"Consumption and Illusion"
Chairperson of the Jury
What is Design? More importantly, what is the meaning of contemporary design? This is what I will attempt to discuss here. Some readers may be put off by this dramatic introduction. However, having surveyed conditions as the chairperson of the jury committee, I have the impression that if we do not set this straight, many situations may lead us to think design has no future, and I think we have reached a point where we cannot ignore this problem. Because the essence of contemporary design must be carefully distilled, it may take some time. But if any forum exists to discuss the current conditions of design, the Good Design Award ceremony is certainly one.
There are some major reasons to come to this opinion: First, the conventional meaning of the word Design is nearing the end of its life in our vocabulary (because the word now applies to a broader range of fields). Second, the screening process now requires greater accountability. Some other factors can be cited. However, we must act with great discretion when it comes to changing the Good Design Award system, as it has continued to develop favorably.
Because this was my first year as chairperson of the jury committee, I did not make any radical attempts to change the current system by exploring the essential matter of design. Above all, I lacked an adequate period of preparation to consider any far-reaching changes to the categories evaluated or screening methods. I intended to use this year as a time to deal with administrative matters and to gain firmer foothold as a first step toward reforms.
It is difficult work, determining the evaluative criteria for design and making pros and con value judgments. Design obviously involves qualitative values; standards of evaluation vary from person to person to start with. And no one is perfect. That is the nature of being human. Because imperfect people evaluate the work of others, we cannot pronounce that the results of an evaluation are absolutely "correct." That is the difficulty of qualitative evaluations.
Still, understanding all of that, we arranged ample discussions during the screening process and requested judges to articulate and explain their thoughts as thoroughly as possible. Each unit undoubtedly debated the pros and cons more than in past years. Additionally, after screenings, each unit held review meetings.
I assume that the greatest asset of the Good Design Award is the expertise and discernment of our jury committee. Because the committee brings outstanding designers and experts acclaimed in their fields, I encouraged them to play a prominent role in all stages of the process, from application to selection of the Gold Prize. And I expect committee members to be even more proactive next year. We must accept that any selection made by any committee member will reflect his or her philosophy, which has an inevitable bias to some extent. It is unrealistic to expect perfectly objective judgments, and this is the nature of qualitative selection. In short, what matters is to invest enough effort into explaining the reasons behind judgments.
Consumption and Illusion
I would like to take this opportunity to describe the trends and features of this year's entries. My perspective is fairly comprehensive, because I was not involved in any individual screenings. The Good Design Awards accepted nearly 3,000 applications this year. Obviously, it is Japan's largest annual design event of this kind. The entries are classified into 18 categories for screening, and I call it a "Heterogeneous Match". This is because even though the entries are from diverse fields and each has different purposes and applications, they are all lined up together to be evaluated. This process is both enjoyable and difficult. Some entries demonstrate possibilities, and others, limitations. But it is odd how, gazing at this aspect, one can see overall trends of the current period. Allow me to describe this year's trends, from my perspective.
To summarize my general impression of this year, innovation, compactness, and eco-friendliness were popular themes in design. Looking back at the themes listed this way, I find it a pity that such ordinary descriptions are the only ones that come to my mind. This is because I could not make any particular images in my mind from the whole picture. I am left with a general impression that is somehow unsatisfying, as if the focus were blurred. Perhaps current circumstances in Japan make it difficult for companies to trace out a clear vision. We may have reached a point where we must move on to the next paradigm.
The market is currently favorable, at any rate. But our sense of urgency is weak in times such as these, and we are less willing to try new approaches. Meanwhile, a renaissance in urban development in Japan is creating many new offices and condominiums in cities. On top of benefits for the construction industry, massive quantities of furniture, appliances, and electronics will be ordered for these places. Thus, there is no pressing sense of urgency. Succeeding against direct competitors is enough for now, so perhaps it is inevitable that we see a loss of aggressiveness, with less impetus and willingness to take risks and develop new markets.
On the other hand, future prospects are not entirely reassuring. In the near future, Japan may lose its drive and start feeling pressure from Korea, China, and elsewhere. Some troubling signs are emerging: greater relocation of production overseas, greater dependence on foreign resources, and the aging of the workforce of skilled engineers and others with valuable working experience. Although we feel liberated by seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, with the contraction of the Japanese economy behind us, we also face the difficult task of somehow reviving domestic product development and manufacturing (clearly affected by deindustrialization) and creating new markets. We can sense the truth in the shapes of things around us. They seem to give off a sense of vague uneasiness and a lack of confidence, through product identities expressing "subtlety" or "pure-heartedness."
