Graphic design, product design, and package design are everywhere out in the street. They deliver a message that they are special. Many designs try to deliver the message more loudly than others to stand out. As a result, consumers are stimulated to buy the products, and indeed buy them.
Is that really all right?
Gen Suzuki, a product designer, defines the original role of design not as “making it special,” but as wisdom and practice to discover and embody “just right” relationships with the environment, technology, and people. From design as an economic activity to stimulate the desire to buy, to design as a practice to find a balance with the surrounding environment. With this in mind, Suzuki took up the words “just the right design” as the Focused Issues Theme.
To deepen his thinking on this theme, Suzuki asked for a talk with Asa Ito, Professor at the Institute for Liberal Arts, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech), an aesthetics scholar, and an external critique of the Good Design Award. Ito studies the bodies of disabled people and the concept of altruism at the Future of Humanity Research Center of Tokyo Tech.
Suzuki has hypothesized that altruism may provide a new perspective in the search for “just the right design.” Their talk began with Suzuki’s hypothesis, and evolved into the possibility of “a margin” outside rationality and economy.
Kindness backfires. Is altruism harmful?
ItoI’m off topic, but you have very beautiful hands. As I’m doing research on the human body, I am in the habit of observing other people’s behavior. I feel that your hands don’t only have good skin, but also move beautifully.
SuzukiThank you. I sometimes get compliments that I have beautiful hands when I touch things. Maybe because I design products I may feel more respect for things than others. When I touch something, I sometimes feel that I’m being touched at the same time.
When I talked about this before, an acquaintance of mine told me that someone wrote something similar and introduced me to your book, Te no rinri (The Ethics of the Hand) (Kodansha Sensho Metier). As I looked at your research, I became aware of the concept of altruism.
Design is basically done by a maker to realize a user’s convenience and comfort. I think it can be described as altruistic. However, it sometimes can be expressed in a self-serving manner because the designer’s thoughts and the logic of the company take precedence. And products are often hard to use because the designer adds too many features with too much consideration for others. So when I read a quote “altruism doesn’t mean to impose purpose or ego on others, but to bring out the potential of others,” I thought this was all about design!
ItoI do research on altruism from a cross-disciplinary perspective, regardless of arts or science, but I never thought designers would respond so strongly.
But I didn’t like the word “altruism” in the first place. I felt that it sounded imprudent and might be rather harmful.
ItoOne of my research themes is “the physical senses of people with disabilities.” I often see people around disabled people showing kindness “to people in need.” Of course, they need support, but I have seen many times that preemptive kindness or too much kindness is far from benefiting them and can lead to behavioral inhibition or control. Even acts out of altruistic motives can ruin their potential.
However, as I have studied altruism, I have come to see other aspects of altruism that bring out the potential of the receiver instead of ruining it, and also transforms the giver. And my impression of the concept of altruism has become more and more positive.
Altruism comes into play by chance outside of rationality
SuzukiThis time, I took up “just the right design” as the Focused Issues Theme. Design is still commonly thought of as a way to make a product or service special and exciting. In fact, it is undeniable that designers have also played a role in consumer society by making things look special.
But design is essentially about creating just the right relationships with the surroundings. Aiming for endless economic growth is reaching its limit. From now on, I think it is necessary to aim for “just the right” that is neither insufficient nor excessive so that we can enhance social infrastructure not to exceed environmental limits in order for people to live well.
ItoThe concept of altruism is completely different from that of productivity seen as a key to economic activities. Or rather, I think that altruism is the base, and economic activities are carried out on it. It is essential for humans and other organisms to live and work with others.
SuzukiProductivity and rationality are not involved in altruism. Doing something for others out of the “for you” mindset often doesn’t benefit others at all, but it often benefits someone else in a very roundabout way. I have the impression that it doesn’t work rationally at all.
Similarly, design doesn’t work if it aims only for rationality. I feel that a space outside of rationality like a margin is important.
ItoThe word “altruism” conjures up the image of “doing something for others.” However, in the Buddhism book Tannisho (Notes lamenting deviations), Shinran differentiates the mercy of Shodo (the Holy Path) and that of Jodo (the Pure Land), and says the mercy of Shodo doesn’t work, which means we cannot save people on our own as we expect. It’s natural to want to help others, but it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. I think it’s a miracle that what you do benefits others.
“Matter-of-fact” design created with a margin
ItoWhat happens when you apply irrational “altruism as a margin” to design?
SuzukiThe winner of this year’s Good Design Grand Award, Magical Dagashiya Tyrol-Do, may be a good example. Children roll the gacha capsule toy vending machine for 100 yen at a time, get in-store money, and exchange it for food and sweets. This is funded by donations from adults. If there is no gacha system and no frame of a mom-and-pop candy store, and adults donate money and children receive it, they will be trapped in a begging and giving relationship where there is no margin.
However, when a system called Tyrol-Do is introduced, a margin is created. Adults don’t feel embarrassed by donating. Children don’t feel stigmatized by being helped through play called gacha.
- support child's development by locals [Magical Dagashiya Tyrol-Do]This is a magical candy store where the locals support children living in poverty or loneliness. The capsule toy machine at the entrance has the magic to change the value of currency. We get rid of the limit of the target for the support. By doing that, we realized an increase in both the opportunity to approach children who really need support and the opportunity to give adults a casual way to contribute in daily life.
ItoTyrol-Do’s efforts are interesting. I think Mirai Shokudo located in Jinbocho is similar to this. It’s an average restaurant, but when you go there as a customer, you can work part-time in the kitchen. If you work for 50 minutes, you are given a ticket for one meal. You can use the ticket for yourself, or you can stick it on the wall for others to use.
That way, everyone, not just people in need, can use it and receive help. The concept of support is not highlighted.
