Shanzhai Makiko Taniguchi, Eddie Wu

Copycat design as an open platform for innovation

Countries, from the US to Japan, regularly accuse China of copying designs. Indeed, multinational companies in these countries spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to prevent their products from being copied. But Shanzhai — “copycat” design — represents a vast business opportunity.

Shanzhai is an open platform for grassroots innovation: Apple, Nokia, and Samsung smartphones get copied, but the knockoffs adapt the original designs in ways that appeal to Chinese customers. Shanzhai designers might add a flashlight, key in areas with unstable electricity.

The effect is to make products accessible to common folks in terms of price, aesthetics, values, and needs. Shanzhai designs are an opportunity for international companies to introduce Chinese consumers to their brands, and then observe how local Chinese culture adapts their offerings.

How might companies harness learning by observing Shanzhai designs?

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

‘Shiny points’ stand out

One of the key design principles of Shanzhai is to make the assets of the product stand out. Shanzhai is not about being subtle. It’s about bringing up the distinctive character of a product and accentuating it.

Of the population, “80-90% are unsophisticated consumers,” explains Wang, a Shanzhai mobile phone manufacturer. “When they buy a mobile phone, they want to see values that they can understand. They’ll not understand subtle design or complicated technology.”

Whether it’s a big camera lens or speakers attached to the phone, these consumers want focal points, because they are the “face” of products. Chinese consumers call this quality liangdian, or “shiny points,” in the design. These exaggerated features attract the attention of others and explicitly state that those are what consumers have paid money for. Products become valuable partly through the confirmation of one’s peers.

How might companies design for liangdian, or shiny points?

The optimism of humor

Li is saving money to buy a QQ, the Shanzhai version of the economical GM Sparkle. He plans to customize it with a “Mercedes emblem.”

“It’s the Mercedes of ordinary folks,” says Li with a laugh. “With this car I will be a true ‘successful businessman’ like my mom always brags to her fellow villagers!”

A young migrant worker with only a high school diploma, Li is doing well to have found a job as a clerk in Shenzhen, but he is nowhere near the popular image of the “successful businessman” who gets driven around in a Mercedes. QQ adds color to everyday life by making fun of ordinary people’s reality. It’s the grassroots humor of Shanzhai culture that attracts consumers like Lee — people who work hard, whose lives are improving, and who are optimistic about the future.

How might brands get closer to ordinary people by using their sense of humor?

Legitimacy through participation

“Lecture Hall” is a well-known program on CCTV, the biggest national television network in China. It features scholars discussing various topics, from history to literature to art. Han is a businessman with a strong interest in history. Through CCTV’s application procedure, Han expressed his interest in offering a series of talks about the Song Dynasty but was told he was not qualified because he is not a professor. So he decided to make a Shanzhai version of “Lecture Hall” in a simple studio he set up.

Han posted his video on the Internet, and within weeks, the show had been watched more than half a million times. This quintessentially Chinese story reveals the strong need for popular participation and local legitimacy.

How might we create a platform where ordinary people feel comfortable adding a bit of themselves to the product?

The word shanzhai…

Made up of the characters shan (山, “mountain”) + zhai (寨, “fortress”), Shanzhai implies banditry and lack of state control. The phrase suggests the value that runs through Chinese classics like Water Margin, the story of bandits who helped the poor by stealing from the rich. In this Chinese version of Robin Hood, “right” and “wrong” are presented in an ambiguous light. In this respect, perhaps, Shanzhai questions legitimacy and authenticity of design and blurs the line between cultural appropriation and outright theft.

Leveraging grassroots innovation

Nokia recognized how Shanzhai can help us learn about other cultures when it created a design competition in three communities far beyond China: Dharavi (Mumbai, India), Favela Jacarezinho (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and Buduburam (Accra, Ghana). Nokia’s “temporary design studio” is about learning how people improvise, use, and conceptualize a device in the context of their own communities. The open studio provided an alternative way for people to articulate their wants and needs.

Prototyping rather than planning

Shanzhai mobile phones have at least 2 SIM card slots. This may not be an award-winning design concept, but it effectively addresses the needs of Chinese users who often use an additional local number when they travel. Shanzhai is about implementing user needs in a short period of time. It runs on the spirit of “put it out there and see how it goes.” Production cycles are very short and quality may be compromised, but over time the product is improved and becomes more stable.

Fake star or entrepreneur?

There are many Shanzhai stars in the Chinese media, but in contrast with Elvis impersonators in the West, they are quasi-legitimate. Some, like Andy Lau and Jay Chou, are considered quite successful in their own right and have been invited to perform at local events. Embracing Shanzhai has created a business opportunity for performers to utilize their lookalike asset and build authentic fame. These impersonators have value for being Shanzhai, rather than because they can impersonate famous stars.


sally madsen

February 17, 2010

I love these examples! One compelling design challenge is to enable companies like Nokia and Samsung to learn from these grassroots innovations, and share the solutions with other markets.

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Woodear Z. Wang

February 24, 2010

Hi, Sally, ShanZhai is actually a perfect example about how to design for the BoP market (which I guess you are into) in China. Big companies do brainstorming in their design process, here, at grass root, people do prototype-storming…

It would be really interesting to compare Nokia 1100’s global success and MTK (a Taiwanese company which produces the motherboards)‘s success inside China.  Do it yourself or create a platform and enable everyone at the grass root to make a fortune?

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Julietta Cheung

April 14, 2010

Makiko and Eddie:

I looked into the same phenomenon and would like to share it with you. Please see: <a href= “” target=“_blank”>this link</a> to read my version of the same topic.

Thank you Barry Katz for pointing me to this study.

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July 17, 2010

I have something to tell on the first point of this article, about ‘shiny spots’. I live in Kiev, Ukraine. Drivers here are very, very unconcious, and the accident rate is extremely high. And our road police has a stupid thing about the cameras. Instead of making them subtle and invisible, they put a huge sign 100 meters before every camera: “Attention, this section of the road is monitored by a camera”. This makes crazy drivers slow down for a bit while they are in camera sight, and hit is as soon as the second cam is behind. This is a detail in our city design that I could never understand.

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Chris Sparshott

August 20, 2010


Everyone wants to make a difference.

Everyone is dissatisfied and any glimmer of satisfaction is grabbed and consumed.

The Sun and chicks are the only good things that are the colour yellow

The most successful people (in their own terms) are those who take responsibility

Design often represents the designers reality, Good design is empathic and aligns to consumers known needs, Great design delivers to the consumers unknown needs and creates delight

I have observed that success comes when you do the simple things well or do new things first (and well)

Over consumption is spawned in a place where there is a perceived absence of love

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August 25, 2010

When it comes to this sort of city design, I believe cameras are installed with two very different goals in mind.
In one of the cases they obviously to spot speeders, create the evidence on spot and charge the driver.
In the other case they are merely a psychological reinforcements of the signs asking for a lower speed. A 50km/h sign is something perfectly neglected by the Ukrainians, but a camera (even a dummy) will make sure they drive slow around it.
This is especially commonly used around high accident rate areas, where the goal really is “just” to increase local safety there.

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November 8, 2010

“shanzhai” is powerful in China.

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December 29, 2010

Cheers Chris,

I spotted a missing yet important element to your observation “that success comes when you do the simple things well or do new things first (and well).”

It is: Timing”

(market-place readiness.)

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February 14, 2011

What an interesting way to look at Shanzhai or knock-offs.  If legitimate manufactures could harness this giant prototyping environment, then it seems much would be gained.  Maybe even some Shanzai partnering with the legal manufacturers?

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