2020What design can do during an era of change
Special Interview

Dominique Chen × Yuma Harada on Design Starting from “Misunderstanding”

Interview article written by
Taisuke Shimanuki
Edited by
Tomoyuki Miyahara (CINRA.NET Editorial Department)

The definition and domains of “design” are diversifying significantly, covering not only shapes and objects, but rather ranging from product designs for home electrical appliances and automobiles, etc. to designs that take into consideration web services and community structures. They ought to reflect changes in our lives and cultures. Accordingly, thinking About design means thinking About humanity. In this article, we interviewed two practitioners to deepen our knowledge of the diversification of design in the future.
One of the two practitioners is Dominique Chen, who wears many hats, such as being a researcher and entrepreneur, and turns a critical eye on modern society. The other is Yuma Harada, who has been engaged in not only graphic design but also design that connects people on the community and welfare fronts. Given their background of engaging activities with a view toward “past - now - future,” what questions will they raise regarding design and its relationship with society?

Dominique Chen
Ph.D. (Interdisciplinary Information Studies). Associate Professor at School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University His consistent research theme is relationships between technology and humanity. His latest book is Mirai wo Tsukuru Kotoba - Wakariaenasa wo Tsunagutameni (Shinchosha). He is also a co-author of Watashitachi no Well-being wo Tsukuriautameni: Sono Shisou, Jissen, Gijutsu (BNN, Inc).
Yuma Harada
Born in Osaka in 1979. Representative of UMA / design farm. Based in Osaka, he aims to visualize concepts and ideas and create new experiences through graphics, spaces, exhibitions, planning & development, etc., centering on the projects related to culture, welfare, and community. Judge for the Good Design Award. Guest Professor in the Department of Spatial Design, Kyoto University of the Arts.

What is needed is design that does not allow society to leave anyone behind (Dominique)

- Dominique-san, you currently direct the exhibition “traNslatioNs - Understanding Misunderstanding” at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. The exhibition includes product designs and contemporary art, and reflects research in cognitive science. It is a well-organized exhibition that respond to interest in design from a broad perspective.

DominiqueWhen I was asked to direct the exhibition, the theme of “translation” had been already established. I accepted the offer with the expectation that I would be able to produce an interesting exhibition, because I myself was born and raised in several cultures and strongly feel that I live in a translational reality, and because I intended to be engaged in translational activities connecting various domains.

It seems that “translation” is generally understood as “something related to languages,” but the more I did research for the exhibition, the more the meaning broadened. For example, my interest expanded to non-verbal worlds, including projects related to sports or devices for people with disabilities, as well as the descriptive method of graphic recording. I gradually came to understand “translation” as something broadly related to communication across the board.

Ultimately, I have come to think About the possibility or impossibility of communication with non-human species (laughs). I think the exhibition has turned out to be quite different from classical and orthodox design exhibitions.

- “Misunderstanding” in the title is also an interesting keyword.

DominiqueIn the ordinary sense, translations aim to resolve “misunderstanding.” In reality, however, after various considerations, I have come to believe that what really matters are noises or errors that are missing from communication as well as mistranslations. That is why I came up with such a title.

HaradaI have been involved in screening for this year’s Good Design Award. Specifically, I am in charge of directing efforts to discover our own themes both from social issues called “Focused Issues” and from the overall entries. What I have set as my own theme is thus “designs that create remote places to stay.” It is really abstract, though (laughs).

DominiqueIt’s an interesting theme, and it also seems to me that it has something to do with “misunderstanding.”

HaradaI agree. I was born and raised in Senri New Town, Osaka, and I still live in this same place where there are few community-based relationships across generations although what seems to be immediate neighbors exist. I think that the sense of community affiliation is tenuous there.

Perhaps that is why I tend to become curious About distant places or remote existences from where I stand, rather than deep community-based relationships. Another reason may be that I have been involved at field sites for people with disabilities, such as “Tanpopo-No-Ye” and “Good Job! Center KASHIBA” for the past 10 years.

