” concept which is tied to industrial know-how from the time when Western-made products were considered the epitome of quality, today it makes more sense to devote energy to establishing real quality criteria that make an actual difference. If industrial productivity is not enough to single out Western businesses, value added must be sought elsewhere: in innovation, R&D, marketing, and design.

Emmanuel Combe, professor at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, talks about the iPod. He notes that Apple clearly states today’s reality on all of its products, “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.” Take an MP3 player worth $299, of that amount $163 went to American companies and employees (research, design, marketing, etc.). The Chinese got $4. Should Americans be ashamed of having relocated Apple? Hardly.

Backing up “Designed By” means helping companies export and take advantage of the good reputation embedded in their own culture and their own touch.

Quality today is triggered by innovation. And innovation knows no boundaries; it will overstep any obstacle in its path. “Designed By” makes the most of a strategic and advantageous position built on meaning and good taste. At a time of systemic crisis where our values get put through the wringer, “Designed By” offers a privileged moment to reconnect with our roots and humanity with regard to what we manufacture and consume.

The ability to innovate, relocate, and change jobs will be the make-or-break factor behind a company’s success abroad. Design and the culture of creation abroad breathe life, momentum, and meaning into innovation. It is time for our politicians to give “Designed By” the credit it’s due, and to quit surfing the “Made In” wave, whose time has run out in my opinion.

“Before becoming someone, we come from somewhere,” Pierre Jakez Helias wrote. “Designed By” is the chance to remember our roots, as well as anchor our thoughts in recognizing and reiterating their importance through openness and transmission. I fear that “Made In” will, ultimately, make us curl up and hide. The only real choice we have is to be a model to those around us… and beyond. “Designed By” designs us.

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries In 2008 ; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequenly on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Visit Christian’s blog for more information, and see some of his other posts on Shifting Design Education.

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