2022Re-examining the ever-changing “present day”
Dominique Chen
Dominique Chen Director’s Message “Design to generate ‘our’ well-being”

Respect for “me” and collaboration between “us”: designing for compatibility between these two


How will the cooperative entity of “we” arise given the assumption of a unique “I”?

The theme which I have set for this year’s Focused Issues is “Design to generate ‘our’ well-being.” Before I explain why I chose this topic, I would like to briefly explain what is meant by “well-being” in the first place. Well-being is a word denoting an animated state of being thanks to a plenitude of mental, physical, and social relationships. As the global pursuit of spiritual as well as material richness gathers momentum, the study and practice of well-being are attracting attention as key concepts for the post-SDG era.

We are currently facing many crises, including global warming, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and racial and gender-based discrimination. In such a situation, designing products and services premised on well-being is becoming ever more important in envisaging a sustainable society.

On the other hand, many of the designs out there in the world can be said to have been designed in order to satisfy individual well-being first and foremost. Relationships with those around may become satisfactory as a knock-on effect, but convenience and efficiency for each individual have been the fundamental considerations.

Academic research into well-being was also initially carried out mainly in Western societies, whose cultural values are said to be weighted towards individualism. As a result, knowledge has accumulated about the factors (causal elements) constituting individual well-being; but we have come to understand that there is a different dynamic at work in the cultural sphere made up of Japan and other Asian countries, which place a greater emphasis on relationships with others. I have been investigating not just “my” well-being” but at the same time “our” well-being in Japanese and other Asian societies as one such possibility, researching ways to approach this together with my colleagues.

Let us think about the difference between “me” and “us” in the context of designing products or services. Focusing on an individual “I,” for example, may result in atomization along the lines of social attributes, such as “for males/females,” “for children/adults,” “for young people/old people.” Conversely, diverse people who actually have different attributes may be mistakenly perceived as a single, homogeneous group.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about problems like social division and loneliness, and in this sense, too, I believe that we are called to take a more proactive stance towards relationships between people with different attitudes and characteristics, leading to designs which nurture and support these. Designers will surely be able to design “our well-being,” beginning with the relationship between just two people and expanding to cover a broad area, such as a specific region or city.

The tangible and intangible things which surround our daily lives, such as products and services, exist not merely as tools to be used, but also have a profound impact on each individual human with whom they come into contact, as well as on the nature of the relationships between people. The academic field of media theory, which serves as a reference for my research, takes as its starting point the words of Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” In this understanding, all the tools involved in how we approach and perceive the world are media. The question of how the seeds of well-being are born or obstructed in the actions of humans, mediated via products, forms the core of my research, and I have made it the topic of the Focused Issues.

What we must be attentive to here is the need to think about how the cooperative entity “we” operates, having first made the assumption that each individual “I” is a unique being. It is impossible to hope for an inclusive society with “I” alone, lacking “we”; and “we,” lacking “I,” would surely lead to a hellish, totalitarian pressure to conform.

Designs using the “different beds, same dreams” model, and designs using the “same bed, different dreams” model

I thought about the above points while I served as a judge for the 2022 GOOD DESIGN AWARDs. This led me to the realization that there are two axes: “design which allows people with different social attributes to collaborate” and “design which allows people with the same attributes to nevertheless notice and learn from the disparity between them.” Let us call the former the “different beds, same dreams” model, and the latter the “same bed, different dreams” model. What these two axes share is the understanding that “we” means an entity made up of heterogeneous “I”s, acting together while accepting the gaps between them as value. We can find the design of services and products which support the coexistence of people with different attributes and characteristics in a variety of contexts.

From here on, following these two axes, I will introduce some of the 2022 GOOD DESIGN BEST100, which give us hints about the topic of “our well-being.”

For NHK’s "A journey with local friends,” the program’s director spends a month in various different regions of Hokkaido. The people from that area, called “local friends,” take the lead on the production of a program telling the audience about local treasures and needs.

