Kenya Hara: Designing Design

by mo on Sunday, March 20, 2011

Like many others, I am completely in love with Muji, a Japanese brand that sells a wide variety of household and consumer goods, distinguished by its design minimalism, emphasis on recycling, and no-logo or “no-brand” dictum. Having lived in Japan for a year, I’m pretty sure I visited a Muji store at least two or three times a week, just to bathe in its simple design beauty.

Obsessed with Muji, I came to learn about Kenya Hara, the creative director of the brand, and purchased his book “Designing Design” when it first came out (I later found out – i.e. a month ago in a tutorial ­– that it is now out of print, and a mint edition of the book is worth at least a grand haha). Reading what he had to say, it was absolutely awe-inspiring – I came to know Muji in a different light, not by its mere aesthetic but rather, it’s philosophy from which the products and this aesthetic stems.

In researching for this project, and reading up about phantom limbs, and transposing this in visual communications by framing it with the question “How can design play with and hence make ourselves more aware of our perception of our body self?”, the design philosophies that I came across in Hara’s book came to mind – in particular, the chapters “Making the Ordinary Unknown” and “Haptic: Awakening The Senses”:

Making the ordinary unknown

In this chapter, Hara introduces the idea of “redesign”. The following quote sums it up in one go:

“Re-design” refers to a redoing of the design of ordinary objects. You could call it an experiment, an attempt to look at familiar things as if it were our first encounter with them.”

“Re-design is a means by which to correct and renew our feeling about the essence of design, hidden within the fascinating environment of an object that is so overly familiar to us that we can no longer see it” (Hara 2007, p. 22).

In relating it back to phantom limb awareness and its relation to design, perhaps  I should be focusing on how to re-design an object so that a new experience is created, an experience that is not purely aesthetic, but rather, obliges the user to re-think their body image but in a fun and enlightening manner.

“The 21st century is an age of discovery – of astonishingly fine designs found right in our midst, in our daily lives. We used to design mere stimulation, but now we part ways with that past and look at the ordinary with clear eyes, to yield new thinking on design” (Hara 2007, p. 22).

He ends the chapter explaining why it is that we need design:

“Design is appealing because the process creates inspiration that is engendered by this empathy among human beings in our common values and spirituality” (Hara 2007, p. 24).

Agreeing with this wholeheartedly, I want to ensure that the design development of my final resolution involved users along the way because in the end, this design is essentially intended to be a means through which we come to understand ourselves and hence each other in a universal manner.

Haptic: Awakening the Senses

The word, “haptic” has to be one of the keywords of my research:

“To put it plainly, the term here indicates an attitutde that takes in consideration how we perceive things with our senses. While dealing with shape, color, material and texture is one of the more important aspects of design, there is one more: it’s not the question of how to create, but how to make someone sense something. We might call this creative awakening of the human sensors “the design of the senses” (Hara 2007, p. 68).

The essential point that I am particularly taken by is that this haptic approach to design does not wallow in the past, it does not indulge in nostalgia – but rather, it looks towards the future. Because the future is always there, and as such, provides us with endless possibilities in terms of design.

In researching phantom limbs and placing it within the framework of creating a visual language through which to communicate this by means of design, this idea of “haptic design” is particularly poignant in that it suggests that perhaps in the same way, design can be used to not only “design the senses” but to also “design the way we use our physical body” – so whereas Hara’s objects affect the senses, mine will perhaps focus more so on the physical sense of self.

In particular, his research methodologies are most inspiring, in that there is ongoing dialogue with users and non-designers:

“Take a coffee cup for instance. Any designer would be itching to do a sketch as the first phase of the process. Not for this exhibition. I asked all the participants to start from the point of thinking on how that coffee cup could stimulate and awaken the senses, before ever coming up with an image for its form or anything else” (Hara 2007, p. 70).

Also another way of generating research is to pose almost seemingly irrational questions but to then tackle them so that they become a possible reality:

“A watering mouth is a taste response to sizzling meat. What kind of design can induce the reaction of a watering mouth from all five senses?” (Hara 2007, p. 71).

Finally this following quote was of particular inspiration – the power that the designer has in tweaking elements so that it creates different experiences for the user:

“In the world of design, colour and shape are at the apex. Every time some product with a striking shape or made of extraordinary materials comes along, we’re dazzles. We’re amazed by the metamorphoses that a different shape can give an ordinary utensil. This power to bewitch the consumer at first glance with our solutions is one of the allures of design (Hara 2007, p. 147).

Reference: Hara, K. 2007, Designing design, Lars Müller, Baden, Switzerland

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