2022Re-examining the ever-changing “present day”
Considering " Design that cannot be described in a nutshell "

Interpretable design includes diverse people — Erika Nakagawa x Honda UNI-ONE


"Designing for someone" could exclude those other than “someone.” How can we achieve a design that many people want to use and think is for them?
Focused Issues is an activity to consider and recommend new possibilities for design through the GOOD DESIGN AWARD screening process. The theme raised by Erika Nakagawa, an architect who is a Focused Issues director of 2022, is consistent with this question.
Her theme is "Design that cannot be described in a nutshell." In a society where diversity is respected, this theme is upheld out of a desire to see how design should play a role to solve a variety of problems.
To deepen her exploration of this theme, Nakagawa focused attention on the hands-free personal mobility UNI-ONE developed by Honda, which won the GOOD DESIGN GOLD AWARD in 2022. UNI-ONE is a new mobility device that can be used by men and women of all ages, with or without a lower limb disability. The technology allows the rider to control movement in any direction by shifting his or her weight.
Honda has been developing personal mobility devices in the living space, starting with the 2009 U3-X. UNI-ONE is the fourth concept model. As a result of research so far, technology has made it possible to change the direction by putting a hand on the wall or desk, which was difficult for the conventional saddle-style mobility, moving even at 6 km/h with the balance control technology.
This time Nakagawa visited the developers of UNI-ONE. One is Satoshi Kanamori, Chief Engineer, Solution Design Studio, Innovation Design Division, Honda R&D. He leads the product design of UNI-ONE. The other is Shinichiro Kobashi, Chief Engineer, Frontier Robotics Domain, Innovative Research Excellence. He is responsible for the development of UNI-ONE.
Nakagawa's interview with them seeks a clue to the design that cannot be described in a nutshell.

Corporate culture as in the picture book Swimmy, where people are not told to stop

NakagawaAs people's values are becoming more diverse, I believe that design also needs to include a variety of viewpoints, in other words, something that cannot be expressed in a word. I would like to talk with you this time because the viewpoints of the comments from the judges during the UNI-ONE screening process were diverse.
Some judges focused on how amazing it is as a tangible object that makes you feel an attachment despite it looking like a wheelchair and offers a new experience whereby you can control the movement by shifting your weight, while other judges looked at the experience-making to expand the possibilities of life, including job assistance. When I actually rode it, I was amazed to feel as if UNI-ONE and I were one. I don’t think it’s appropriate to describe this as ride comfort. It is a design that cannot be described in a nutshell.
First of all, I would like to ask you who developed this product. What kind of job experience did you have before you started working on UNI-ONE?

KanamoriOriginally, I liked craftwork and woodworking, and I made furniture at university, but then I shifted my focus to industrial design. I was interested in Honda because the company is expanding business into various domains not only motorcycles and automobiles but also robotics and aircrafts. I thought I would be able to take on various challenges.
After joining the company as a new graduate, I mainly engaged in the development of automobile design, and then I worked on both tangible and intangible designs in the Innovation Design Division, and now I am involved in designing products like UNI-ONE that will create the future society.

Satoshi Kanamori, Chief Engineer, Solution Design Studio, Innovation Design Division, Honda

KobashiI joined the company mid-career. In my previous job, I was engaged in the development of industrial robots. That was interesting, but just when I thought I wanted to get more involved in a product that was closer to users, I saw Honda announcing a two-legged humanoid robot.
From there, I became interested in Honda and learned that the company respects the creator’s personal wishes. I thought that I might create the robot here that I want to make. Eventually, I joined Honda. After joining the company, I was involved in the development of the two-legged humanoid robot ASIMO. I am now developing UNI-ONE by extension.

NakagawaI think that various opinions are respected in the process of creating a design that cannot be described in a nutshell. What kind of people feedback was reflected on this design? Have you heard from intended users as well as from Honda employees?

KanamoriOf course, we valued the responses and words as one of the indicators that we received from the intended users who used our prototype. We looked back as we developed it, thinking that the comments we heard at that time were helpful.

KobashiBut we always made efforts to return to the essential concept while listening to the voices of various people. Honda has a concept called A00, which is the essential concept that we always create in order to proceed with projects. This is like a dream or desire to achieve something through a project. Each time we put our ideas together, we went back to A00 and made a choice.

