2021Design perspectives which gaze at “what lies ahead”
Considering “Focused Issues 2021”

What is good design? Examining the role of design in tackling today’s social issues

Ryotaro Washio
Shunsuke Imai
Interview and edit
Masayuki Koike (Designing and Editorial Department)

What is design? -- There are probably few questions that have as many answers as this one.
The days when design merely meant “industrial design” are long gone. Service development, organization building, and management are now common targets of design. What role will design play in society going forward, as its power is now required in various domains?
“We need to change design into something that presents an ideal society,” said Takashi Ashitomi, Chair of the Good Design Award Judging Committee, and Seiichi Saito, Vice Chair of the committee, in answer to this question in the middle of a meeting of the Second Screening Panel of the Good Design Award 2021.
They identify, as the key to assigning to design the role of presenting an ideal society, the Focused Issues, which define important domains that design should deal with now. What is the current and future state of design as viewed from the perspective of the Good Design Award and the Focused Issues?

Beyond What is Required of Design

Saito“Design has so far played the role of identifying and meeting the needs of society. However, we are now entering an era where that is not enough. People’s desires do not necessarily lead society in the right direction. That is why we need to make proposals that say, “That may be what you are looking for, but why don’t you try this instead?”

This is the current state of design as described by Saito, who has served as a judge for the Good Design Award since 2015 and hosts Panoramatics (formerly Rhizomatiks Architecture), thereby continuing to stay at the forefront of design.
Saito thinks like this partly because society has changed in such a way that design is now able to play a role in showing us the future.
He cites the DX trend as one of the triggers for the change.

Saito“In recent years, people have begun to talk About the importance and impact of DX in a variety of domains, and its impact on design is also significant. The most significant change brought About is that even small organizations and capital are now able to produce things that can have a major impact on society.
“In the past, in order to deliver value to society, large movements by large organizations and capital were essential. However, DX has made it possible for even small organizations to provide a certain scale of value to society. As a result, we are now able to not only accommodate overt needs, but also identify hidden needs by listening to small voices that we were unable to hear before and ask society, ‘How About this?’.”

Seiichi Saito, Vice Chair of the Good Design Award Judging Committee

In fact, an increasing number of the award-winning designs and the BEST 100 designs were created by small organizations. For example, the autonomous decentralized water upcycling system WOTA BOX, winner of the Good Design Grand Award in 2020, is the product of an emerging venture company.

Good Design as the North Star of the Industry

Saito’s thoughts are also reflected in the theme of the Good Design Award 2021, “Kikyu (desire) and Kodo (interaction).” This theme was set by Ashitomi and Saito, with the former choosing the word “Kikyu” and the latter, “Kodo.”

Ashitomi “The theme in 2020 was “Kokan (communion).” I chose the word “Kokan” to indicate that it was necessary to understand what someone to whom the design would be delivered was thinking. However, I did not specify at that time what kind of thoughts should be understood. That’s why I announced it in 2021—what should be understood is someone’s desires.”

Takashi Ashitomi, Chair of the Good Design Award Judging Committee

What Ashitomi thinks should be understood in particular are unvoiced desires. The needs that Saito pointed out earlier are desires that have been voiced. However, there are people in society who have little or no voice. Design is required to understand the desires of such people and to be close to them. With this in mind, Ashitomi has chosen the word “Kikyu.”

Saito “When I heard the word “Kikyu” from Mr. Ashitomi, an image came to mind of people with vectors pointing in different directions heading toward the same light, in other words, toward an ideal society.
In recent years, we often hear the words “de-growth,” “de-carbonization,” and the like. This appears to be a sign that society as a whole has a strong desire to get out of the tunnel it is now in (i.e., the status quo). We need to understand people’s shared desire to get out of the current situation and collaborate with them toward the exit. That is the message I received from the word “Kikyu.”

Saito coined the word “Kodo” based on that image.

Saito “I believe that one of the roles the Good Design Award should play is to function as the North Star of design. It must show the common direction in which all design including products, services, and urban planning should go. To this end, I would like to put a spotlight on people who are acting based on the knowledge and inspiration they have gained through “Kodo,” that is, on interactions with a wide range of other people and events, as well as the designs they have produced.

The North Star as a Foundation for Looking into the Future

Ashitomi sees Saito’s term North Star from a different perspective.

Ashitomi “The term North Star is generally used to mean something that shows the direction we should take, but I think it can also mean something that indicates our position. If we reinterpret Mr. Saito’s words, the Good Design Award can be said to indicate the current location of design. Considering this role, I think the Focused Issues will become all the more important.
In the screening process of the Good Design Award handling a wide array of designs, discussions are held on the intentions and thoughts behind the entries, as well as the future vision they depict. During this process, challenges and possibilities for the next generation of society are sometimes identified, regardless of the domain. The Focused Issues comprise an initiative developed to identify and explore such challenges and possibilities.
The Focused Issues are defined as the key domains that design should deal with now, and a special team (Focused Issues Directors) is set up to deepen the discussion on the issues. The team observes subject entries across the screening units, discusses the possibilities for the future of society and the role and significance of design, and after the screening, announces the challenges and future possibilities of each issue as proposals. Starting in 2015, several directors have explored respective themes every year.

