The role of design has been changing along with the times. The GOOD DESIGN AWARD, the only comprehensive platform for design evaluation and advocacy in Japan, has been bolstering the development of postwar Japan while embracing the changes.
More than 60 years have passed since the introduction of the predecessor framework “Good Design Products Selection System” in 1957. The GOOD DESIGN AWARD, which has been discussing and proposing “What is good design?,” launched a new project called Focused Issues in 2015.
Focused Issues Directors, who are selected from among the judges, decide on important domains that design should now confront and set these as “Focused Issues.” While judges for the usual screening process examine subject entries from the viewpoint of the domain of their profession (screening unit), Focused Issues Directors observe entries in a cross-sectoral manner. They speculate About the role, significance, or possibility of design in future society, and present their ideas as “recommendations” after the screening.
At a glance, it may seem like a “special department” in the GOOD DESIGN AWARD. However, Focused Issues is a product of a strong sense of urgency in the dramatically changing in society related to the role of design.
Amid the changing times, we introduce the history and current position of Focused Issues, which reflects the transformation of the public mission borne by design.
End of the role of “industrial development”
“To be honest, I thought that the GOOD DESIGN AWARD had already played out its role.”
Kazufumi Nagai, a creative director who was the Chair of the GOOD DESIGN AWARD for three years from 2015 to 2017, revealed this thought when he was offered the position of Chair.
Going back to the late 1950s, the Good Design Products Selection System, the predecessor framework, was established as part of national policy to promote design for the purpose of industrial development. Although its name and shape changed, it kept pace with Japan’s high-flying economic growth in the last half of the 20th century, which was highlighted by the high economic growth period and the “Japan as No. 1” period.
However, Nagai believed that this role of industrial development was no longer demanded in the 21st century.
NagaiOriginally, the GOOD DESIGN AWARD started based on awareness of the issue “How can we raise the standard of design?” shortly after the war, when counterfeit products were rampant. Its history has been playing an important role in driving the industry.
However, since the 2000s, it has changed to an era in which everyone can choose things following his or her inclinations, rather than having someone who has absolute authority decide what is good or bad. When I saw this happen, I thought the mission that the GOOD DESIGN AWARD had been bearing had come to an end.
There were already a few signs of change. Naoto Fukasawa, the Chair before Nagai, attempted to evaluate entries based on relationships or systems in the background instead of the product itself or visually recognizable design. “I felt the domain of design was expanding,” he said.
It was just then that he was offered the position of Chair. “Let me think About it,” he said, without making a quick decision, but in less than a week he decided to accept it. Then, as the Chair of the screening committee, he set up the theme “From Authority to Frontiers.”
NagaiI had this awareness that we had to change the GOOD DESIGN AWARD from ‘an authoritative body’ to ‘a frontier of continuously updating design.’
In particular, I felt the need to transform design into something that contributes to solving social issues. In Japan, which has many issues in various areas such as a declining birth rate and an aging population, I thought that the role of design in the 21st century would be to create value that would lead to solutions.
Focused Issues, where frontier development begins
The GOOD DESIGN AWARD shift change that Nagai aimed for. As a device to achieve it, he newly devised Focused Issues.
NagaiWe devised a new system, Focused Issues, in order to embody the GOOD DESIGN AWARD as a ‘frontier’ to discover a new role for design in the 21st century.
Of course, looked at individually, there were some award-winning products that could be considered to have opened a new frontier. But it is difficult for them to stand out among the huge number of other award-winning entries. In the first place, because the GOOD DESIGN AWARD is judged from various viewpoints, from functionality to aesthetics, it is difficult to understand what is being evaluated as a whole.
That was why I thought that we should set important issues and adopt a perspective of re-editing them in a cross-sectional manner.
Focused Issues is more than just a “new screening department.” Since its launch, it has been expected to lead a macro-tectonic change, as the role of design in society has drastically changed.
In 2015, Nagai set up the 12 most important issues as Focused Issues. He then selected talented professionals who have excellent expertise in their domains as Focused Issues Directors.
Jun Akimoto of the Japan Institute of Design Promotion (JDP), who was supporting Nagai as a secretariat, recalls the enthusiasm he felt from Nagai back then.