NakagawaYou have been involved in various product developments under the environment of Honda. What do you think is “being Honda” that should be reflected in UNI-ONE?

KanamoriWe are often asked such a question, but we can’t even put it into words.......

KobashiIf I had to mention one thing, it would be that they respect individual desire and support the challenge. Even though other people might ask why we are doing that, we would be able to take it on as a challenge.

Shinichiro Kobashi, Chief Engineer, Frontier Robotics Domain, Innovative Research Excellence, Honda

KanamoriThey will not tell us to stop. It is time to quit when you give up.

KobashiHonda is an organization just as depicted in the picture book Swimmy. Not only is there a hierarchy, but what each person wants to create is respected. While looking at the whole picture, they are facing the same direction.

NakagawaYou are making products through a process where each person’s value is respected and coming to fruition as one. I’m impressed by Honda's generosity.

KanamoriMy boss used to say, "You have to be brave to work for Honda." It takes courage to create something that does not yet exist in the world. Maybe that's what Honda is all about.

Because a product is only complete when used, it can include various opinions

NakagawaI understand that Honda’s environment had a great influence on the conception of UNI-ONE.
There's another reason why I wanted to hear from you; I felt the joy of making tangible objects from UNI-ONE which cannot be expressed in a word. These days, I sometimes feel that making intangible objects and creating experiences are getting more attention than making tangible objects. Of course, there is the pleasure of making intangible objects, but there must be a joy and enjoyment unique to making tangible objects.
This focus on making tangible objects is also related to the theme of "design that cannot be described in a nutshell." In the field of making tangible objects, the existence of the objects can make up for the indescribable aspect. Even if you're not in a condition where the relations among all your ideas can be rationalized in words, I think that objects themselves can lead toward values you don't know yet.
Our worksite is always in a state where seeing is believing, and the value of objects cannot be expressed in a word. In my office, we study thoroughly through using models. This is because we have learned from experience that even if it is a collection of ideas that cannot yet be put into words, they can come to fruition in the form of a model, a tangible object that can be shared by everyone.
Based on these assumptions, could you tell me what is attractive about your ideas turning into tangible objects?

Erika Nakagawa, Architect/Representative Director, Erika Nakagawa Office

KobashiI'm an engineer, so it is when the objects I made actually move. As for UNI-ONE, it is good to see users feeling happy through our demonstration.

KanamoriYes, this is especially so for UNI-ONE. I find joy in creating products that are complete with people riding them and that brighten people’s lives. UNI-ONE has such a strong element.
For example, unlike conventional wheelchairs, UNI-ONE is designed to keep both hands free, but we haven’t designed it for what we want users to do with their free hands. Because we thought that people are the main players, not products. When we hear comments like “I can go out with a shopping bag” or “I can now reach places I couldn't before,” it makes us happy that users are doing what they want to do.
However, I'm still not sure how to express UNI-ONE. I haven't found the answer yet to what kind of expression I should use to create a document for UNI-ONE.

KobashiWhen we ask users how they feel about using UNI-ONE, some users say, "I feel as if I am walking even though I am sitting,” and other describe it as "new human feet" even though they are on wheels. As you mentioned, we can't really put it into a word. But I think the attractiveness of creating tangible objects is that it can include such various aspects.

NakagawaIn the world of architecture, it is said that the design that is positive but only gets the same kind of feedback is an excellent work, on the other hand, a masterpiece attracts a variety of feedback. From that perspective, I believe UNI-ONE is a masterpiece. You will elicit various impressions and ideas of how to use it, including pros and cons, and based on this feedback, you will try to present what the next era should look like. I think UNI-ONE is such a hot product.

The user’s eye line when seated is not much different from the height when walking. The design facilitates eye-to-eye communication with people walking next to you. During the interview, there was an opportunity to actually ride UNI-ONE. The experience of being able to move freely with the user’s intention in any directions by shifting his or her weigh was eye-opening, and everyone in the crew was hooked on the ride.

