Intuitive Design

September 6, 2010

Product designer Naoto Fukasawa has won international acclaim for his designs that address the gaps in our everyday lives. His award-winning body of work includes products for brands such as B&B Italia, Driade, Magis, Artemide, MUJI, and Plus Minus Zero. Andrew Clark and Iker Gil interview Naoto Fukasawa on the occasion of his lecture and exhibition in Chicago hosted by Luminaire.


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Naoto Fukasawa. © Andreas E.G. Larsson.

IG: What is your definition of information?

NF: For me, information has two meanings: one is the media information, like newspapers, magazines, the Internet, that sort of thing. But I also understand information as all the things that we feel naturally, like touching a table.

AC: Whether received or produced, what do you consider the simplest form of information?

NF: I am always interested in small things that have a big impact. For example, if someone is wearing a new pair of shoes and I see them, I might say, “That pair of shoes will be popular”. I don’t know why, but I can really feel it. In the same way, I always try to find that special element that acts as a kind of seed. That’s the element I search for the most. There are two ways of receiving information: one is visual, to see something through the eyes, vision and mind together; the other way, while I concentrate on other things, my whole body is searching without thinking—looking at the architecture, for example. I am the type of person who can receive the information both ways. While I am talking, I am also finding something interesting—that is my uncommon way to get information. I really like that.

AC: You have said in previous interviews, “I think objects or things are shifting toward the surrounding walls for integration or otherwise into our body for integration. Maybe only things that are necessary to physically exist will stay, and all others will be integrated as functional elements.” How in your work do you design towards this integration?

NF: Technology is improving towards a specific direction. A TV used to be a huge box, for example, but now it is really thin. That is an obvious, inevitable goal: to make a TV thinner so it can be part of a wall. I am using a wall as a metaphor, not as the real physical wall. All of the products will be going either to the architectural wall side or the human side. The same thing happened with the telephone. It used to be a big object located on a table, but now it is a small thing in your ear. In this case, it has moved to the human side. The new technology will push things so they disappear in either of those sides. But some objects will remain. Chairs still exist because we need them, the table will be here…. they have existed for a long time and they will still exist. But it is important to understand that the rest of the objects are going to inevitably disappear. That is why you don’t design a very massive TV anymore. Even without design, technology will push the projects in those two ways. That is my basic understanding of the standing position of the object.

IG: However, when you were presenting your projects earlier today in the exhibition at Luminaire, there was this sense that, even though the technology can make things thin, people still want to feel that familiar image of an object, to experience a sense of a familiar object.

NF: That depends on the use we are giving to the object. If you carry the information with you, like with an iPad, it is really good that the technology allows you to make it thinner. But if you are lying on the bed watching TV, you want a bigger object that is stable in a rough surface rather than a very thin one. It depends on the way you are going to use the product. Probably, if you are going to carry around the object, the important characteristic is to be thin. When technology can make things thinner, it allows you to do anything. It gives you freedom. You can decide to make the object bulky or thin. However, some people think that just because technology can make things thinner, they can only do it thinner.

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Naoto Fukasawa exhibition at Luminaire store in Chicago, 2010. © Luminaire.

AC: “InfoBar” and “Neon” are both personal devices you designed that were more than cell phones. Each one pushed the direction of the “information device that respects the individual,” from graphic, function, and object perspectives. How do you approach the idea of communication and information with something like a phone next to the body?

NF: I think that if you are a product designer, you always want to push things to the limit. You want the frame to be smaller, and smaller, and smaller. In the end, you don’t want to have any kind of frame, so that the surface becomes information. That is the goal. That is why I wanted to create a telephone as information. The entire surface should be information, from the vibrations and tactic feedback to the lighting or images without any frame. You currently have to have a frame, as the technology is not there quite yet. But that is a very inevitable goal. Now we just have edges of a few millimeters, but it is still a frame.

AC: And that is important in the discussion of the person and the object. By eliminating that plane, the screen and the frame are creating a surface, and there is perhaps a closer connection between the object and the body.

