Zero Value that is worth a Fortune

Re-learning the true worth of an ancient Chinese invention.

“Absolutely zero value” is a sentence I came across three times recently. In two very different circumstances. It isn’t the actual utterances that were significant, it was the relationship between the two times and places in which the sentences were used. The first two times the sentence was used were about design. And that was in Asia. The third time was about paper money and that time it was in Europe about 400 years ago. Its ok I don’t have a time machine, I was reading a Kindle book – although I suppose that’s a kind of time machine too isn’t it?.

Although it is difficult to understand, it was a Financial Vice President in Linkou, south of Taipei who first said to me that design has zero value. I can quote him accurately because his words came rather as a shock. I won’t reveal which company it was except to say that they are rather clever at OEM consumer electronics and their buildings dominate most of Linkou. In an age where all the most successful companies who score above average in growth and profitably - irrespective of their location in the world – all use design strategically as one of their most potent value earners, it is curious to find this attitude from a financial official, of all people. The second “design has zero value” was in Shenzen where a CEO dismissed design totally offhand because he explained, “any design can be copied in 14 days in China.”

Before I answer that one, let me tell you about the Kindle book. As everyone who reads this article knows from school, paper money was invented in China. From the first “jiao zhi” notes of credit, there was regular use of paper money by the Song dynasty and it was widely used in the Yuan dynasty. It took Europe just a bit less that 1000 years to catch up on the innovation from the Orient. Flanders, now part of the Netherlands, was where it got off to a start as the Dutch merchants were then the most adventurous of the Europeans in their early globalization and foreign trade. A bank in Sweden was the next big European mover and that was in 1660. In what was to become USA, paper money had to wait until the 1700’s and the federal government of the United States did not print banknotes until as late as 1862. It is astounding to see these dates today.

What the Europeans had difficulty in understanding was that a very small piece of paper could carry so much value. Today we have to think carefully about that, because bank notes and plastic credit cards are so common. But in Europe 400 years ago people were used to having real gold and silver coins in their pouches. In fact the name of the British pound and the symbol for that currency is still related to a pound weight of sterling silver. A pound weight is about 450 g. The symbol is £ - libre – which is latin for a pound. But a simple piece of paper has zero value. How could it possibly be worth so much? And even if it is worth something, a piece of paper can be copied so easily. Doesn’t that begin to sound familiar?

What everyone knows today is that a bank note has great value because somewhere in the cellars of the imperial palace or the national bank, there is a store of real gold and silver that represents the true value of the currency. When you make a copy of a bank note it goes back to being worthless. Just a piece of paper. So too with design. Design is not just external styling. Design is the same carrier of value as a bank note because it carries the knowledge and the company values of the creator. It isn’t as abstract as it sounds. To design well you need to know who you are designing for, what the user actually needs. You need to put that together with the best appropriate technology and manufactured in an optimal way and then transported to a place within the buyer’s reach. As well as being functional, good design will give status, express lifestyle and a multitude of other immaterial – but substantial - values. In this day and age, product design is THE brand platform and it carries with it the history of the company who makes it, the company ethos and its origins. Look at a Jaguar car and you see the racings cars that won the Le Mans races in France in the 60’s. Buy a bottle of Chanel 5 perfume and you are also purchasing the genius of the French woman Coco Chanel who gave sartorial freedom to the women of the world through her fashions and in the early 1900’s
European companies know this to the extent that design and product branding on a global scale is dominated by European concepts. Having struggled to understand that weird invention of the Chinese – bank notes made of paper – the Europeans took to design as a natural extension of the concept of carriers of value. When South Korean giants like Sansung and LG started to move big time into the global scene, it was European design that put them there. Apple leapt to prominence when London designer Jonathan Ives joined the team.  In Taiwan, HTC is quickly becoming a major global player – after they started using good design professionally and strategically. Design has no limits.

Here is a good exercise after you have read this article. Wander around the household departments of Mitsukoshi or the other big department stores in Taiwan and you will find that even kitchen utensils from Europe are thoroughly designed and branded.  Check out Bodum or Eva Solo brands or Stelton and imagine the people who design and make these quite normal objects – cups, dishes, teapots. What are they trying to say to you? It’s a communication. It is active. Then try to guess how many dollars they put in the bank from each object. After that go to the local ironmonger and work out how many cheese cutters or salt and pepper pots the guy needs to sell to even get near the same income. Millions. And the difference is not magic. It is originality and good design from designers who are actually thinking about you as an individual as you wandered round the looking at the shelves. Believe me, because I know the designers personally. They are nice guys. And can your company do the something similar? To quote Barak Obama – Yes you can!!!

It seems to be a strange paradox that the Chinese, the actual inventors of the bank note, now finds it difficult to grasp the deeper understanding of the power of design. The best proof of the link between bank notes and good design is to look at the value of counterfeit notes – and copies. Counterfeit notes can fool people but their falsity is often quickly revealed and the notes become valueless – not worth the paper they are printed on. Literally. And the perpetrators are unceremoniously thrown into prison. False products often suffer the same fate. A falsified copy is seen as a criminal act, the goods confiscated and the villain bound for jail. For “inspired” copies and me-too products the sentences are not so severe except that the value of the product is nowhere near the value of the original. Me-too copies of an iPhone, usually at a visually lower quality, are almost treated like junk. Hardly worth the cost of putting the materials together. So why even bother to manufacture them when a modicom of  original thinking can increase that value. Which brings me full circle. Even as an author I have in mind who you are, the reader.  You are reading this at home, on the MRT or in the office. You are a probably a manager, an ambitious young person, a business student as well as being an experienced CEO. Certainly someone interested in management, otherwise you wouldn’t have parted with your money to buy this magazine. On the other hand you are sitting in the bank waiting your place in the queue. Still you must have some kind of interest in commerce or you would have chosen the attractive women’s magazine or that one over there about motorbikes. You have something to do with business. And I do believe that your career and your business will be more inspired and successful by considering that the values added by good design are similar and have a similar effect to the value of the banknotes in your wallet or purse. From that simple comprehension you can go far.
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