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Conceptualisation, or not? An Ethnographic Study in Describing Early Design Collaboration between Western Designers and Chinese Designers

Chueng-Nainby, Priscilla


Priscilla Chueng-Nainby


This thesis brings forth a perspective on the need for an isolated conceptual design phase in process models of designing. The perspective is made possible by identifying theories to describe designers in practice. The research sets out to describe concept negotiation during early design collaboration in cross-cultural teams of Western designers and Chinese designers. A series of ethnographic studies and in-depth interviews were carried out in a leading design practice in China on collocated and synchronous teams of Chinese designers from Mainland China, and Western designers from Germany, France and America. Themes were interpreted from the observations and interview through inductive analyses using a grounded theory approach and a hermeneutic circle.
Silences among Chinese designers were first observed during design meetings, instead of verbal discussion in an argumentative process as anticipated by the social process of negotiation. Socio-linguistic reasons are understood to be influential but rectifiable by both Western and Chinese designers. Instead, a pattern of their differences in concept articulation became evidential and brought about a subsequent hermeneutic turn to also describe concept generation. The description on their cognitive patterns found dichotomies in creative processes between Western and Chinese designers. Specifically it was found that Chinese designers tend to ideate and Western designers tend to conceptualise. To overcome the dichotomies, the company’s elaborate design process
with an abstract-concrete progression was simplified into a situationist design cycle in which designing happens in a creative space.
A literature review on design processes identified the isolated conceptual design phase as a fixated ideal from 1980s design models. Crucially, the conceptual design phase with an abstract-concrete progression is equated with the early design stage when studying designers in collaboration. Conceptualisation and concepts remain very much influential today. The dichotomies in creative processes between Western designers and Chinese designers brought to light an epistemological comparison between the rationalist and the situationist. The dichotomies were at first posed as difficulties but later overcome by the cross-cultural teams by making their practice flexible without specific design process. Instead of commonly studying designers at the conceptual design stage and analysing design concept, this thesis identified the designers’ differences in creative processes as factors to be considered when studying designers in collaboration.

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date May 25, 2011
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords Chinese design, co-design; collaboration; silence; negotiation; concept articulation;
Public URL
Award Date Oct 5, 2010


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