A scene from “Good Job! Project” (2012-) jointly organized with Nara Prefecture-based welfare facility “Tanpopo-No-Ye” to create jobs for people with disabilities Photo: Michio Hayase

HaradaRecently, I am involved in an increasing number of activities related to welfare such as at orphanages and mother-and-child support facilities. As I am able to visit the actual sites, I see distress that we cannot be aware of in our daily lives.

Now I’m involved in such facilities as a designer. I don’t know why, but these places are invisible in our daily lives. If we become able to see such places even only one step closer, we can get to know someone outside of our own limited sphere. By doing so, I think we can become a little more tender.

DominiqueThere are many biases toward marginalized people in society. I believe that press reports and literature exist as various ways to ease or dissolve such biases. Yuma-san, you design such interfaces, don’t you? Specifically, what kind of designs do you create?

HaradaActually, I cannot disclose most of them (laughs). In such places, there are some people who narrowly escape violence. In such cases, the disclosure of even their location is sometimes prohibited.

DominiqueI see; that’s right.

HaradaAs far as I can tell, the first thing I did at a mother-and-child support facility was to offer residents HAPPY Turn’s.

DominiqueOh, the familiar brand of rice crackers.

HaradaAccording to some staff members of the facility, some mothers are so busy that they hardly have time even to eat meals with their children. Given such a situation, I thought that if I ask them to make time to answer a hearing survey or a questionnaire and if on such an occasion there is something that can be easily eaten together and that is also a little thing, then it might result in more time for mothers and their children to spend together. If that something is HAPPY Turn’s, then I would be happy. The name is also good (laughs).

HAPPY Turn’s is just one example. I’ve been also doing many other things. At the same time, I ask myself, “Is this design?” (laughs).

DominiqueThat’s interesting. The project called “Otera Oyatsu Club” won the Grand Award in the Good Design Award 2018, didn’t it? It’s an activity to send sweets that are offered to temples to support groups and needy families. Yuma-san’s HAPPY Turn’s as mentioned earlier has something in common with it, doesn’t it?

Temple activities for solving poverty problems called “Otera Oyatsu Club” / In this activities, offerings to temples are given as a “gift from Buddha” and are “shared” with economically difficult families. It connects temples that agreed with the purpose of the activities across the country and community-based support groups for children and single parent families across communities, and delivers sweets, fruits and other foods, as well as daily commodities. (See the Online Gallery on the Good Design Award website.)

DominiqueFor a certain project, I researched economic statistics of Japan and have found out that there are About 600,000 single-mother households in Japan. The statistics are a bit old. So I think the situation has changed since then, but going back to the statistics, more than half of these households are said to belong to a relatively poor group.

Poverty and resultant child abuse are social structure problems, and there is a chain of poverty from parents to their children. When we watch news About such abuse, we tend to think that parents who behave violently toward their children must be thoughtless, but that is not the case at all.

I think what is needed is a communication or community design that does not allow society to leave anyone behind. So I feel that designing time for parents and their children by offering them HAPPY Turn’s is honest or essential.

HaradaFortuitously, today I received a thank-you letter from the facility. It says, “I ate these sweet treats with my child for the first time in a while.” “I’m glad I did it!” That’s my honest feeling (laughs).

“Understanding” is not confined to compromising with or understanding each other (Dominique)

HaradaDominique-san, I have something I’d like to ask your opinion About. These days, the world is changing rapidly. The pace is so rapid that what has been basically visible is now becoming invisible.

HaradaI feel that what is important in such a time is the power to take a step back and imagine afresh. An example would be that many people become capable of imagining what lies ahead of such social conditions with structural problems, as Dominique-san mentioned earlier.

By doing so, we can create designs with a clear eye on the future and take various actions.

DominiqueDoes the phrase “imagine afresh” mean imagining a possible world of science-fiction? For example, having such imaginative power so as to imagine that “perchance, I might have been there, too.”