Turning our attention to social trends in general, we can observe that global warming is a topic people are vocal about. Climate change is more familiar to us, and our mindset is changing. Now, environmental issues seem to play a role in whatever we do; they cannot be ignored. Perhaps we are sensing uneasiness in the realization that, despite our desire for comfortable, fulfilled lifestyles, we may lose everything if we maintain our old habits.
But perhaps the slogan of eco-friendliness also tends to cast a shadow over things. Climate change is not just one nation's problem, and it is not something we will solve overnight. There are no decisive breakthroughs that will solve things once and for all. Additionally, pursuing some environmental thinking to its logical conclusion, we might state that human existence itself is environmentally hazardous. We may unconsciously be reaching for something that makes us forget the dark side of eco-friendliness. For some time, escape and illusion have been a part of consumption. This is not desirable at all, because design is being used to conceal the real issues.
Subtlety and pure-heartedness in design are striking chords in consumers who are slightly uneasy. By chance these elements, which have different origins and motivations, are now linked in the context of the market.
That is my impression, from a comprehensive perspective on award candidates.
The rising popularity of Korean products
Also noteworthy this year was the prevalence of Korean design. During the screening process, for example, I overheard comments by several jury members amazed at the vigorous efforts of Korean companies.
Their current success was not accomplished in a day, however. Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung declared a national commitment to design in 1998, and efforts since then by the Korea Institute of Design Promotion and other organizations to unite the country in developing design have now come to fruition. Industry leaders were persuaded of the importance of design, which they positioned as central to corporate strategy. Smaller firms were promoted through design, and a workforce of skilled designers was created. Thus the current success is the result of pursuing design as a national policy. But although it may be easy to chalk up the success to Korea's top-down measures, this much progress certainly involved intense collaboration by the public and private sectors.
What I perceived through the screening was the youthfulness of Korean design. I sensed the confidence to position design as central to corporate strategy, the will to take on challenges, and the alertness to meet market needs quickly. This vivaciousness has been missing in Japanese design for some time.
In contrast, design in Japan is positioned at the periphery of corporate strategy (often ranked lower than technological development), and general trends give the impression that companies are timid regarding markets. In short, Japan appears to have lost self-confidence. The emergence of Korean design has probably made this more apparent.
Any number of reasons can be cited for this lack of vitality. Market complexity, the brisk pace of technological progress and product development, competition with similar companies, and many other factors all play a part. However, there is no need to view these as valid excuses if companies use design to keep corporate policy in these regards ready for the future. Additionally, in this context, it is best to put aside thoughts of a sense of rivalry between neighboring countries. It is better to humbly recognize what is worthy of praise, learn what should be learned, and examine one's own shortcomings. I consider it extremely valuable for the Japanese design community to look at current Korean design and appreciate it.
Here, I offer my own interpretation of how the focus in design work varies. Countries in Europe and North America have hierarchical, pyramid-like societies. Much design is intended for those at the top of the pyramid, that is, the social elite and leaders. Without the approval and support of this class, design cannot earn a place among citizens. In other words, designers for these markets are always looking "up." Art nouveau, the Secession, modernism, art deco-even if the initial intention was elsewhere, the movements ultimately became a means to validate the existence of political forces and emerging classes. Even postmodernism could not escape this fate. I think the top-down development of Korean design has followed this pattern, to a great extent.
In contrast, I think Japanese design has had a completely different focus, and the nature of this focus itself is probably a characteristic of Japanese design. Examine the Edo period (1603-1868), and it becomes evident that the source of culture was, for the most part, average people and the masses at large. Popular culture was always a major patron of products, and the view in development was always "horizontal," eye-to-eye with consumers. Specifically, the target market was the great mass of average, middle-class people.
Designers were certainly not looking "up." Among modern products with this focus are the Corolla, the Walkman, and Mujirushi goods. We must remember this. Japan has its own design history, and the present is a result of that history. There is no need to imitate other examples of design that look "up." But, learning a valuable lesson from the Korean wave of popularity, the key point for Japan will be to encourage youthful dynamism in design, while still seeing eye-to-eye with average consumers.
