Regarding art rather than design,
I realized near the end of high school that, in society, alongside this framework
in which you worked to earn a living, there was another small world of art. I became aware that there was a way to pursuit what I liked to do, that there was a way to pursuit my passion in art. So in high school — I went to a technical high school.
I attended the electrics course there. That was because my father owned an electric works company and there was this unspoken agreement
that I would take over the family business. Since the majority of students at the school would enter employment upon graduation, we had to pass a sort of electrician exam. The ordinary route was to pass it in the third year, but due to it being a family business I passed it in my second year. So in my third year I had nothing to do while my classmates were studying, and my teacher told me to go kill time in the library. This led to a major “accident.” I was to go to university, but had no idea of the simplest things, like which course prepared you for what kind of job. And so I was reading this magazine in the library
called Keisetsu-jidai, which introduces different jobs, and came across ‘designer.’ That linked to my previous ideas of an artist, and I thought, “This looks interesting.” There was also a section on industrial designers, industrial design is about making people happy
through monozukuri (making things), and I thought, “This is it,” and made up my mind on the spot. That was the beginning. I think that was spring or summer of my third year. I never questioned my decision after that. Despite plans for me to succeed the family business, I announced I was going to apply to an art school in Tokyo to become a designer, and left home, just like that. My parents might have expected me to return,
thinking I would never succeed, but I didn’t return. I’ve never looked back since. The industry was in its glory days. For example Sony was the global leader in microelectronics at the time, and the superiority of Japanese technology was recognized globally through products such as household appliances, cameras and cars. And design was starting to become the core of these industries that supported Japan. In that sense, I think it was a very exciting time. Now we are starting to move away from objects into a new direction, but at that time, objects and their design were very important. The economy was booming, there were a number of industries,
and we had no trouble finding a job. We were called on from every quarter. Everyone was getting good jobs at major companies, and I hoped to do the same. But I also wanted to do something different from the more popular industries such as automobiles and household appliances that Japan was especially known for. That was when SEIKO, the watchmaker, started recruiting. They had an exam where they tested your skills. I took the exam and did well. And so I first joined SEIKO. I think they were quick to adapt to changing times. Watchmakers were very old-fashioned in a way.
It was more of a handicraft-oriented industry. But when I joined the company, they were aware of the need to venture
into new areas in order to sustain their business, and were trying out various things with their precise technology,
like projectors and printers. They were starting all of this as R&D. But there was no one who could take those technologies and give them form. So, finding my drawing skills handy,
they made me in charge of that right after I joined the company. I would create forms based on promising technologies, which meant I had a chance to work
on many things apart from watches. At a young age, I was able to learn a great deal. After working for a while,
I became aware of the work styles of designers around the world. Overseas, designers would be working in these wonderful spaces. I was impressed by the work environment
even more than the prospect of doing something amazing. That was shortly before I turned 30. I began to aspire to work in such an environment. Luckily for me, as I mentioned earlier
I was able to absorb various technologies through my work, so I had a pretty extensive portfolio despite my young age. With that I applied to a design consultancy in the U.S. The company was ID2, which through a merger two years later turned into IDEO, the world’s largest design consultancy at the moment. When I joined there were about 15 members, but now it has 700, which is quite impressive. It was when Apple was growing at enormous speed, and Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and others were
creating a flourishing IT industry in Silicon Valley. They were starting work on interaction design, or interfaces,
similar to what we see on the iPhone now. I was lucky to be able to join them. I was able to experience a design process that
integrated everything including hardware, software, ergonomics and engineering. I set up the Tokyo branch of IDEO in the AXIS building after returning to Japan. There I ran IDEO’s business for six years, but eventually I started off on my own, and the branch dissolved. One thing I can admit now is that, when I was young, I used to think things had to be beautiful. I thought that was the goal of design. I believed even work under development or in progress
had to be the most beautiful they could be at each stage. Every machine, everything I made, had to be extremely beautiful. I think I believed that was good design. When I graduated college, I already held the belief that it was totally unacceptable to create things that were awkward or ugly. This applies to other elements including the content, but still I guess the visual aspect is the first point of contact. The bottom line is that it has to make people look at it and say, “Oh, this is cool.” So until my departure to the U.S. and subsequent exposure to more advanced computers, my life was like that of a sculptor or plastic artist, constantly training my ability to create attractive forms. The outside of the PC is just a container, but you had to give it a form, which is rather contradictory. Similarly, you had to make the bulky TVs of those days look attractive. That was how it was during those ten years. In retrospect, if seen positively, I honed my ability to create beautiful forms because I had to turn things with a lot of mass into something attractive. My motivation was to create forms that were better than anyone else’s. But then, around the time I began to consider returning to Japan