NF: No, no, you only need graphical information. Why do you need a machine? If you have a projection, you don’t need to have a machine everywhere all the time. You don’t want to have any physical machine. You only need the information. That is the goal; the machine is not a goal anymore. That is a very important thing.

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Naoto Fukasawa, 2010. © Andreas E.G. Larsson.

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Naoto Fukasawa, 2010. © Andreas E.G. Larsson.

IG: We probably don’t need an instruction manual, either. People should know how to use the object instantly; it should be a natural behavior.

NF: Right.

IG: In a way, we need fewer graphics and more intuitiveness. Do you think that is the tendency? Can we say that graphics mask bad design?

NF: I think part of the information is received visually, but the whole body also receives other types of information. Even when I see some particular information on devices, they also provide other types of information through our other senses. It is not anymore just the visual information. Like an iPhone or an iPad, the interface allows us to use our other senses to receive information. Your brain is way ahead of the technologies. Once you have experienced an object, you understand immediately they way it functions and its potential. For example, if I want to put a nail here in the table, I need to hit the nail. If I don’t have a hammer, someone would suggest using my iPhone as a hammer. Of course, we wouldn’t use it directly as a hammer, but we can use it to connect to a website to find out a way to hit a nail. That is the idea of the new interface: it is not just a direct reading of the objects. Before, everybody would have thought that the phone was the tool to hit the nail, but now, everybody knows that is the way to create. Of course, I am exaggerating a little bit, but the idea is that the object is the tool that allows you to think.

AC: In your work exhibited at Luminaire, as well as the work in the exhibition “Supernormal”, there is a clear direction: it seeks harmony, it is refined, you can’t take anything out, otherwise it will ultimately fall apart. You also have to be able to feel the object. How do you approach the idea of awareness or thought as someone uses the object, for example, with the clock, or how someone puts the umbrella in the stand?

NF: As an animal, your body is already aware of those things without having to think about it. Your body is already very smart; there is no need to create anything. It naturally or spontaneously understands the things around you. That is why, like in “Supernormal,” there are objects that you use immediately as normal products: to write, to eat… without thinking. That is the perfect relationship. However, your mind sometimes breaks apart that perfect interaction, for example, because you have a good design mind. Before you naturally choose a pen to use it, you look at the design of the pen first. You see the pen and you say, “that’s a nice pen,” and that is why you want to use that one and not another one. But that’s wrong! Your body is honest, but you are fooled by your mind. That is the bad part of design.

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Naoto Fukasawa exhibition at Luminaire store in Chicago, 2010. © Luminaire.

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Naoto Fukasawa exhibition at Luminaire store in Chicago, 2010. © Luminaire.

AC: So, sometimes we get in the way.

NF: Yes, design sometimes makes you very confused.

IG: When you started your own office, you wanted to create objects that seemed like they already existed, but they didn’t exist. Can you talk about one or two products that exemplify that, like the umbrella that we mentioned before?

NF: There are a lot of elements around you, and like a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes you are missing only one piece. You gather all the pieces and, if you are missing one piece, you know exactly that is the one you need. In reality, that is the piece that everybody is missing. We all share many elements in our life because we have the same bodies, the same environments, so the missing part is something that we share with other people. That is why I have to find out this part to design something that fits exactly in the hole. Then everybody says, “That is what I want to have.” This is similar to when you cook. Sometimes, you know that there is an uncomfortable element, like the handles, the chopping board …something. You can’t really identify it, but your memory is already recording that uncomfortable element. If you have the chance to have the new cooking tool that solves the problem, it brings back the memory that you had already recorded. It means you had already created the new tool you wanted to buy, but you couldn’t identify it at all. There is a kind of time gap. That is the type of situation where you get the information.

IG: Can you talk about your roles in MUJI?

