2021Design perspectives which gaze at “what lies ahead”
Kaie Murakami
Considering “Design that generates a gaze”

Maho Isono × Yuma Harada | What we need is “Design that makes us bother”


The Good Design Award 2021, the winners of which were announced in October 2021. However, the program has not finished yet. “Focused Issues,” which organizes a special team (Focused Issues Directors) to reveal a tide of design from a different viewpoint of selecting Award winners, and to present the issues and the future possibilities as “recommendations,” is still underway.
Yuma Harada, one of Focused Issues Directors from UMA/design farm, had difficulty making up his mind.
The theme he selected for the 2021 Focused Issues is “Design that generates a gaze.” Is design turning “a gaze” on people or things that are less obvious in today’s society? The theme is derived from this question Harada has been thinking About.
The screening process of this year’s Good Design Award has ended, though, and he hasn’t reached a conclusion regarding his recommendation. Therefore, Harada decided to interview an intellectual to deepen his thoughts on his question. He invited Maho Isono, an anthropologist, as a guest. Isono has been studying medical care and the human body with a special focus on eating disorders from the perspective of cultural anthropology by conducting careful research and fieldwork many times. How will she respond to Harada’s question?

Grow “seeds” of design, instead of materials

HaradaThank you for doing this interview today. Other directors do interviews to deepen their thoughts About the Focused Issues themes they set this year as well, and most of them interview Award winners.
But I wanted to talk with you, Ms. Isono, who I have worked with since before in “XSCHOOL,” an enterprise creation program led by Fukui City. I believe you will be able to give me a clue in considering “Design that generates a gaze” from a viewpoint that is different from design.

IsonoAre you sure? I know next to nothing About design (laughs).

Maho Isono, Anthropologist

This is the second year for me to work as Focused Issues Director; last year, I set “Design for creating a place for distanced people” as a theme. I was feeling that people were losing the ability to imagine things they can’t see. The reason why I accepted the director’s position this year again is that I wanted to carry on with last year’s theme and take a further step.
For example, foster homes and mother and child support centers are not used by many people, so they are less visible in society, aren’t they? But there are only a few designers who think, “How did such a situation come About?” or “How can we change such a situation?” instead of ignoring it “just because they can’t see” the situation. Also, there are many more domains that designers are not seeing. That was what I was thinking in the first year.
Then, I set “Design that generates a gaze” as this year’s theme. It involves thinking About other people, for example, wondering “Why does this person sitting next to me want to read this book?” on a train, not just people in our own neighborhood. It may be a small thing, but I think we can use imaginative powers even regarding things that we can’t see if we stop ignoring details and playing dead. By doing so, we may be able to change the way we see society.
But I still feel uncertain deep in my heart... That’s why I wanted to talk with you.

IsonoWhen I heard of this theme, I wondered, “Whose gaze does this indicate?” Do you mean “designer’s gaze?”

HaradaYes. But in that context, I include “people who can be a hub or create something” as designers, not only “people who design.”

IsonoI often get confused when I talk with designers lately (laughs). In my mind, designers are those who make things “look” tidy. But for you, designer means someone who changes the relation between products or services and surrounding environments with a philosophical question.

Yuma Harada, Focused Issues Director

HaradaExactly! In my case, the majority of my projects start with involvement at the “seeds” stage in order to change the surrounding atmosphere. For example, with “Tanpopo-No-Ye,” a welfare facility and arts center in Nara City, we have been making outputs by sharing various questions for as long as 10 years. On the other hand, the majority of design works has “material” first, then transforms it into a fancy appearance.
One example is that if there is material, say, a package for snacks, a designer can add a design and make it look delicious. But I think many things will change fundamentally, if designers who connect services and products with society pay attention to the background of products and impacts created by outputs, considering whether their designs have any “bad influence” at the destination, put pressure on the environment, or hurt someone unexpectedly.

