Blog all aha! moments: Naoto Fukasawa, part 1

On his Tecznotes blog, good ol’ Mike Migurski has a neat practice called “Blog All Dog-Eared Pages” (e.g.). Well, as it happens, I tend not to dog-ear my books: although Nurri insists that the true mark of respectful engagement with a book is precisely to mark it up and crimp it and generally leave it bearing obvious signs of the encounter, I was raised to treat books as something close to holy.

So dog-earing is out. Nevertheless, the sentiment is correct, and I’m straight-up ganking Mike’s trope to get into a little more detail on Phaidon’s excellent book on Naoto Fukasawa, mentioned here just the other day. You probably won’t be surprised that just about every page provokes some thought in me, so consider these merely a first installment:

Page 21, the celebrated Muji “window fan” CD player
Apparently, there was quite a struggle getting the engineers to accept that a more traditional precision short-pull switch was all wrong for this device. As Fukasawa understood and successfully argued for, there’s a deep relationship between form, the other experiences with which that form resonates, and the interaction quality suggested by those resonances. The man prevailed, and a “clunky” long-pull switch was selected for the final production version.

Anybody who’s ever worked on a Japanese product-development team will understand precisely what was at stake here, and how subtle Fukasawa’s efforts at persuasion must have been. I’m in awe, reminded of a long-standing wish that I knew how to be more effectively persuasive when working on a design team, without losing my cool. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve worked on where my sense of the correct measure was equal to Fukasawa’s here, yet, whether through overstating my case, or failing to make it in the first place, my viewpoint was overruled. It’s all well and good revelling in the putative independence of “not being a team player,” but sometimes the design suffers for that vanity.

Page 22-23, “Erasing physical existence” (!)
With the mundanely gorgeous INAX Tile Light, Fukasawa engages the single most pressing issue of design for the everyware age: what is the designer’s responsibility when an object’s functionality is absolutely impossible to determine from its form or appearance?

The Tile Light is an incandescent lighting element indistinguishable, in its unlit state, from the other standard white ceramic tiles surrounding it, and I am cleaved in half temperamentally by the problems it raises. As designed object and intellectual object both, it derives all of its substantial power and beauty from the fact of this indistinguishability, to the point that any intervention whatsoever intended to announce its presence or explain its use would be to miss the point entirely. In Fukasawa’s words, “when the light is not on, it goes back to being a tile”: it fades away, it’s anonymous, that’s why it’s beautiful and, to my mind, there’s almost no better concrete illustration of Mark Weiser’s idea of functionality that’s “invisible, but in the woodwork everywhere.”

But – and isn’t there always a “but”? – this anonymous quality is also the Tile Light’s Achilles heel. Assume for the sake of argument that the tile really is effectively indistinguishable from its peers on visual inspection. How do you know which one to pry out when the lightbulb dies? Still more problematically, should such funtionality be actuated not by an external switch but by some embedded (pressure, capacitance) sensor, how do you even know it’s there and available to begin with?

You might say that here’s where the minimalist aesthetic I cherish crashes directly into the humanist usability practice I champion – and if things were really that simple, I’m afraid there would be no contest between the two. But part of Fukasawa’s point, as it was part of Weiser’s point, is that the disappearance from view is itself a humanist gesture: it reduces clutter, distraction, psychic overload and the very real risk of option fatigue. No easy answers here, but the provocation is at least bound up in something surpassingly lovely and humble.

Page 48-49, KDDI Ishicoro mobile phone
On its face, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that a phone should be designed to afford moments of pleasure when worn, carried, held or (as can be the case) unconsciously stroked. Nor is there anything amiss, at first blush, with the form factor Fukasawa’s chosen here, one with the smoothed heft and concavity of a river stone – Nicolas Nova will confirm that I once stole just such a stone straight off a Geneva table, because I’d spent the entirety of a long happy dinner compulsively burnishing it with the ball of my thumb.

Two things come to mind, though. One is the practical blobjection that the Ishicoro, like any irregularly convex lump, doesn’t play very nice with the other, predominantly flat-surfaced things we use and carry. It’s not stackable, it doesn’t balance, and, well, is that a river stone in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

The other thought is a little harder to pin down. It has to do with the commodity nature of mobile phones: is it even fair for the form factor of something you’re inevitably going to trade out in a year or so to suggest timelessness (and invite longterm sensual engagement)?

Page 59, Muji air cleaner
“The remote-control unit that comes with the air purifier is the same size and shape as a cigarette pack, and the buttons are the same circumference as a cigarette”: this strikes me as a rare instance of Fukasawa getting a little overinvested in a conceit. It’s, at best, a stretch.

Of course, unless there’s some countervailing standard, or argument from human factors, there’s no reason why the controls shouldn’t be shaped this way. But I’m not overjoyed when designers indulge themselves in this kind of cuteness, for the sake of a hermetic in-joke that makes sense only internally. I’m occasionally guilty of this as a writer, I always know when I’m doing it, and the bad faith always makes me cringe later.

Page 70-71, on the +/- 0 mindset
“In the twenty years since 1980, I have, as a product designer…” Wow, I hadn’t understood he’d been working that long.

“A load was taken off my mind when I understood that there’s no one shape that appeals to everyone, and that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ shape in isolation of function…I believe that designers had begun to realize that design for the sake of changing something or to give meaningless form to things was somehow not right.” [Stormy, prolonged applause.]

Page 84-85, Assimilating into the surroundings: +/- 0 Coffee Maker
“The corner radius of the bottom of this square coffee maker matches [that of] the tray that specifically goes with it. When the legs for the tray are attached, it becomes a small table.” This strikes me as being overly brittle design. I’m not so comfortable, in fact, any time something is precision-machined to mate with another non-mission-critical component that “specifically goes with it.” The coffee maker, yes, goes with the tray…but then the tray is broken, damaged, misplaced, or lost. (This goes double for the tray legs.) And then, forever after, the coffee maker doesn’t “go with” anything else quite as nicely. I almost feel like this is a physical argument for open standards.

Page 102-103, +/- 0 Cordless Telephone
If Dieter Rams had been born Japanese.

More to come.

3 responses to “Blog all aha! moments: Naoto Fukasawa, part 1”

  1. Ben Kraal says :

    I borrowed this from the library here at work. It’s a lovely book. And one of the best instances I’ve come across of describing human centred industrial design.

  2. mdediana says :

    Let me do a quick publicity that you, as someone who considers books holy, may find useful: (I have nothing to do with the company, I just like their products).

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