2019Attention to the interplay of design and social issues
Yasuharu Sasaki Tamae Hirokawa
Director’s Message

Design of Technique & Tradition

Yasuharu Sasaki Tamae Hirokawa

Pleasant experiences, from striking the right balance

SasakiIn digital fields, various technologies such as AI, ICT, and 5G are employed, and there is a strong tendency to reset what has come before and inject novelty to create new products. But in digital and traditional fields alike, there seems to be a need to determine which technologies or techniques to abandon and which to preserve. Merely cramming a smartphone full of features or design elements of all kinds will not result in products with identity or a pivotal core. Even if it entertains us for a moment, it will lack lasting appeal. Instead of providing a series of insubstantial, forgettable experiences, I think it is essential to determine what to retain and preserve and what innovation to add. This also calls for some self-reflection.

HirokawaTo me, design is the power to move things forward. In this year's program, I was eager to see what this belief would reveal from a broad perspective in our focused issue theme of "technique and tradition." Design includes architecture and intangible things, but because I myself mainly focus on product design, I associated tradition with traditional industries. I had the opportunity to consider the nature of tradition more deeply over the course of evaluation, and this led me to realize that everything in front of me now embodies some kind of technical heritage. Traditional industries are hardly the only area where a respect for existing design sets the scene for innovation; this is widely applicable. What people pass down through design is probably not only tradition but technique. I sensed a breath of fresh air in Arita porcelain and many other entries of products from traditional industries, but to me, Hibi 10-minute incense sticks, which require no separate means of lighting, seemed like a wonderful product and a quantum leap in thinking. Intriguingly, unlike designing new pottery, for example, where one usually starts by exploring elements such as texture or shape, the planners of this product suddenly jumped from matches to incense. How to adapt matchmaking to current lifestyles – this was probably the challenge they faced, now that matches are used less often. By combining the two neighboring traditional industries of Harima matches and Awaji incense in Hyogo Prefecture, they devised a new product. Refined design may emerge under the threat of losing one's heritage unless radical changes are made to save traditional techniques. Passing down this heritage is one of the main challenges faced by traditional industries, which makes it difficult to reframe production processes perfected over many years. This is why developing such an utterly imaginative product is so groundbreaking.

SasakiI, too, considered Hibi from the standpoint of tradition. In the digital realm, the approach often taken is along the lines of giving users one of 10 aromas of their choice at the press of a button. In contrast, as a hybrid between incense and matches, Hibi has the innovation of retaining a nice balance of analog goodness: enjoying a moment, the act of striking a match, the initial gunpowdery scent, and the pervasive aroma of incense. Digital and technological advances have paved the way for disruptive changes. Although this appeals to manufacturers, I think it is essential to find a balance between preserving and introducing. One entry that seemed to get the balance right was the Gina smart coffee maker from Goat Story, which pairs classic coffee brewing with smartphone connectivity that enables users to reproduce and share delicious recipes. Again, instead of promising to brew fine coffee of the world at the touch of a button, it offers an excellent balance that keeps the pleasant indulgence of brewing coffee intact while augmenting it with technology. Another entry that retains the fun of interaction is the Little Can electronic piggy bank, a system that transfers pocket money for children in China, where electronic money dominates. What makes the product especially cute is the sound of jingling change played when children shake it. Designers have incorporated the convenience of electronic money while retaining the analog aspects of interacting with and enjoying piggy banks.

Taking advantage of existing resources, and moving ahead while honoring tradition

HirokawaThree long-time favorites show how traditions have been passed down in industrial products: Technics SL-1200MK7 turntables, USM Haller E modular storage furniture, and Yamaha 40th anniversary edition SR400 motorcycles. Each is a popular, well-known product, and we may wonder why they were submitted to the program at this time. In each, design that users have admired for years has been retained while introducing technical innovation. In the turntable, this means that functionality has been updated with new digital technology. The Haller furniture now features internal lighting – skillfully concealed behind exposed surfaces – which meets needs when the frames are used for display. And after a pause in production due to emission regulations, SR400 motorcycles have been revived with functionality to meet the standards. Each shows a wonderful spirit of inquiry, in how a regard for maintaining their definitive appearance for enthusiasts is paired with constant refinement. It takes profound affection and patience for company to keep making something from one era to the next, for more than half a century. Instead of being content with setting a standard in their industry, these companies quite impressively kept up the challenge and took their task seriously.

SasakiSimilarly, NHK Reminiscence Library is a digital content project employing resources that have come to define the times. Along with medical treatment, reminiscing as one views images from the past is one of the therapies used to treat dementia. Other such treatment includes recalling how to use old home appliances or utensils, and talking About these memories. Here, this is done with VR. VR is a relatively new technology, and this immersive experience is combined with archival images of the past, making an intriguing balance of new and old. It is also wonderful how this addresses the pressing issue of curbing dementia.

HirokawaTradition in this context is passed down both for the enthusiasts who are users and because the people behind it still appreciate the original design. To endure for decades, products obviously need users, but they also need producers who are committed to ongoing production in an era where the tide is against those who continue to sell the same thing. This sentiment on the part of the producer also seems indispensable to the tradition.

The addition and subtraction sought by designers

HirokawaAn example of expertly paring something down to the essentials can be found in award-winning Maffs + home fire extinguishers. This product reflects the view that changing the traditional bright red of fire extinguishers to more subdued tones would encourage more people to keep an extinguisher in their home, because it blends in better with contemporary lifestyles. I wonder why no one thought of this before. All that is different is the color, one might say, but it amazed me how much innovation was possible simply by changing the color. Conversely, Press Master PB7 garbage trucks show an additive approach to design. The trucks I recall seeing as a child used to scare me, working away so noisily as they seemed to devour the garbage. On this waste collection vehicle, though, these rough aspects seem to have been smoothed out, cosmetically. They are a beautiful metallic blue color, with a slightly rounded body that looks less imposing. In general, fewer people tend to like things with these kinds of cosmetic touches, because we often prefer what is familiar. But because the trucks are always working with garbage, the cosmetic touches can compensate for their dirty image, and the design probably holds the potential to earn more admirers, even among young children. This thinking comes from trying to please a narrower range of people, instead of everyone.

SasakiI looked at the Swedish mobility app Whim, part of a mobility as a service (MaaS) platform, from a slightly different perspective. Unlike the different apps used for each type of transportation in Japan, this single app can be used to ride any vehicle. I see it as a system that applies technology to solve the inconvenience of linking current transportation while remaining true to the tradition of allowing us to enjoy free mobility by choosing our own modes of transport. In general, instead of pursuing only convenience, it is a matter of finding value in the elements where we feel something, enjoy interacting with and owning things, and sense emotions that smack of humanity. When people focus on and design these things, it may start a new tradition. Which features should be kept, and which omitted? What should we add, and what should we refrain from adding? In this, designers have a key role to fulfill as the ultimate decision-makers, especially in an era where technology enables us to add functionality to everything. What is needed is not only the superficial design of colors and shapes but also a fresh aesthetic sensibility and foresight. Our imperative to keep learning, combined with our position of discerning needs in an era of boundless possibilities, makes these interesting times.

HirokawaDesigners must always be able to examine the past, look for what is real, and foresee the future. And for traditions to endure, we must have ambition, curiosity, and inquisitiveness. We must also believe that things should continue to be made. Through this, things that are appreciated for a long time can be produced, and these admired things are passed down. Things that are constantly refined because people believe in them inevitably become traditional, as admirers share them with others. Traditional industries also face the challenge of being bound by tradition, but to move ahead, instead of production for the sake of techniques, techniques can be passed down to meet needs in modern lifestyles.

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