“Tanpopo-No-Ye” project (Photo: Michio Hayase)

Jump in order to create a gaze

Isono“A gaze” has an ability to throw light on something, but it also pushes something toward the background. When I wrote “Why you can’t eat normally: Cultural anthropology in apastia and bulimia” (Shunjusha), one thing I kept in my mind was “a gaze” to question how people suffering from eating disorders recognize food.
On one occasion, one of the informants (people who took a survey) said, “I have never found any food tasty.” When I wrote this book, I read many reports on eating disorders diachronically and cross-sectionally. However, while there were many reports that investigated daily energy intake or nutrition intake of people with eating disorders, there were almost no reports that focused on their “experiences.” It seems that there was this presumption that “not being able to eat normally is abnormal,” and therefore, researchers gave attention to the causes in order to treat the conditions. As a result, there were hardly any reports that focused on patients’ experiences.

HaradaThat means, you pushed the gaze on “eating disorder is a disease” or “eating disorders are abnormal” toward the back, then turned a gaze on experiences of people with eating disorders.

IsonoThat is right. No matter how many reports you read or how many surveys you conduct, what you need at the end in order to produce “a gaze” is “a jump” that lessens the focus on one thing and brings out something else instead.
For me, the informant’s comment, “I have never found any food tasty,” was a trigger for a jump. I acquired a new gaze on eating disorders with the support of this comment.

HaradaAs represented by the “Tanpopo-No-Ye” project, I engage in a careful process in order to produce outputs. However, this process is not always reflected in outputs. Though, I think undergoing a process supports me to make “a jump.” A process exists to let us deny it at the end.

Dangerous but interesting “boundary domain”

HaradaSome time ago, I took charge of color planning for public housing. It was a rental property and many people would live there for decades. I was in charge of the design of communal areas such as corridors and external walls.
As I observed how communal areas were used there, there were private items invading public areas, such as umbrellas left in the corridors and plant pots narrowly avoiding getting in the way. It is funny, isn’t it? But it was not a single-family house, so using communal areas in such a way was not permitted.

IsonoTime and space on a boundary, just like your example of public housing, is called “boundary domain” in anthropology, which is where foreign materials are mixed together. It is a dangerous place where people clash with each other, and also an interesting place where people are connected.
Since the COVID-19 crisis started, I feel that such boundary domains are vanishing. There are so many restrictions to prevent the spread of infection, and space between people is disappearing. Can we think of design that can create space between people, instead of drawing boundaries?

HaradaWe may be able to get a clue from “COCOHELI,” one of this year’s Good Design Gold Award winners. This service determines the location of victims in the mountain or disasters swiftly and accurately and hands them over to rescue organizations by using a transmitter and a nationwide search network.
As a recent trend, About 3,000 mountaineering accidents occur on average every year, including 300 deaths or missing cases out of those. This service is designed to be funded by mutual aid by members in the event of a mountaineering accident, with mountaineering safety secured by the entire community of mountaineers. It is a service that creates an unclear “boundary domain” or “space,” in other words. Back to the theme I selected this year, we may be able to say that this service is creating “a gaze” on other companies.

IsonoIt is similar to primitive forms of insurance.

HaradaYes, that is right. By letting the entire community provide mutual support, people can think of the space between them and foster a sense of mutual aid. We pay tax during the course of normal life, but we don’t have a clear idea of what we pay tax for, right? By creating a community, we can experience mutual aid and cooperation that is different from public administration.

IsonoWhen I was little, there was a community initiative called “michibushin,” whereby all residents in the area did weeding and mending on the road without support from a government or private contractors. In that way, we were protecting our own community.
In a domain called a community, boundaries between oneself and others are often unclear. That fosters amicable tolerance whereby next-door neighbor’s children come to play in your backyard. But at the same time, it may lead to some kind of trouble, for example, the same next-door neighbor’s children ruin your vegetable garden. Without clear boundaries, like “my land is from here to there,” ambiguous communications with oneself like others or others like oneself go on endlessly. If we try to avoid such troubles, we end up having a government or private contractors to look after weeding work on the road.
As a result, we will be free from weeding work and bothersome relationships with others. But on the other hand, we will lose the interaction with others and the sense of joy from it. I think we should reflect more on how we can maintain “troublesomeness.”

Dealing with the bothersome human body

IsonoIt is not just human relationships; the human body is bothersome in the first place. We have to maintain our bodies regularly. It is similar to a house we live in. If we neglect regular maintenance, the house becomes untidy before we know it. But we can’t just outsource it. So, how can we carry on with such bothersome little things? There may be some advantages that can be derived only from bothersome situations. That is what I want to think About at the moment.