AkimotoFocused Issues was a project held under the auspices of Nagai backed by his wish to show the potential of design to society. What was left in my mind so vividly until this day is the strong sense of urgency Nagai had.
He once said, while topics such as Shinya Yamanaka’s iPS cells had become global topics in the fields of science and technology, the domain of design was falling behind... I took it that there was a sense of urgency behind the launch of Focused Issues.
Akimoto remembers clearly that Nagai once said the following when they were preparing for the launch of Focused Issues.
AkimotoHe said that Focused Issues Directors shouldn’t be designers. The GOOD DESIGN AWARD judges include people who are not designers, so that design can be viewed from the perspective of someone who is not specialized in design. I assume that, by doing so, he probably intended to keep up with other domains and prevent design from lagging behind......
Screening setting has changed completely. Growing attention on “seeds leading into the future”
This attempt was launched with a clear intent of “From Authority to Frontiers,” and gained a solid response. One good example was the screening process of “the GOOD DESIGN BEST 100,” which received particular praise.
Originally, prior to 2014, the GOOD DESIGN BEST 100 were examined and selected by all of the 100 or so judges. But after Nagai’s tenure, the system was changed such that discussions would be between leaders of only 20 units in order to have these discussions be more profound. It was a good decision to have Focused Issues Directors as well in these discussions.
NagaiI found that our discussions became more diverse because Focused Issues Directors joined in.
Before this, a screening of the BEST 100 was more like a place for design professionals in each domain to engage in deep discussion exercising their expertise. However, after Focused Issues Directors joined, it seemed like there was a drastic change and we became able to discuss from a more macro point of view and make essential points that could be made only by someone who is not specialized in design.
Nagai gave us the following example of a discussion they could have thanks to the presence of Focused Issues Directors. When discussing entries related to medical matters, designers like Nagai tend to focus on the innovation of ideas and the design of output. However, with directors who are medical professionals, they became able to question safety and significance in the field from a professional perspective.
The trend of prize-winning works has begun to change. “Of course there must be other factors besides Focused Issues,” Nagai said, recalling the changes he sensed.
NagaiI have an impression that young people who are responsible for new designs have come to receive a higher reputation. Startups and people approaching so-called social issues have become quite highly regarded.
For example, in 2015, WHILL Model A, an electric wheelchair developed by a startup, received the GOOD DESIGN GRAND AWARD. This was very symbolic. Before that, large companies often won top prizes, but we have changed our policy to discover the seeds that will lead into the future and award them.
- Personal Mobility [WHILL Model A]“I’ve even given up on going to the convenience store 100 meters away.” The development of WHILL was spurred by these words from this wheelchair user. There are people who suffer from anxiety or physical risks just traveling as little as 100 meters. If smart, functional mobility is available for them, they may be able to expand their range of activities and be themselves. What WHILL aims for is not making electric wheelchairs. It is a totally new category of “personal mobility” that makes all kinds of people including wheelchair users or non-users can ride and want to ride.
From “directorial management” to “product-designer” management
After Nagai steadily led the change “from authority to frontiers,” Fumie Shibata, a product designer, succeeded the position of Chair in 2018 and 2019. Then, as of 2022, current Chair Takashi Ashitomi has been in charge of the baton since 2020.
What kind of change has his thought brought to Focused Issues? In principle, Ashitomi follows the awareness of issues and the thoughts that Nagai had, but he also mentions the “difference” between Nagai and himself as creators.
AshitomiAs Nagai has been an art director and a creative director for a long time, I felt he was very directorial. I mean, he shows a clear policy or message to society so that everyone can move in the same direction. He is, so to speak, a pointer.
By contrast, I’ve always been a product designer, so I’m the kind of person who tries to materialize other people’s visions rather than trying to set a policy myself. One of the most challenging and important aspects of product design is bringing a large group of people together to make a single design, in other words, embodying ideas. That’s why rather than pushing my opinion too hard, I tend to focus on the strengths and ideas of a large group of judges, respecting and summarizing them and putting them out there. I’m more like a person who summarizes opinions.
Ashitomi has changed the way he selects the themes of Focused Issues based on his “product designer” characteristics. Instead of the conventional method of letting the management select a theme, he had directors decide the themes individually.
