For some, it feels as though the golden age of design is well behind us. These people believe that the peak of design came sometime around the 1950s and 60s, when mid-century modern ruled the roost. After that, trends came and went, but none produced anything quite so timeless as, say, the work of Charles Eames. Instead, each of those trends remains inextricably tied to the era that produced it. But in recent years, we’ve seen something of a design renaissance. More and more companies and designers aim to create products that stand outside their time and place of origin. At the forefront of this movement is perhaps the single most influential designer of the twenty-first century: Naoto Fukasawa. In this piece, we’ll be taking a look at his life and work, as well as exploring his unique philosophy which has reshaped the way we look at design.

"Design means observing objectively"

Naoto Fukasawa was born in 1956, in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. Located near Tokyo, and lying in the shadow of Mount Fuji, the area is renowned for its outstanding natural beauty. As we will see later, this link to nature would become an integral part of Fukasawa’s approach to design. He was also something of a prodigy, going on to study at Tama Art University, one of Japan’s most prestigious art schools. Rather than immediately setting out on his own, though, Fukasawa took the long way round where his career was concerned.

Upon graduating, he joined Seiko Epson, who are to this day one of the biggest printer manufacturers in the world. This was at a time when the electronics industry was really taking off- particularly in Japan. At Epson, Fukasawa worked primarily with microtechnology, designing miniature printers and even a wrist-mountable TV. But while he was successful in his work, he wasn’t happy. Rather, he was bored- stuck in a rut, and looking for fresh opportunities. With that in mind, he left Epson, and set out for America.

He didn’t have to look far before finding what he was searching for. In fact, he didn’t even make it inland. Instead, he approached the San Francisco-based design consultancy firm ID TWO, now IDEO. While Epson had a very tightly-focused set of products to work on, ID TWO had a lot more scope. By their very nature as a consultancy firm, Fukasawa had a lot of different projects to work on. This provided him with the challenge that he had craved back in Tokyo. For instance, he was one of the key figures involved in shaping Apple’s design language and concept, which would go on to dominate tech design in the twenty-first century. More importantly, though, this diversity allowed him to start shaping his own unique philosophy- which would soon transform the world of design.

 

"I want to design the unnoticeable"

At big tech companies like Epson, there tends to be a very rigid hierarchy. Each member of the design team has their own clearly defined role, without much overlap between those roles. At ID TWO, things couldn’t have been more different. With only 15 team members in the office at the time, everyone was expected to contribute to projects as and when necessary, meaning they would often be taken out of their comfort zones.

Naturally, this made collaboration an essential skill in the ID TWO workplace. As a result, team members would often meet for drinks on Fridays, and catch up on the previous week’s work. But Fukasawa saw an opportunity to take this a step further, and bounce bigger ideas off each other. Since ID TWO was such a diverse workplace, each employee had their own approach to design. Fukasawa’s co-workers agreed that this would be a great idea, on one condition. Since he came up with it, he would have to go first. Always up for a challenge, Fukasawa threw himself into this project. Instead of just scribbling down a few notes, he put together an in-depth presentation that explored a uniquely Japanese philosophy: hari.

Fukasawa Design

Design in perfect balance

As a concept, it’s hard to translate hari into English. In a literal sense, it means “tension”. However, it actually has a much more complicated meaning, linked to ideas of youthfulness and innocence. For instance, a young person might be said to have “hari skin”, while an energetic individual would also be hari. In this case, a positive sense of tension comes into play. Hari is firm yet adaptable, springy yet secure in its core identity.

To further explain his philosophy, Fukasawa himself uses a simple analogy. In his eyes, every design project brings with it a number of outside forces which press down upon the designer. For instance, a bowl needs to be capable of holding its contents. If the designer doesn’t push back against this tension and instead acquiesces to these outside forces, then the end result will be the most basic design possible. In short, it will lack that spark of ingenuity which marks out the best designs.

At the same time, Fukasawa notes that the designer shouldn’t push back too hard against the demands of the project. After all, if form completely overrides substance, then the end result will be purely decorative. In Fukasawa’s eyes, this is just as much of a crime against design. After all, a plain bowl is boring, but a bowl that can’t hold anything is useless. In Japanese culture, functionality is essential- anything overly frivolous simply won’t do.