This initiative appears to be a search for an alternative to the conventional, centralized model of broadcasting, in which the broadcaster unilaterally collects footage and creates the program. As broadcasting professionals, NHK staff are simply the go-betweens; the people of each region choose what they want to communicate and make the programs themselves.

The result of this process is a departure from the readily-understood labeling and categorization which are convenient for broadcasters, conveying to viewers the image that the people living in the area want, with all its diverse nuances. This example is an extremely interesting one in that it can be seen both as “different beds, same dreams,” in the sense of a collaboration between broadcasting staff and local people, and as “same bed, different dreams,” in the sense that it shows the diversity of local people.

The experience of leaving a familiar place and moving to live in another location is, as it were, the experience of gaining another hometown. I have moved 16 times and lived in 3 different countries so far, but now if I return to any of the neighborhoods in which I lived for a long time, I feel strangely at ease in a way that is unique to each one. However, even though children sometimes move due to forces beyond their control, such as a parent’s change of job, it is still undoubtedly very hard for them to move to a different area of their own volition.

The “dual school” system, which offers a model for schooling across multiple regions within Japan, allows students to live and attend school in both urban areas and Tokushima.

Designing a system that allows students to “move schools” without having to transfer their residence certificates makes short-term study experiences in other areas possible for children. This will also probably become an opportunity for those on the receiving end to learn new knowledge and sensitivities from the newcomers. I imagine that for the children who travel, creating multiple homes would broaden the scope of “us” and increase their sense of trust towards and security in the world. The parents who accompany their children will also probably see their values and those of the local adults fluctuate through medium- and long-term interactions. The spread of this model for schooling across multiple regions may well cause a growth in communities built on the “same bed, different dreams” model, where people from different backgrounds and contexts are intermixed in one place.

CHAPTER FACTORY is an initiative in which guests staying at the same hotel learn from each other’s experiences of Kyoto, making the concept of “same bed, different dreams” visible.

The hotel guests are free to look at the many anecdotes displayed in a common area in the lobby and can get copies of those which take their fancy. In this way, they can try reliving the experiences of someone with an unknown name and face but who stayed at the same hotel. I, too, actually stayed there and was drawn to the description of a coffee shop written on one of the cards, so I walked there to enjoy a cup of coffee. I also noticed that there was no card about a Kyoto coffee shop that I love and wrote about it on one of the sheets by hand, “posting” it to someone who may stay there one day.

The true pleasure of a journey is the experience of encountering unexpected peoples and landscapes, having your plans shaken up, generating your own unique memories, and developing an attachment to the land. The probability of such chance encounters naturally decreased during the pandemic, but I feel that CHAPTER FACTORY is a design which gives you an odd sense of being part of a larger whole, evoking glimpses of diverse people from which the loose contours of “us” emerge.

I also found many excellent designs using the “different beds, same dreams” model. Tactile Graphic Books are one such outstanding example. Sighted and visually impaired children are usually given different books. However, since these books integrate the visual information of graphics and the tactile information of Braille in a single volume, children who can see and those who cannot are able to learn from the same book.

I was extremely impressed by the design of these Tactile Graphic Books, which showed that it was possible for people with different characteristics to share an experience in the same place, rather than separating them according to their attributes. For example, people who can hear and those who cannot are able to share the same music in different ways using the Ontenna device, a 2019 Good Design Gold Award winner, which allows the wearer to experience sound through touch. I feel that I caught a glimpse of the possibilities for design that allow us to collaborate our perceptions with an awareness of “us,” making the most of the differences between us just as they are.

In the same way, the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which enables people with different bodily characteristics to play the same games, could be seen as a product using the “different beds, same dreams” model to build an “us.” Games have been designed on the premise that the controller, which is the main interface, should be centered on the fingers of your hand. However, if you cannot move your fingers, complex operations become difficult. The thought behind the Xbox Adaptive Controller, then, is to flexibly rearrange the layout of the controller to suit various disabilities and bodily characteristics.