ItoAlso, the atmosphere inside the restaurant is very unique. Actually, the natural atmosphere of Mirai Shokudo is somewhat stark. If you say it helps people in need, you inevitably have a warm and humane image. This creates regular customers and makes other customers feel uncomfortable and difficult to receive support. In order to avoid such a situation, they have created an atmosphere in which no one is excluded from the service.
SuzukiBeing matter-of-fact makes it accessible to everyone. It might be similar to Mingei or folk crafts. The functional beauty of Mingei products has been found in daily necessities. And they are somewhat matter-of-fact. There is no characteristic of an artist or ego. There is no intention to show off at all. But they are beautiful.
Until now, I thought that the aesthetics of Mingei were somewhat similar not only to that of products but also that of well-designed services and initiatives, but I couldn’t verbalize the similarities. The term “matter-of-fact” may be a good expression. There is no artificiality like self-expression, and no imposition. It’s like they just exist in a matter-of-fact way. That’s why many people easily accept them.
In the sense of “matter-of-fact,” Mujirushi Ryohin’s “My first stationery set for primary school” selected as one of the GOOD DESIGN BEST 100 is also very appealing. A lot of stationery for children has characters on the cover or designed with flowers or insects. However, this stationery is plain and simple without unnecessary decorations. This provides a margin to develop the imaginative power of children, and the removal of decorations results in reasonable prices and leads to equal educational opportunities for children.
- Stationery [My first stationery set for primary school]This series of stationery is suitable to start a primary school pupil's education with. Taking into account the perspective of school children and also their parents and teachers, they rethink the elements necessary for studying. They omit excess information or decoration; the stationery leaves room for creativity and ingenuity while using it. The products are reasonably priced for everyone.
Altruism leaks out unintentionally
ItoAs we talked, I thought that design might be similar to marriage. Maybe a perfect but boring design is just right.
SuzukiWe spend a lot of time with products in particular. If they are only exciting we will get tired of them. I often say that tool design is like cooked white rice, or our staple food. I think exciting design is good as a side dish, but we need design we never get tired of like deliciously cooked white rice.
Come to think of it, you also wrote about altruism in your book Rita Towa Nanika? (What is altruism?) (Shueisha Shinsho, 2021). Altruism is not to impose specific purposes. It’s like utsuwa, or a plate, to place food and garnishes on and to bring out their potential.
ItoYes, I did. These days, however, I don’t actively use the metaphor of utsuwa when talking about altruism. My image embedded in utsuwa is not something that controls the receivers based on various plans, but something that may cause a plan to fail in a good way when there is a margin. However, this gives the impression that you cannot act altruistically if there is no margin. Instead, I think altruism comes into play when you have no choice but to work with others.
Now, I use the word “leak.” This creates an image of altruism as something leaked, not something given. In other words, it’s like something leaked from a cracked utsuwa. This passive aspect may be the essence of altruism.
Suzuki“Leak” is a very good keyword.
ItoI hear that in the world of plants, nutrients produced through photosynthesis leak from roots through fungi and allow other trees to grow. That’s why young saplings grow in dense, dark forests. Giant trees that can photosynthesize provide nutrients to saplings not because they feel sorry for them. But because they just leak.
Human beings are the ones who try to store things and protect personal information from being leaked. But the truth is that emotions and facial expressions leak out. Perhaps we can think of a mechanism that allows things to consciously leak out. I think something leaking and going beyond a boundary can lead to the phenomenon of altruism. When you get something given to you, you feel indebted to give something back. But it’s easy to accept what has leaked out.
Search for “just right” by going back and forth between maker and receiver
ItoBy the way, what do you do to achieve “just the right design”?
SuzukiWell ... One is that I try to think about design in the living space. I have an office in my house. I take an almost finished product to my house and put it in my life. Even if I think the product is just right through the eyes of its maker, I look at it next to children playing at home and sometimes think it may show off a bit too much.
We actually spend more time not using a product than using it. So, I have to design in terms of how it is there when it’s not being used. I go back and forth between maker and receiver, searching for “just right.”
ItoDo you have any examples of “just the right design” that you have made?
SuzukiI always try to make it just right. For example, the Omron Electric Toothbrush HT-B 22X may be a good example.
ItoOh, this is the one I use!
SuzukiOh, is it?
ItoYes, it’s light and easy to use. I can’t believe that you designed it!
SuzukiI’m surprised, but I’m happy. Usually, electric toothbrushes stand out on the shelf, and many of them are showy like 3D ads. They push their functionality as if they are a power tool rather than a sanitary product. But you don’t want to put a power tool in your life, do you?
So I decided to make a quiet design like a normal toothbrush. The buttons that are symbols of electric toothbrushes are designed in an inconspicuous way, making them easy to use and just right in life.
ItoThe electric toothbrush I used before was functional just like a power tool. I felt like I was washing my car rather than brushing my teeth. But when I use this electric toothbrush, I feel my hand and feel comfortable. I also like its presence very much when not in use.
SuzukiThank you. Finally, I would like to ask you, what do you think is the position of design in today’s society?
ItoWhen I talked with Yutaka Nakamura, anthropologist and an external critique of the Good Design Award, we agreed that few young people thought they could design this world. I feel that students think that the world is already complete and they are resigned to riding it as a user.
If the hope that the world can be designed is affirmed through good design, I think we can create a very positive society.
SuzukiSociety also needs a margin to accept the thoughts and situations of various people. A sufficient margin may look matter-of-fact, but this sense of distance is non-intrusive and may be just right.
The relationship between design and altruism is a very deep theme. Today, I got a lot of tips for thinking about “just the right design.” Thank you very much!
[Interviewer/Writer] Yuta Hagiwara [Photographer] Shunsuke Imai [Editor] Masayuki Koike