To achieve both ambiguity and perfection

NakagawaYou said earlier that products will be completed only when the user is involved, and I really agree with your attitude. When I was an architecture student, there was a tide of criticism against the public policy of focusing on the construction of public buildings, so I came to think unwittingly about the relationship between architecture and people in society. The important key for me is architecture that allows users to use it in ways I never imagined.
For example, if you use nouns such as "living room" or "kitchen" to create a space, it's hard for such spaces to go beyond their noun definitions. Instead, if you use verbs to express spaces, such as "a place where you will cook" or "a place where you will become sleepy," the definition of the place will expand. I think that by doing so, we can bring out the comfort that the user needs for the place.

KanamoriIt refers to how we should incorporate gadgets that respond to user's wishes without limiting the intent to use, doesn’t it? That's exactly what we worked on with UNI-ONE.
For example, UNI-ONE has no backrest. It’s because we want the users to sit up straight and move using the trunk of their body. Of course, the users can attach a backrest and control it with a lever. However, specifying the usage in such a way also reduces the room for interpretation by users, as you said. I think it is important in making objects to have a design with a blank space where people can find other uses.

In order to facilitate daily care and maintenance, the surfaces are treated so that dirt can be removed easily. In the future, mobility devices will be made usable not only for people with disabilities but also for those who want to reduce the load of standing work as well as being used for entertainment.

NakagawaIf you narrow the intent of use down to one purpose, those who don't fit in will be excluded. Also, when your intentions change, the value of the place can be lost.
Even if the intention of use changes, can the place still be attractive? In the case of UNI-ONE, will users want to continue using it? Even if the intention of use is fuzzy, the product can maintain a high degree of perfection as a tangible object. When I get the balance well, I believe that I can successfully bring out the wishes of the users.

KanamoriHow do you balance that?

NakagawaIt is difficult, but I am always conscious that the completion of construction is not the perfect form. In the past, it used to be said that architecture is basically the most beautiful when it is completed and that completion photos are everything for the building.
However, buildings decay over time. Once it has decayed to a certain extent, repairing or rebuilding it again to return it to its peak is a sterile argument. Rather, the building should be given new appeal by the people who use it. In order to do that, I want to leave blank spaces that can be interpreted differently depending on the user. Moreover, I hope that different time frames overlap after the completion and will affect the building.
For example, say I aim to build something like a garden. Even if the plants in the garden die, the next sprouts will appear. How the new sprouts grow will be different from that of previous plants. Like a garden, a building should develop a new harmony over time, giving the building a different meaning than when it was completed. I believe that's my way of balancing the ambiguity of interpretation with the perfection of tangible objects.

KobashiWe don’t peak at the finished product, either. When we're developing a product like UNI-ONE that has not yet existed in the world, we don't define our product as perfect. It's more like a prototype for the next better product.

Toward social infrastructure where everyone thinks "Let's use it!"

NakagawaFinally, I would like to ask you what kind of society you would like to create through UNI-ONE.

KanamoriI don't have a clear vision of society. But I think there is the possibility that UNI-ONE users will take inspiration from the device and create a better society. For example, a building may be constructed, where unsurprisingly UNI-ONE runs.
However, UNI-ONE has not yet become a product that everyone would like to try even if it is right in front of them. This is because of the image that it should be used by people with disabilities and the elderly. In other words, the person and the product have only limited context.
But if UNI-ONE is used in entertainment facilities, for example, that image would change. In fact, we received a similar opinion from Laila (Cassim), one of the judges of Focused Issues. Recently, we have been working on its use in the entertainment domain.

KobashiI have been involved in robotics at Honda for a long time, and I have always wanted to change society by developing robots that come into our lives. At present, UNI-ONE is still seen as something new, but we want to create a society where UNI-ONE is the norm, such as a society where everyone rides a UNI-ONE in theme parks and commercial facilities.

NakagawaSuch a cycle may be created such that a new society is created, which will then create the core of the next UNI-ONE era. Thank you very much for today. It confirmed to me that UNI-ONE is really a wonderful product that gives us a feeling that we have never experienced before.
In particular, I was very happy to see the development site of UNI-ONE and feel that communication was created there not only by words but also by tangible objects. I’ve come to think that perhaps the value of creating tangible objects is addictive. Why it has such addictiveness and value is difficult to say in a word. However, I felt again that this is a very important core that will never disappear from the design field.

[Writer] Masahiro Ino [Photographer] Shunsuke Imai [Editor] Masayuki Koike

See More
Focused Issues