—about seven years after I arrived in the U.S.— I began to think that, no matter how cool an object may look, if the contents changed and the object became smaller or thinner, its form that required so much effort to create would become completely worthless. I began to wonder, “Is this really what design is about?” Until then I’d been thinking there was a form of my own somewhere, waiting to be discovered, but I realized maybe there was no such thing. Rather, maybe there was something that everyone could relate to and accept, and maybe this existed not within myself but the users. And when I thought of whether the users were conscious of this or not, I realized that a lot of their interactions were unconscious or intuitive, and yet society was operating smoothly with balance and order. That led me to the concept of “without thought.” It involves the wish to create things that would fit with the instinctive actions of people, such as thoughtlessly touching, sitting on, or feeling something. That was a slight shift in my mindset. I think people have some idea or an image of what they want. However, since they’re not experts they can only express that image in very abstract terms. Being an expert, I can show objects that I think reflects what people are looking for. And when my view is accurate, people agree with it, even if they’re seeing it for the first time. They might even ask why I guessed their wishes. It ignites a spark. There’s a sense of serendipity, and I enjoy that feeling. People say, “I’ve always wanted this,” but how could that be? They’ve never seen it before. This remark, “I’ve always wanted this,” is the biggest compliment for us. This happens in fashion as well, doesn’t it? Sometimes you find a pair of shoes that you’ve always wanted, and then you look around to discover that everyone else is wearing them.
Don’t you have that sometimes? Similarly, some objects have this atmosphere that people resonate with.
That’s what I’m looking for. When you look at the way people dress, everything from the length and width of their pants to their hairstyles are going through slight changes. When that accumulates for three years the change is dramatic, but we usually don’t notice because everyone is unconsciously catching up with it. I think of what resonates with people’s hearts. Similar to the concept of “without thought” that I mentioned, I’m always seeking this unshakeable concept — I call it “outline” — at the core of what people find instinctively comfortable. So I do feel I have the ability to infer, or detect that outline very accurately. I live like everyone else, using my smartphone to exchange loads of information, finding myself in the midst of communication, surrounded by information and media, seeing information on the streets, getting on the train and being surrounded by different people. And from this normal lifestyle I try to deduct “common sense,” or something universal. I don’t seek to discover anything unique, but rather, I try to reveal something that is widely accepted and is universal or normal, something like a “new normal.” The overarching factor is the human body, not the mind. Design is often thought of as stimulation for the heart and mind, but when I returned to Japan, I realized this was incorrect. It’s better to ask your body. Human beings aren’t really aware of how their bodies react to things. But the human body is more intuitive, which is exactly what creates order in society. We hardly notice this, but the fact that we navigate ourselves in the streets without crashing into each other shows our organized nature as animals. It seems a very simple system, but it isn’t. And there lies the key. The key is neither in the heart nor the mind. It’s neither in culture nor in history. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the things that provide the most insight are people’s actions, or their bodily movements that can be observed moment to moment. Functionality equals design. “Designed” is an unpopular feature now. Design without function has lost its appeal. It has lost its glory. Now, design is about functionality and nothing else. Like Apple’s computers. They’re purely about function. And yet, they’re so beautiful. So I can’t help feeling envious when I see an Apple store. Who would object to something so stripped down to its essentials?
I don’t think anyone would. That’s how revolutionary their products are. You could call it killer content or OS or platform but,
like Google is doing as well, I think design is about creating a situation in which
people inevitably come into contact with that item. Design, function and technology should be seen as one. The boundary between engineers and designers will blur,
and the two will be integrated. We created a new department at Tama Art University,
which is named Department of Integrated Design. So I think everything will come together, including architecture. Architecture and objects will no longer be treated separately. Designers, who used to create forms,
may face difficulties because they will no longer have a form to create. But as long as there is function,
there will be the need to think about how to use that function, and there, in determining that relationship,
the designer’s sensibility will be called for. In other words,
heaters will disappear and the floor will be warm instead. And heating the floor is the architect’s job, not the designer’s. Even then, deciding on the temperature of the floor
will be the designer’s responsibility The designer’s role will be integrated into other fields. I’m interested in architecture, especially houses. My work is closely connected with the home. I’ve been making all sorts of things related to the home, which makes me want to create a house to put everything in. And as I said, if I make a house I won’t need to design superfluous things, because they could all be built in. And doing so might help me understand what is truly essential.