DominiqueIt’s a deep theme, isn’t it? Well, this year’s Good Design Award winners include “mi-chan’s Sweets workshop.” That’s great.

Harada「“mi-chan’s Sweets workshop” is a sweets workshop run by a first-year female middle-schooler who loves making sweets, although she has difficulty with direct communication through words. I actually visited that workshop in Shiga to write a draft of the Focused Issues. I was wholeheartedly touched when I saw her communicating with a range of people, from customers and her family members to children suffering from the same condition as hers, through her sweets.

Sweets workshop “mi-chan’s Sweets workshop” / The workshop was created after a 12-year-old girl with a mental disability who found her talent in pastries. The sweets factory is designed to fulfill the girl’s dream to “have her own store and bring joy to people through pastries.” She started learning pastries by herself. The goal is to make a sweets factory that welcomes everyone.

DominiqueAmong the works in the “traNslatioNs - Understanding Misunderstanding” exhibition, there is one that may have something in common with “mi-chan’s Sweets workshop.” Titled “Hello Morse,” it is a communication system that was developed by a woman named Tania who is an engineer and her husband Ken. The system converts Morse code into alphabet letters.

She has been suffering from a disability since childhood, and cannot move her own body. I've heard that she used to communicate mainly by writing messages, but that she has attached two pads to the neck part of her wheelchair so that she can make Morse code signals by hitting the pads with her head.

Tania & Ken Finlayson + Google Gboard team “Hello Morse” / Scene at the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT “traNslatioNs - Understanding Misunderstanding” exhibition.

DominiqueIf the function of predictive transformation is added to the system, users can communicate with people around them almost in real time. More interestingly, the system, which was created as open source, has been adopted by Google and used as a standard for all current models of Android Mobile.

HaradaTerrific! What was developed for one person has been become something everyone can use.

DominiqueThere is a double impression, right? One aspect is that the user Tania herself designed communication. The other aspect is that she has been popularizing it with the help of a big company.

Doing so means expanding the possibility of communication for not only people with the same challenge as hers, but also people with completely different disabilities. On a side note, I’ve also got hooked on the app and become an expert in Morse code for a period of time (laughs).

HaradaI want to try it. It has brought About a change to Dominique-san as well, making you capable of using Morse code.

DominiqueIt really has. Morse code-based ideas may be created to deal with completely different issues. It is very encouraging that what was created for a very personal situation has spread to people with different lives. I think “mi-chan’s Sweets workshop” has a similar potential.

While doing research for “traNslatioNs - Understanding Misunderstanding,” I have begun to see afresh the adverse effects of grasping things from the perspective of binary oppositions, such as “with or without disabilities.” It’s an artificial concept. Rather, it would be closer to reality if we grasped things from the perspective that “we as individuals, including people with and without disabilities, are respectively positioned somewhere in the cognitive traits spectrum (continuum).”

It is understandable that people feel secure labeling others in such a way as “you are a foreigner,” “you are a woman,” or “you are an LGBT” and setting boundaries. However, if we remove those distinctions and come to recognize that “all things actually exist in a continuum,” our awareness of the world will clearly expand.

In a sense, I understand such awareness or feeling by linking it with reading certain kinds of literary works; connecting with the stories and reliving completely different lives. I feel that I share a common background with “Hello Morse” and “mi-chan’s Sweets workshop” as well. It would not be strange if there were even a novel titled “mi-chan’s Sweets workshop,” would it?

HaradaIndeed. I would like everyone to read it.

DominiqueTo my mind, stories and possible worlds are not mere imaginary products, but rather they emerge as a form that is contiguous with our own reality and imaginative power toward or empathy with others. We thus find certain expressions called Able Art (a Japan-originated movement to reconsider art for the disabled, starting back in 1995; now it may refer to disability art itself) interesting as well; at first, we touch them as somebody else’s matter, but our own reality is gradually flowing backward in them.

I think that is where the starting point of “understanding” exists. We have a strong image that we can reach “understanding” by going through the process of rational arguments and making mutual compromises or understanding. But that is not necessarily true.