The five themes for 2021 are: “Incomplete design,” “Design created together with the next generation,” “Design which takes time,” “Design which generates a gaze.” and “Design for coexistence.” Ashitomi describes these as the five North Stars. In response to Ashitomi’s comments, Saito has added his point of view on presenting what design should be.

Saito “The Focused Issues also play an important role in presenting what design should be. In order to determine where to go from this point onward, we must first know where we are now. The higher the resolution, the more accurately we can deepen our thinking About the future. In this sense, Focused Issues can be called the foundation for looking into the future.”

The Message of the Five Themes

These five themes were set by the Focused Issues Directors based on their own experiences and backgrounds, extracting the elements that they thought should be addressed now. Ashitomi’s interpretation of the five themes is as follows. The first theme is “Incomplete design.”

Ashitomi “Essentially, design is something that is never completed. The question, “Was the design truly good?” continues to be asked long after it is completed, and we have to continue to ask ourselves the question, “Is this design truly good today?” For example, the PET bottle may have been a good design when it was first invented, but it has been reexamined in recent years.

The more conscious we become of completion, the more design can be trivialized. I took “Incomplete design” as a message that we should first understand this and think About the ideal or what design should be.”
The second theme “ Design which takes time” is what gives us the determination to face “Incomplete design” and the desire to keep pursuing higher goals. Ashitomi interprets this theme as a message that tells us, “In the first place, design is something that takes time, so relax and take your time,” thereby giving us courage not to get caught up in immediate completion.

FY2021 Focused Issues Directors

As for the third theme “Design created together with the next generation,” Ashitomi says it is worth noting that it is About shorai generations, not About mirai (future) generations.

Ashitomi“The word mirai merely means a time in the future. However, if you look up the word shorai in the dictionary, you will find that, in addition to that, shorai also means to bring About a certain state or result. In other words, shorai generations mean those who will bring About or achieve something in the future. This includes not only the younger generation, but also, for example, the elderly who will bring About something going forward. This theme appears to give us a message that unless we think About challenges of the present with people of shorai generations, we will not be able to create an ideal future.”

The fourth theme is “Design which generates a gaze.” Ashitomi says that just as the French philosopher Sartre made “gaze” an important theme when discussing the relationship between the self and others, this word has a philosophical meaning beyond mere line of sight.
“To gaze means that the gazing subject is aware of the existence of the object, or in other words, cares About it.” The gaze is a form of non-verbal communication that enables us to sense the feelings of the object. Gazing is the starting point of “Kikyu and Kodo.”
The fifth theme “Design for coexistence” is said to entail a question that is very difficult to answer.

Ashitomi“Everybody says that coexistence is important, right? However, the reality is far from ideal. Coexistence originally means to live together with others, including those that are unpleasant or alien to us, but in recent years, the power to exclude the unpleasant and alien has been hard at work. For instance, when we try to beat the coronavirus, we are moving away from the idea of coexistence. That being said, should we live together with it? I think the theme “Design for coexistence” makes us confront this difficult question.”

The Significance of Reiterating the Obvious About Design

Ashitomi believes that these five themes can be summed up in one message. According to him, the Focused Issues deliver us a message to the effect that: Even if it takes a long time, let’s continue to design together with shorai generations toward a higher goal beyond “completion” in order to live together by virtue of a gaze that transcends words.
Saito, on the other hand, felt from the five themes the importance of continuing to say what is obvious.

Saito“If you look at them critically, all of these themes can be regarded as obvious. However, perhaps now is the time to reiterate the importance of the obvious. More than 60 years have passed since the establishment of the Good Design Award, and the importance of design has been recognized in various domains such as administration and management. Now that design is becoming a norm in society, we should reiterate the obvious About design.”

Saito himself received a message from the themes of the Focused Issues that design can be more emotional.

Saito“I think it is important that the themes did not include numerical targets, such as “Design to increase the percentage of something.” Design cannot be measured by numbers alone. I think it is very significant that the word North Star is used to express the value of emotional things that cannot be quantified.”
“This is also related to the role of presenting an ideal form that I have been talking About so far. Potential desires cannot be quantified, right? However, we cannot say that that which cannot be quantified does not matter. I feel that the Focused Issues play a role in showing that which cannot be quantified, yet matters nevertheless.”

Ashitomi“The significance of design can be seen especially in the non-numerical aspects. Many of the products and services submitted to this year’s Good Design Award competition were produced not because there was a certain amount of demand for them, but because they were expected to make society a better place. The aim of designers is definitely changing. That’s what I feel now.”

It would be easy to say that we are now in the midst of turbulent times. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to make major changes in our lives. The interview that took place in front of the Second Screening Panel was also very different from those in the past, with careful infection control measures in place.
History suggests, however, that there have been few times of calm and stability. Society has been constantly changing at least in the last 60 years, i.e., since the Good Design Award was established.
The role that design should play in society has likewise been changing. Design has to keep changing. What role will the Good Design Award and the Focused Issues, which act as its North Star, play in 2021? I hope you will look forward to the series of activities that will continue until the end of the fiscal year.

See More
Focused Issues