NF: MUJI is a brand and a philosophy shared by all people. It is not just that one company established the brand. It is the kind of form or desire that everybody has. Right now, everybody is getting more and more special and individual things for their life. But when you have too much, you want to be on the quieter side. MUJI decided to be on that quiet side, and everybody said, “Yes, we can be on that side.” So MUJI is always on that side, it is the only company. That is why everybody cares that MUJI has to remain being MUJI. Sometimes MUJI also goes to the other side, so my role is to discuss if a product belongs to the MUJI philosophy. And that is a very, very tricky part, because they have a huge business. I know that sometimes it is a successful product, but we have to be patient to do the right thing. That is the type of conversation we have regularly, every week. It is a very important part of the role as a design advisor for MUJI. The other one is just design director and designing products for MUJI.

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Naoto Fukasawa exhibition at Luminaire store in Chicago, 2010. © Luminaire.

AC: In a similar role, you also launched the company Plus Minus Zero.

NF: In Plus Minus Zero I am more involved. I am the person who created the brand itself. One of the business people had a similar approach and suggested to create a brand. But actually, the financial role has changed three times because they all had some other troubles. Only one person still keeps the original philosophy, and that is why the brand still exists. But financially it has changed, which is quite common in the design world. Now we are trying to make a new product collection to be introduced next year.

AC: In the information age, we have seen an explosion of information that is growing faster and faster each time. Plus Minus Zero is reacting against the overflow of things in the world. So, when you approach Plus Minus Zero with so many things around you, how do you work the puzzle that you mentioned earlier, how do see through all the things?

NF: If you think about MUJI, a MUJI product has to be functional. If a product breaks and you need to replace it, you buy it at MUJI. There is no desire or any personal motivation in that purchase. But object and life are not only those functional uses. Even if you already have a product and you don’t need another one, if you see the Plus Minus Zero product, you say, “I want to have it.” It is a tiny bit more than what you need. Of course, people also want to have a MUJI product this way. But MUJI is perfect and quiet. That is why they say, “This is a functional product, I need it”. But this other one is the one that involves desire. It is the one that you want to have. It is a little different. The shapes and colors are a bit more radical than the MUJI ones, too.

IG: You have a special relationship with your collaborators in your office. Does that allow you to work with a reduced number of people?

NF: When I opened my own studio, I decided that I was going to be the only designer. I was going to design everything. Of course, there are young designers who want to join us, so I tell every young designer, “This is my studio, not a company. I decided I want to do everything. Are you okay with that?” And everybody said, “Okay.” But of course, we have so many projects that I cannot work in all of them by myself. I am directing, I am the creator of the images and ideas, but we share some of the ideas with the rest of the people in the studio. Every day we learn from each other to focus on the inevitable objects. If we see clearly the objects, we don’t need to go the long route to reach them; we can be more direct. Sometimes it is very difficult to communicate with young designers who don’t really see the inevitable things, they are very young and they are not experienced. They make many wrong things and I have to say, “Why do you do such kind of things?”

IG: Can you share with us some of your current projects?

NF: The new product collection for Plus Minus Zero is quite large. We have fifteen to twenty clients, which is quite a large number. Some products are in the electronic industry, like smart phones, media… those sorts of things. We are working in really diverse products, from the furniture industry to the high-tech industry. We are not directly involved in the automobile industry, but some projects are somehow related. This brings up something important. Life is shifting from owning to sharing objects, like cars. This is happening particularly with the young people in Japan who are choosing not to buy or own a car because parking is expensive, insurance is expensive, and of course, the car is expensive. When you think about it, it is a total waste of energy and money to drive a short distance every day. People are beginning to think about ways to share things, and not only the car but also all the products around us. They should be shared and not owned. That is why designing for personal use is less important than becoming more public. We need to have a balance between the personal things and the public things. Right now, some places, particularly Japan, are too focused in the individual, and not really looking at the global picture. Our role is shifting a bit in that way. Someone has to think about ways in which everybody can be better at sharing things.

IG: We should be looking into ways of benefiting the community rather than the individual.

NF: Right. That’s a very important thing as a designer. Until now, the designer was focused on answering the individual desires, but that is too much now. MUJI is one of the answers to make the same things for everybody. It is a product that is quiet. I think that is going to be an important trend.