As a result, the direction of the theme has changed from the previous “Disaster prevention & recovery design” and “Cultivating the locality,” which strongly promote the issues category, to ones with a high degree of abstraction based on the problem consciousness of individual directors such as “Design for weaving systems together” and “Design that generates a gaze.”
AshitomiI wanted to focus on individual directors rather than themes. That’s why I wanted each director to decide on a theme, so that each individual character could be expressed in the theme itself.
“This is probably an occupational disease,” Ashitomi says with a wry smile. “Maybe I’m good at finding what people are good at.” Product design can involve tens of thousands of people (including, for example, people working in factories). Ashitomi believes that one must have the ability to find out what each member is good at in the blink of an eye to make a good product.
AshitomiI suppose Nagai is the type of person who picks the best people. But I’m the type of person who finds out what people already there are good at and gives them roles that are best for them. I’m not one for picking people. But I’m also somewhat confident that ‘no matter what kind of people come, it’ll be fine.’ I’m the type of person who trusts first.
Shinichiro Tsukada of the JDP, who has supported the management of Focused Issues as the secretariat since 2020, agrees with Ashitomi’s suggestion.
“By changing the policy to value the characteristics of individual directors more, the independence of directors was enhanced,” said Tsukada. Perhaps because Ashitomi’s attitude of “starting with affirmation” has been conveyed to the team, it has created a sense of solidarity as a team that is more concerned About individual issues, thinks deeply About each theme, and actively discusses each topic.
Role of continuing to meet social expectations
Focused Issues was born as a ‘frontier’ to respond to the times and has been active for About seven years. With the 10-year anniversary of the foundation in sight, where should it go from here?
In response to this question, Nagai dared to give a perspective on the GOOD DESIGN AWARD itself and on the overall activities of promoting design.
NagaiIn frontier domains, there are still not enough problem-solving means. That’s why it is a good idea to have an organization like the JDP to provide some sort of ‘authority’ in a good way to make things work positively. In fact, there have been cases in which a small NPO won the GOOD DESIGN AWARD and gained public trust, leading to its subsequent development.
I am also a member of the board of directors of the JDP, and I believe that it is necessary to convey to the world not only the GOOD DESIGN AWARD itself but also the award’s concepts and values. We should expand the scope of our design contributions through these efforts.
Ashitomi, who took over the baton from Nagai and Shibata, responded with a similar awareness of issues.
AshitomiI have the same opinion in that we don’t have to stick to the GOOD DESIGN AWARD to open a frontier. Therefore, recently, we newly established the ‘GOOD DESIGN NEW HOPE AWARD’ for students and new graduates. Together with these new efforts and Focused Issues, we hope to expand opportunities for discussion on the ‘frontier.’
At the same time, I’m not trying to make sudden changes. The GOOD DESIGN AWARD was a mere evaluation system at first, but it has changed so much over the past 60 years. So I just keep thinking something like, ‘What’s going to happen to the JDP and the GOOD DESIGN AWARD in the next 100 years?’ Ten, 20, 30 years into the future...... it may be necessary to take the next step over a slightly longer period of time.
How should Focused Issues proceed, then? The first thing that Nagai, the initiator of the project, mentioned was “expansion of reach,” which had been his “assignment” from the beginning.
NagaiUnlike the GOOD DESIGN GRAND AWARD, Focused Issues doesn’t give straightforward, iconic topics. It’s been a challenge since I was the Chair of the judging committee to get people interested in each topic.
At that time, I reduced the number of issues and made a booklet of the director’s recommendations so that they would be communicated more sharply. We will have to continue to seek the best way to communicate.
Further, Nagai continued his comment on Focused Issues, saying, “I hope it will keep meeting society’s expectations.”
NagaiFocused Issues is an activity that provides the perspective of ‘What does society expect from design?’ rather than ‘What’s important in the design industry right now?’ As the meaning of design expands and design becomes less exclusive to designers, we will focus more on efforts that have not received much attention before. By doing so, we will continue to support solutions to social issues and meet the expectations of society. This is the role that Focused Issues should continue to play, which hasn’t change since its formation.