“That person may have been me.” “I may have been there.” Such imaginative (innovative) power and the accumulation of experiences gradually make others dwell in ourselves and ultimately, we reach an “understanding” of each other. That is what I think. As such, you are a kind of storyteller, since you are trying to design it, Yuma-san. I would say you are a poet.

HaradaAre you serious (laughs)?

Design itself is changing. However, it is risky if you are not aware of the ongoing change. (Harada)

HaradaWhat you’ve just said reminds me that I make it a point to have a certain workshop in college classes. Dominique-san, you have had Coke, haven’t you?

DominiqueYes, I have.

HaradaWhat does it remind you of, if anything?

DominiqueOh, my childhood memory just flashed back. I was four or five years old. The memory when I was drinking Coke in a certain park where I had been taken perhaps by my parents.

HaradaWow! I wonder what the park looks like. Answers to this question naturally reveal different memories, varying from person to person. When listening to various stories, I think “what a great design that is close to our daily lives!”

Yuma Harada, One Day Esquisse: Kangaeru “Shiten” ga Mitsukaru Design no Kyoshitsu / This book records online seminar lectures to encounter new questions from what your eyes see and reconsiders commonplaces.

HaradaWhat I mean is that Coke is not only a drink, but also a product that is linked to various people’s memories. Since it persists in our daily lives, the red can change to a trigger that affects people’s memories and experiences. If this object were a natural thing such as a stone, the process would be difficult because it is too commonplace.

DominiqueIndeed. On the other hand, the Coca-Cola product has a marketing dimension, and therefore we can say its design also contains our memories and experiences. So it has two faces. It is interesting to grasp a design from such a point of view.

HaradaI am sometimes involved in designing a city map installed on a street. On such an occasion, I make it a point to remind myself of this workshop’s story and consider the role of a design that will become commonplace. When I consider how to design the colors of roads and waterways on the map as well as the city map’s shape itself, I start with fieldwork in the area.

Walking through the area, I gather colors of exterior walls of signature shops, colors of benches that seem to have been there for ages, etc., to make a color pallet for the town. Based on this, I decide on colors and other elements of the map piece by piece. Through this process, they gradually blend in with the landscape. You can see it as a process of inheriting preexisting landscape.

DominiqueYuma-san, the same method has been applied to some residential complexes of the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR), which you have also been involved with, right?

HaradaYes. I applied it to colors of game centers, dry cleaners, etc. in the respective towns. Among them, I collected colors even from a flashy house that seemed to be ill-distinguished. To my mind, it is also an existence in the world. Therefore, when I am involved with UR, I proceed with my work thinking that there should be color plan that allows me to think: “That’s also good. This is one of our town’s colors.”

UMA / design farm “Urban Renaissance Agency Colors Plan” (2017-) Photo: Yoshiro Masuda

DominiqueI’m very interested in how awareness and curiosity during such fieldwork will affect design. Prof. Hiroshi Kawakami in the Faculty of Engineering at Kyoto University has been doing research on “non-benefits.” He dares to make inconvenient maps.

For example, a map that allows the user to see only his/her surroundings within a certain kilometer radius, or a map that discloses information only About places the user has passed through. The intention is to activate awareness of places by designing such inconvenience.

Hiroshi Kawakami, Fubeneki toiu Hasso - Gomennasai, Moshi Anata ga Chottodemo Ikizumari wo Kanjite Irunara, Fuben wo Toriirete Miteha Doudesuka?, (Impress, 2017)

DominiqueIn his other research, he compares the driving of a manual car with that of an automatic car. According to his findings, a former driver who has to change gears by himself/herself will develop his/her senses through a sense of unity with machines.

HaradaI completely understand. Until recently, my car was also manual. That is because I wanted to know what I was feeling while driving. My favorite car over years finally stopped working and I recently replaced it with an automatic car. The new driving experience also gave me a new awareness.

DominiqueWhat kind of awareness?

