Nowadays, the digital design world has found its style coming from Western big-tech companies. Because they dominate the market, we have no choice but to follow the guidelines of whatever operating system they provide. This means the majority of apps follow the Western minimalist style, and functions are normalized to a certain extent. But that doesn’t mean we have to cut off all the edges of every service or product.
A designer and a design community producer Ryo Sampei shares his ongoing journey of seeking indigenous styles of his cultural roots, Japan.
Ryo also gave a talk at Design Matters Mexico 23. Watch the talk “Where’s the Wasabi? Finding the Japanese Style in Digital Design” here.
The Admiration of the West
Japan has always been more or less looking up to western culture, especially the US. So what goes on in the US is the next trend, which also applies to the digital design industry as well.
That is why in 2015, I started a webzine called UX MILK, which was a collection of translated articles from various English UX blogs. This quickly became a must-see resource for designers in Japan, and we grew pretty big during the six years of running (now on indefinite hiatus).
But through these years of providing these contents, sometimes I would find material that doesn’t necessarily apply to the Japanese culture. One of the obvious would be how we use text in UI or UX writing. In Japan, we usually use 2136 characters daily, and how would that go the same with a language that uses only 26 letters?
This gradually made me question whether these designs go well with our culture. Are they really intuitive for us?
What Makes us Japanese?
I began thinking about the traits of our people, what nature we have and how it will apply to our design attitude. Here are some of the things that are distinctive about Japanese people.
Living in a mix of Minimalism and Complexity
In a design context, Japan is famous for its minimalist design, but if you’ve ever come to Tokyo, you will get the exact opposite impression. MUJI is one of the famous minimalist design apparel brands, but what is interesting is that you would have DON QUIJOTE, a discount store in a somewhat chaotic setup, in the same area as MUJI.
Also, UNIQLO is another famous minimalist brand seen globally, but their printed ad posted to Japanese homes has a chaotic layout. However, this cluttered, brutally informatic layout somehow moves the Japanese towards conversion and delivers a satisfying purchase experience. Also, you can say that we are used to being bombarded with information, and although many designers wouldn’t want to admit it, the truth is that many businesses end up being like this.
Full of Hospitality
Japanese are well known for their hospitality and service, and we even have a word for it which is called “omotenashi.” We welcome guests and serve them as best as possible, sometimes going ahead of the users, so they don’t get lost.
This is why coffee vending machines at 7-Eleven end up being like this (Don’t worry, we all don’t want this to happen, just like you).
Polite, Shy, and Gentle
Imagine an online meeting with a Japanese person, mixed with Americans and other nationalities. Chances are, the Japanese would be a bit quieter than the others.
They might be trying to be polite or just plain shy or spinning their hard disks for better solutions. In general, this comes from the nature of trying to be more thoughtful and going for perfection. We want to be responsible for what we say, which slows down our speed.
I’m sure this depends on what kind of person you are, but it is safe to say that many Japanese people are organized and clean. Maybe because Japan is an island country with limited land and small housings, we force ourselves to clean up and manage.
In Japanese TV shows, you would often see homemakers showing off their super-organizing techniques using casings and containers to sort out various goods. The famous KonMari method also comes from this context, surrounded by random items we cannot throw away.
When foreigners come to Japan, they are seldom surprised by the mechanical toilets we have everywhere. We have buttons that trigger flushing power, washing power and positions, and other features that fully customize your restroom experience.
Of course, this also relates to the complexity and hospitality aspects. Still, people want to adjust their experiences to perfection rather than just having one or two flush buttons like the west.
These are just a few that came up to my mind, but we can get the picture of Japanese living in a complex world, being precise and detailed, and liking to be caring, polite, and gentle.
Recent Trends and Future Ideas
Now that we get the image of how the Japanese are, what about emerging design trends? I’ve picked up four existing links to our nature and two still vague ideas that might resonate and have potential.
To practice inclusive design, designers need to be patient and thoughtful and get the user involved politely. There are many cases in product design like UNIQLO developing Front-open inner shirts for people that have trouble raising their arms or people after breast cancer treatment, or KAO’s one-hand push bottles that enable more people to use with one-hand and less power required.
But now, more designers in the digital field are becoming aware of DEI as well, and we are seeing new design studios like CULUMU designing specifically for inclusion.
Japan has always been the top runner in Universal Design, but there are still only a few digital design examples. Morisawa’s UD font is one significant product used widely in universal design. Since Japanese characters have complex structure, more attention and precision is needed to design a font that everyone can read.
Universal Design also requires lots of detailed work, making multi-functions for various users and compiling them into one product. We’ve already talked about toilets, but LIXIL’s multi-functional toilets and JR East Water Business & teamLab’s new vending machines are just some examples.
Accessibility has been a hot topic in Japan since recently; the government has established an internal digital division called the “Digital Agency,” and they have been working on making administrative services accessible and also making guidebooks as they go along.
Many local companies are also starting to work on accessibility, like Freee, which provides accounting software, released their accessibility guideline for their services. They have an engineer with a disability leading the process.
In other cases, Sumitomo Mitsubishi Bank Corporation is one of the biggest national banks in Japan, but they have a whole website dedicated to accessibility which is pretty rare.
Emotional design is a term introduced by Don Norman. The two Japanese e-commerce sites below represent a satisfying emotional experience with their stylish aesthetics and rich content, telling users a thick context of each item they sell.
Super long-lengthed e-commerce pages are standard in Japan, showing how Japanese users want more information to be sure they want the product.
Another example would be Minna Bank, a new bank for millennials, and they destroyed the old-fashioned image of the Japanese bank industry with hip illustrations, minimalistic design, and animations. Yet, despite its simple and chic design, this anarchist style dug deep into the user’s emotions.
From here on, these are just ideas without any examples. Designing for sustainability has often been brought up in the global scene, and I’m sure it will also work in Japan. When we say “sustainable,” we tend to talk about carbon footprints and how we are destroying the planet. Still, we also need to consider how sustainable it is for business, or even how it is sustainable for us to keep designing.
We need to think about a timeless and long-lasting design or a design that we can easily maintain at a low cost. Japan has a rich history in art, architecture, and crafts, and we can surely apply the mend and re-use attitude in the digital industry.
Maximalist design is the opposite of minimalist design and is packed with details. Rather than the “less is more,” it is a “more is more” attitude and has a chaotic attraction. As mentioned earlier, one trait of the Japanese is familiarity with complexity and information overload. While others might find the chaotic evil, many on the other side can also enjoy the chaos.
This trend is especially significant in gaming, where creating the atmosphere is prioritized over usability. It may also relate to emotional design, making an impactful design that people can reflect on.
Not to mention this year’s Design Matters Website, with Sci-fi motifs and dynamic structures. This brutalist approach enables users to recall the content quickly and look forward to the excitement that awaits them.
Dig Your Cultural Roots
These examples and categories are possibilities I have picked up along the way and are still ideas I’ve been discussing with the community.
But the point here is to share my way of looking back on our careers and trying to develop a new perspective in design. Of course, nationality is just one perspective, but it should be a big part of your roots.
If you’re stuck or procrastinating in design, maybe design inspirations lie in your roots. After all, we want to do what we are good at. Doing what is natural for us will surely take us to the next level.