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Defining ‘design' in Japan Design lecture #02

As a designer, I always look for ways to explain what design is and why design matters in businesses. Spending 5 days in Japan - Tokyo and Mount Fuji - not only spoiled me with its stunning nature, food and culture, but inspired me so much in how design is practiced in the land of sophistication and serenity.

In my previous post I talked about how I entered the world of 'design', as a university student, and that almost two decades later I am so thankful for my mentor who influenced me to take this path. Today I attempt to ‘define’ design with three stories from Japan - which are relevant when we think about design in business.

Food Design

It was lunch time on the first day of our trip. We found a small sushi restaurant in the west corner of Shinjuku. My sister who spent her childhood in Japan suggested that we sit at the counter instead of at the big table. That way we get to enjoy sushi at its best, she said. 

‘How so?’ I asked.

'It's because you are closer to your chef. The chef serves you sushi as your pace. He quietly observes how slowly or fast you eat, and serve the next round accordingly. That way you enjoy sushi when it’s most fresh and rice is still at its perfect temperature - lukewarm." she explained. 

"Everything was intentionally designed to deliver this graceful experience we enjoyed"

Indeed, it was the best decision. I watched how the chef made our sushi one by one with his solemn face expression. He looked as if he was an artist. Every piece of sushi was beautifully made. When the platter of sushi arrived we had to let out a sound of admiration. ‘Wow..’

Each piece was heaven. From the moment we sat down at the counter, received a warm towel and a cup of Japanese green tea while we were looking at the menu. The moment of anticipation observing how chef was creating our meal. The moment of admiration when the beautifully presented platter of sushi was brought to our table. The moment of tasting freshly sushi melt in our month. 

Design is an experience that involves all our senses. The way this sushi restaurant served us, the way the chef made our sushi, the items we interacted with such as the menu, the warm towels and the welcoming cup of green tea, were part of the experience we had. Everything was intentionally designed to deliver this graceful experience we enjoyed. 

Japan Train Map

Tokyo is indeed an eccentric city, chaotic yet so organised delivering unique delights in every corner. The best place to feel this city’s pulses probably is Shibuya crossing - the world’s busiest street crossing and the location famous for having the highest density of cellphones anywhere on Earth. Cars drive through the busy intersection, but once the light turns green, pedestrians from every direction scramble across madly until the light goes red again.

"That's what design is - showing the system of "

Tokyo probably has the most complex metro system in the world. It is operated many privately-owned metro and publicly-owned subways. Even a clerk at the Shinjuku station had a hard time to explain because of the multiple operators.

However looking at this map during my ride, I could not help but wonder how powerful visual design is in articulating this complex system. Each colour has been carefully chosen to represent the different metro lines. Lines with differing thickness represent different operators. The space was smartly organised in order to fit the stations names, showing the right distance and the connections of the network. That’s what design is - showing the system of how things work.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

When visiting Japan, an essential experience, in my opinion, is ‘Ryokan’ - a Japanese traditional accommodation originated from the 17th century. The moment you check in, you get to immerse into the ultimate serenity of Japanese hospitality can offer. 

You wear a Yukata,a Japanese casual summer garment that resembles the Kimono. It is usually made of light fabric like cotton and is very comfy and stylish. Some Ryokans give you the pleasure of choosing a Yukata you like from a broad range of fabric with sashes in different styles. Upon check-in, we had fun choosing our Yukata and changed into them quickly. Wearing a Yukata immediately took away my worldly concerns and worries (such as projects at work!) and the real world seemed somewhat so distant, transporting me into a world of zen. Ryokans are usually situated in quiet suburbs or the countryside with beautiful gardens or forests offering a serene walk. You can also enjoy a hot spring bath called the Onsen from as early as 5am whilewatching the sunrise and throughout the day. The sensation of dipping my naked body in the outdoor Onsen overlooking Mount Fuji cleansed my mind and refilled me with beautiful energy.

"Every touch point can have an attitude that silently advocates or harms the business"

The Japanese tea ceremony was another highlight for me during the stay in this Ryokan, which reminded me what design is. 

We were invited to a small cottage in the middle of the Ryokan’s garden. We entered the room and sat down (kneeling) as a kind lady guided us. She was probably over 50 years old, wearing a pink kimono with her hair done up. Everything she did was so graceful - the way she walked ever so quietly to bowing at us each time when she served tea to the way she gently explained the tea and the small pieces of sweets offered.

While the handmade bowls in various shapes and colours, the atmosphere of the room, the tea maker’s kimono, even the colour of the green tea were visually pleasing, the tea ceremony probably won’t a memorable experience to me if not for the tea maker’s graceful attitude. 

Through her attitude and behaviour, we felt her respect and saw her intent of making each tea ceremony a meaningful experience for each guest. The implication to design is that not only people who are servicing customers but also non-human service channels can convey such attitude. The way website is designed, the way space is designed and the way we write to customers … every touch points can have an attitude that silently advocating / or harming the business.  

"What is your definition of design?"

What aspects of design is relevant to your profession?

I’d love to hear about your thoughts on design on our Facebook. 

June 15, 2015

 Jin Zwicky

About Jin Zwicky
Jin is a Vice President in Group Customer Experience at OCBC Bank. She designs the banking experience by day, studies fashion / style by night. She carries her pink FRANK Credit Card wherever she goes.