HaradaMy new car is visually small, like Choro-Q. When I am driving it, I realize that towns are designed for somewhat larger cars. For example, when I try to take a curve, the roadway is much more spacious than necessary; also, parking lots are too large (laughs).

Oh, “non-benefits” reminded me of something. It’s a fly swatter made of windmill palm wood (palm evergreen). This little special product item has an extremely long handle, and you can’t kill a fly even when you hit it with this.

DominiqueWhat do you mean?

HaradaThe hitting power is so weak that the fly just passes out. Insect-proofing measures these days are all human-centered, and are designed for killing insects. With this swatter, the insect passes out and then gets away.

The evolution of insect-proofing measures can mean development with a focus on greater efficiency. And yet, when I heard the story of non-benefits, I just thought that I prefer this sort of thing. This is a product that was made at a welfare facility on Awaji Island.

DominiqueInteresting. It sure is a good design!

HaradaSince it was born from the wisdom of ancient people, I don’t think they would apply for the Good Design Award (laughs). I would like people to know more About such products based on this kind of concept, and I also hope that the evaluations and voices of outsiders can reach the producers.

- Listening to what you have both said so far, I feel that design is going through major changes. In an ever-accelerating world, people are supporting unconventional designs that are not entrenched in efficiency and products that affirm various purposes. Why do you think such changes are occurring?

DominiqueAs I think you can easily see from the design of SNS systems, information design nowadays momentarily stimulates people and fuels emotions such as anger and joy, and thus has enormous power. Effects brought About by such design are so huge that even engineers in charge of SNS development are baffled. It seems to me that they are urged to deeply reflect on their own conduct and ask themselves “What have we been doing?”

As a coping method, there is a tendency to make suggestions such as “Let’s enlighten users!” and “Let’s enhance information technology literacy!” However, at the same time, everyone knows that it cannot be solved in such a simple manner. Then, what should we do?

DominiqueI think we must start with critical thinking About “understanding,” which is the premise of communication. It also means becoming conscious of social and humanity problems, prior to information technology, and I think we need to once again ask ourselves, “What is humanity?”

There is a term called “filter bubble,” which means keeping nothing but discourse that is comfortable to ourselves in our surroundings. However, this phenomenon is not unique to the information environment, but has been inherent in human society. If so, one of the standards of humanity is not “understanding” but “misunderstanding,” isn’t it?

HaradaRight. I think so, too.

DominiqueYuma-san, it is my pleasure and joy to talk with you, and I have learned a lot. However, I do realize that I am engaged in dialogue on the premise of “misunderstanding.”

But I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way at all. Yuma-san, I interpret what you say in my way, and it should be vice versa to you.

Understanding the other party on that premise supports communication, and it also puts a brake on making the fantasy of “understanding” excessive. This is also a background theme that I’ve been considering for the “traNslatioNs - Understanding Misunderstanding” exhibition.

HaradaI think it also applies to the history of design. The definition of design and how to understand it has been changing with the changing times, and such changes have been granted.

For example, when I tell my grandmother “I am doing design work,” she asks me “Are you making clothes?” Or my mother asks, “Are you doing advertising work?” I think changing together with changes in society is a given.

On the other hand, as for me, I am sometimes engaged in offering HAPPY Turn’s (laughs). To put it plainly, the meaning of design changes, depending on what era you are living in, and can change.

That is a very interesting thing, and the “G Mark” of the Good Design Award has also come to cover domains far from the original purpose of industrial development. That is because change has become more natural.

DominiqueIt really has.

HaradaSo the reason I think we must become able to imagine the future afresh is that everyone, including me, seems to have poorer and poorer sight. We have become unable to see what we used to be able to see, and so I would like our designs to make our eyesight better again or make our hands move more flexibly.

Design itself is changing. However, it is risky if you are not aware of the ongoing change. I think it is important for us, including designers, to feel that “everyone’s eyesight may be getting poorer.”

(This article was originally posted on CINRA.NET

See More
Focused Issues