 

Without Thought

To Fukasawa, the process of design is a careful balancing act between these two extremes. The designer must push back against the demands of the project. However, they must be careful that its essential functionality is not lost. In response to this problem, Fukasawa uses an approach which he calls “without thought”. Many people think that design appeals to us on an emotional level. Fukasawa takes that a step further and views it as something which taps directly into the unconscious.

After all, most of the actions we take in our daily lives are similarly done “without thought”. When we want to go somewhere, we don’t consciously lift our legs and move them forward. Likewise, we are rarely even aware of our breathing. In contrast, people often become stiff and awkward when they are self-conscious. When photographed or filmed, we don’t act as we would normally, and instead enact a sort of performance. Fuksawa’s approach to design taps into this notion. To him, a well-designed object is one which doesn’t stand out unnecessarily. Rather, it should entwine with our daily lives and actions.

 

“People shouldn’t really have to think about an object when they are using it. Not having to think about it makes the relationship between a person and an object run more smoothly. Finding ideas in people’s spontaneous behavior and realizing these ideas in design is what Without Thought is about.”

 

It wasn’t long before Fukasawa was able to put these ideas into practise. In 1996, he moved back to Japan to head up ID TWO’s Tokyo office. At the same time, he began hosting workshops aimed at young designers. These also gave him the time and space to develop his theories into practical ideas. It was during the first of these workshops that he came up with his most iconic design: a wall-mounted CD player. Rather than bombard the user with countless buttons and displays, Fukasawa stripped things back to basics. For inspiration, he took the general design of an extractor fan, right down to the simple pull-cord control. To stop or start the music, one simply has to pull this cord, an approach which taps into our most basic instincts. Even a baby could operate the CD player- which, to Fukasawa, is the ultimate aim of good design.

Fukasawa Muji CD Player

The Brian Eno of Design

There is an obvious link between Fukasawa and functionalism, a design approach perfected by Dieter Rams. However, there are a few small but crucial differences between the two designers. These are mainly down to their native cultures. As a German, Rams takes a very logical, clinical approach to design. While the end result may be simple and instinctual, the design process is far from it. Each tiny detail is meticulously planned and reasoned. Furthermore, Rams created his ten rules for good design to very precisely guide the designer in their work. As a result, his products, though simple, remain recognisably his. They share an aesthetic that encapsulates his design approach.

In contrast, Fukasawa prefers a much more natural way of doing things. To Rams, industrial design should be intuitive, so that people can easily figure out how to work products. Fukasawa, on the other hand, bypasses even this. Instead, he believes that design should be instinctual- one should be able to use the products without even thinking. On paper, this may seem like a very slight difference, but in practise it makes all the difference.

For instance, Rams tends to use a lot or hard edges in his designs. On the other hand, Fukasawa prefers more natural curves to invite the user in. Ergonomics are key to Fukasawa’s designs, since they should be fit (pun intended) seamlessly into the user’s everyday life. What’s more, his products tend to be a little more playful than Rams’, such as the trompe l’oeil of the aforementioned CD player, or a humidifier which resembles a giant doughnut. Rams isn’t afraid to make a product look industrial, so long as it works. In contrast, Fukasawa shies away from anything which would make his designs too conspicuous. In essence, he is the Brian Eno of design- creating “ambient” pieces that are content to fade into the background.

 

Muji

Luckily for Fukasawa, he came across a company that shared his distinctive approach to design: Muji. Founded in 1980, their name translates into English as “no-brand”. True to their name, they don’t use any conventional marketing techniques. Instead, they focus on functionality over aesthetics- making them a perfect fit for Fukasawa. It was Muji who produced his distinctive CD player, and he has gone on to design many more products for them. Today, he sits on the Muji advisory board, and is one of the few designers who the company publicly acknowledges working with. We'll be taking a closer look at Muji in a future blog post, to examine just how a "brandless" company became an international powerhouse of design.