The smiles on the faces of the people who were able to play games requiring complex operations in the ways they wished by using this controller in practice allowed me to sense their joy at regaining their freedom. Maybe one day, we will all be able to play the same games, regardless of body types or whether or not we have a disability.

The issue of designing a single place which people of different generations can each enjoy reminds me of this year’s Good Design Grand Award winner, Magical Dagashiya Tyrol-Do. Tyrol-Do, which supports the growth of local children in Nara, is a shop that transforms itself from a candy store for children during the day into a pub for adults at night. There is a capsule vending machine at the entrance and, if you put 100 yen in and turn it, you will get a capsule containing from one to three “Tyrol” tickets, at random. Each Tyrol is worth 100 yen, but by magic, children can eat curry and other dishes costing 500 yen for one Tyrol. The truth of this “magic” is that at night, it turns into a pub where adults gather, and the cost of their food and drink includes a Tyrol donation fee.

Tyrol-Do was opened by a person with experience of running a “children’s cafeteria” to combat child poverty, and its design for the two different target groups of children and adults, based on the concept of “welfare that does not divide,” is outstanding. It is designed as a place where the economic dividing line between children whose families live in poverty and those who do not becomes blurred, and children without much money can eat meals just like other children and come together without being aware of the differences in their financial circumstances. For adults, too, they can support the children of the community simply by enjoying drinking and eating, without incurring the cognitive cost of donating, and contribute to creating a vibrant place. Here we can see a structure in which adults and children naturally and gradually become connected as “us.”

Similarly, I think that the assisted living residence [GINMOKUSEI], which was selected as one of the GOOD DESIGN BEST100 for its design which enables people of different generations to relate to one another, also shows us a positive lifestyle for the super-aging society of tomorrow.

At GINMOKUSEI, there are various ingenious ideas to allow the elderly residents to coexist on an equal footing with younger generations who live in the same area: the residents run a shop inside the facility for the neighborhood children, a small library which people living nearby can use, and so on. Looking at this example, I was reminded of how I myself am helped in my urban life, as a family with two working parents and a child, by the existence of people who treat us as though they were our child’s third or fourth grandparents as well as by our parents who live in other areas. GINMOKUSEI’s community design seems to present a perspective of an extended family which goes beyond blood ties to encompass the people of different ages living in the same place.

From the standpoint of designing “our well-being” in the local community, it also brings to mind the Otera oyatsu club, which won the Good Design Grand Award in 2018. As of January 2023, more than 1,800 temples nationwide were participating in a network of temples and NPOs delivering surplus snacks offered to temples by local residents to children in difficult financial circumstances, with a total of around 25,000 children receiving such support each month.

The Otera oyatsu club system is designed so that people living in the same area but in different economic circumstances can help one another anonymously via the temple, and this is a methodology which can be implemented in a variety of places. Tyrol-Do also began in Nara, but it will probably expand into various areas from now on, generating its own depth in ways unique to each place.

I will also introduce some examples of design for “us” in my area of expertise, information technology. In the software world, there is a research domain known as Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), and many services exist for collaborating with a range of colleagues. Notion, a collaboration service that is gaining fans around the world, was selected for the 2022 GOOD DESIGN BEST100. I have actually been using Notion regularly for the last few years and, even though I was in charge of screening a different unit, I recommended it for “My Favorite Design.”

While working remotely since the pandemic, in particular, I have been able to come together with my students at the university, fellow researchers overseas, or friends, jotting things down on Notion as soon as they occur to us and sketching out our ideas. With its excellent user interface, Notion allows me to create, summarize, and share information with my friends as though we were creating a town cultivating an “us” with the “same bed, different dreams.” In my seminar at university, I have my students make their own individual pages on Notion, where they record their observations and what they learn each day. Just like a diary, each is tinged with the individual’s personality, and the way in which the diversity between the members manifests itself naturally produces a truly interesting result along the lines of “same bed, different dreams.”