Design work of all kinds is based on the lifestyles from which it emerges. Surveying the Japanese product landscape with a level head, we reach the undeniable conclusion that a significant amount of design (even strikingly "modern" examples) has a basis in 14th-16th century (Muromachi) or 17th-19th century (Edo) culture. That is the impression that products emphasizing precision, density, quality, and texture give us. This tendency is probably more due to the consumers who accepted the products than the designers who created them, and thus, dependent on longstanding preferences and principles in their lifestyles. We must take a long, hard look at this.
What is important here is that we must take a fresh look at enriching our lifestyles. Nothing but an extension of this obvious and honest effort-which was the starting point for the Good Design program, after all-can enable successful design in the future. I think the time has come to take a good, hard look at where we stand, while learning from good examples overseas, before we decide what kind of position to take as we reestablish a sound global strategy.
What is design?
Technology is generally developed for society, as social technology. In the context of physics, mathematics, or other pure sciences, it may be another matter, but otherwise, there is no such thing as technology that does not concern people. Technology of all kinds is devised by people and ultimately, received by people. One implication of this is that unless technology is based on an adequate conception or discernment about people, it will fail. And here is the starting point for understanding the word design. This is because people interact with design in particular using all of their senses and sensibilities.
The Good Design Award is largely based on the value we call design. For the awards, it goes without saying that there is such a thing as design, and this assumption provides an opportunity to evaluate good design in competing entries. Accordingly, not much has been discussed so far about the existence of design itself, which was unquestionable. But I have sensed, through the screening and by listening to the opinions and impressions of applicants, that it is about time to revisit this basis of design and reconsider it. At this point, the word design is applied in a vast range of contexts, and its very meaning is starting to become unclear.
When one stops to think about it, one realizes that no other word is so widely known and frequently used yet so unclear and potentially misleading. Design is tacked onto myriad other words: graphic design, industrial design, system design, interior design, architectural design, urban design, landscape design, and so on. We assume that merely adding the word design confers a special quality to something. In this respect, we can sense the naively confident and careless attitude toward language so common in Japan. But we must remember, as such usage is repeated again and again, the word design itself is consumed, loosing its freshness, picking up undesired connotations, and sounding tired as a result. Using the word design more frequently through my involvement with the Good Design Award screenings has reconfirmed the importance of taking another look at the word.
Personally, I define design as "that which links technology and people." Technology marches ever forward. Developers may be charged by society with various requests, but technology never backtracks. Technology has also seemed aloof. From a human perspective, it feels cold and devoid of compassion.
In contrast, the human heart is capricious and elusive. Moreover, everyone has his or her own preferences. In some moods, we may even like what we usually dislike, and vice-versa. The place of the word design is to warm up cold, impersonal technology and link it to the undefined human mind, from a higher-level view of the relationship of technology and people.
Mission of G-Mark
The venerable Good Design Award got off to a fresh start this year after we commemorated our 50th anniversary in 2006. Fifty years sounds like a full chapter of history. Looking back, it is easy to imagine how recovering economically from the ruins of war and maintaining that recovery were key themes. In the design community those days, nascent attempts to create the bright new society envisioned after the war were perceptible on a global scale. In 1950 an award exhibition honoring good design was held in New York, and in 1953 Edgar J. Kaufman, Jr. wrote What is Modern Design? These trends were noticed in Japan, where an environment promoting good design was created.
As the domestic economy grew, this program has kept pace with current needs. Familiar home appliances were in the spotlight, after which we honored automobiles, and then architecture, such as residential buildings. The nature of the Good Design Award activities and the screening criteria also evolved. In recent years, we have expanded the categories, which now include architecture and environments, as well as new frontiers of design. More people now recognize the award, and the number of entries has grown remarkably. There are 18 screening units, and the screening committee comprises some 70 experts active in various design communities. To claim that the award has helped popularize and expand an appreciation for good design would be no understatement.
Spreading the word is desirable, of course, and it proves that the program itself has succeeded, in its own way. However, the essential issue of how people use the word design in the ever-expanding fields of design comes up again and again. That is, what kind of conduct does design represent? What is design? And what is "good" in good design? These questions must be answered.
Of course, the value we call design was originally an undefined concept, and it has changed along with changes in the world. To impose an inflexible framework would make this field of activity needlessly strict and stiff. For this reason, it seems out of place to establish absolute, universal criteria. Still, we will need to ask ourselves in earnest what the current meaning is in a given period, as we encourage even better design. For this is the only way the countless individuals involved in design can place their work in relation to society, and the only way that the level of domestic design can be internationally competitive. Through the screening process, there is no escaping our mission-to consider and define what design means at present-which is an issue I think we should address even more earnestly as we look forward to next year.