HaradaHuman relationships, human bodies, human lives – things relating to humans are always messy.

IsonoYes. Since the COVID-19 crisis, people started to connect more with each other in the digital space, and they seem to be enjoying convenience without the awkwardness of human bodies. This is well explained by the use of technological words to describe human bodies. This includes using the word “update” to describe a life stage, or expressing the relationship between mother and child by using the term “parent lottery.”
The process of changing oneself takes a long time, and having children and raising them takes a long time, too. However, by using technological terms, we may feel that things can be decided and changed in the blink of an eye. It may sound like a matter of speech, but speech makes reality. Just like rewording “conversation” as a “spread of droplets” changes the gaze that the words produce.
In addition, figures of speech relating to technology always have an implication that a subject is replaceable. By applying technological terms, we feel as if our bodies can be replaced anytime.

HaradaYou mean, by adopting such terms, the image of our bodies has become digitalized.

IsonoI have witnessed the influence of technology on human bodies from a different standpoint. Do you remember the incident where drunken young people flipped a vehicle over in the Shibuya Scramble Crossing on Halloween a few years ago? I thought, as an anthropologist, this is “festivity.” I am truly sorry for the owner of the vehicle, but this sort of festive occasion is what humans desire instinctively.
However, while I was listening to this symposium based on the subject of ethics in a mirror world lately, I was surprised by the discussion that “even it had been in a mirror world, people shouldn’t have turned the car upside down.” I thought, for young people who talk About the advanced world like a mirror world, violence is intolerable, even in an online space. They may think that the body, which is so familiar to technological ethics, has to maintain its high performance all the time, just like an IT device that always shows us perfectly stable performance.
Humans turn over a car sometimes, or jump into the Dotonbori River. If such errors or naughtiness are completely rejected in society, our lives will be very inconvenient.

HaradaNaughtiness, misshaping, foreign objects, bugs – these are gradually disappearing from society. Returning to the standpoint of the design domain, producing bugs is difficult in the design world, which is originally based on the idea of “sprucing.” However, it may be able to tolerate bugs that spontaneously occur.
For instance, in the previously mentioned public housing project, I added designs at the entrance to be each building’s “face.” In that way, the residents can recognize “the entrance of their apartment” among many other buildings of the complex housing.
At the beginning, the residents loved this idea very much and tried to use the place neatly. But, as time passed, the entrance was transformed into a space for bicycle parking. The client apologized to me, but I found that it was a natural consequence of “human” life. Instead of putting too much weight on a designer’s intention, the residents took the design in their own way while they used it.

IsonoIt is important to enjoy the fact that bugs are occurring or foreign objects are getting in. Of course, this brings potential danger. For example, if we let children use a playground, they might get injured.
But I think it is important not to completely eliminate risks, while trying to reduce them. Because the most effective solution to protect children from getting injured is forbidding them to use a playground.
As long as we are alive, we can’t completely keep strange or bothersome things from happening. If we truly strive to eliminate such bothersome risks, we will have to draw boundaries for everything, throw light on everything, and control everything.

HaradaPossibly, we will have a “safe and secure” society controlled by face authentication by 2030.
But at present, not everything is controlled. We may be able to stop such control from happening in the future by expanding our imaginative powers. To do so, we must train our imaginative powers every day. Design produces “a gaze,” and stimulating imaginative powers toward others helps “everyday training.”

IsonoI thought design was About sprucing something up to “reduce bothersome things.” However, the type of design that Mr. Harada requires now is an “effort to keep bothersome things that shouldn’t be abandoned alive.”

HaradaThat’s right. Design has a tidy appearance, so it looks as if it is a correct answer. However, in the background where design is required, there are complicated situations that can’t be summarized into a single answer. Even in this society where design is to be placed, no one knows what is a correct answer. I hope more people become interested in design with no right answer, even just a few.
Many more questions have come to mind while talking with you (laughs). Thank you so much!

IsonoThank you, too. What I discovered during this interview is that both anthropology and design cover the same object of “others.” The difference between them is that anthropology mainly focuses on thoughts while design puts emphasis on outputs. We will definitely have a very interesting outcome if anthropologists and designers work together.

Editor: Masayuki Koike Writer: Yuta Hagiwara photographer: Shunsuke Imai

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