Finally, looking at the fusion of information technology and community design, I would like to touch on “Yamakoshi Public Meeting's publication of the NFT,” one of the 2022 GOOD DESIGN BEST100, as a case study which truly offers many hints for considering “our well-being.”

This project was acclaimed as an initiative to sustain the landscapes and culture unique to the area of Yamakoshi Village, a depopulated settlement, by recruiting digital villagers using web3 technologies, such as NFT and DAO. As one aspect of my activities for the Focused Issues, I visited the place and interviewed Ms. Haruka Takeuchi, the representative of Yamakoshi Public Meeting. What impressed me deeply on that occasion was the profundity of the time that Ms. Takeuchi had amassed in Yamakoshi and the awareness of “us” that had been nurtured by this and extended from it. Ms. Takeuchi originally came to Yamakoshi from outside to support the reconstruction after the Chuetsu Earthquake and has been instrumental in revitalizing the village for more than 19 years since then. Hearing her describe the older women and men living in Yamakoshi as “cool,” it seemed to me that I could make out the source of “our well-being.”

Reference Article:How is a sense of "we" expanded?—Yamakoshi Public Meeting Haruka Takeuchi × Dominique Chen

Seeing these two groups working together, the villagers who live there and the online participants, I feel that this situation also combines both models: “same bed, different dreams” and “different beds, same dreams.” This is because just as Ms. Takeuchi metamorphosed over time from an outsider to an insider, the digital villagers also have the possibility of becoming the “we” of Yamakoshi Village via this distinctive route. Whatever the case may be, I hope that the living land of Yamakoshi remains as the subject, rather than the technology, which can easily become a catchy buzzword.

Designing “fluctuation,” “ceding control,” and “leeway”

As we have seen so far, with the awareness of “us,” the space itself in which well-being is created in collaboration and the form of the design which supports the cultivation of this space can be observed across product genres. I hope that examples of design which help people to cultivate an awareness of “us” autonomously, without attempting to constrain individual well-being unilaterally, will increase from here on, and I want to be a part of such an upsurge. More than anything, the seeds which lead to the topic of “our well-being” are sown in every part of our daily lives.

What is important is careful observation of the relationships between people, between people and other living creatures, and between people and the environment, as well as close monitoring of the workings of the media which set up each of these relationships. For example, simply by observing trivial conversations with familiar people, we can think about the ways in which the media transmitting the communication (oral, telephone, chat, or mail) play a role in forming one another’s well-being, in addition to the original tools which are words. The potential targets of our design are not limited to commercial products; we can find them even in a single word exchanged on a daily basis.

In this sense, I feel that the hitherto professional ability of the designer is open to everyone today. In the midst of an age of increasing crisis and uncertainty, it is only when people with a wide variety of knowledge work together, joining up everything from the microscopic scale of the body to the public scale of systems using the same “design” standpoint, that they can point out the path to a society in which we can collaborate animatedly as “we” at the same time as respecting each individual “I.”

At the moment, I am working with communications scientist Junji Watanabe to write a book about the design guidelines for creating “our well-being” (to be published by BNN around spring 2023). Starting from conventional well-being research about “I,” it considers design which generates and sustains the collaborative sense of “we,” while respecting individual fulfillment. What we realized in the course of this was that as each individual’s “I” becomes open to changes to itself, letting go of and ceding self-control, the process of sharing the value of this experience itself with others, rather than the goal, is important in thinking about maintaining well-being. We have named the three elements which form the targets of design “fluctuation,” “ceding control,” and “leeway.”

I have considered the many award-winning designs introduced here from the standpoint of cooperation, of how designs become those which give birth to a “we,” and it is surely possible to discern the elements of “fluctuation,” “ceding control,” and “leeway” in each of these examples, too. The study and practice of “our well-being” have only just begun, and I feel that there is still a lot more to learn about it from the many outstanding GOOD DESIGN AWARD winners.

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