I believe I've found my favorite logo. Of course it's in Japan and it involves cats. The logo is for Yamato Transport, a domestic shipping company and you see it everywhere – at convenience stores, on the sides of trucks, on random signs. You basically fill out a form at the convenience store or anywhere you see that logo and your package gets picked up for delivery. I think what's so perfect about this logo is how clear and simple it is, yet it conveys the company's concept on both an emotional and practical level. It's abstract enough that it can be used in many contexts, from small labels all the way up to giant billboards at the airport, and in color or in black and white. It has that “Japan cute” thing that immediately identifies it as Japanese. But it's not so anthropomorphic that it's creepy, like some Japanese animal logos are, or too cutesy as to be not taken seriously. And of course the concept is brilliant: it's a mama cat carrying a baby cat in her mouth. Implications: your package will surely be taken care of as well as that baby cat, and it'll be delivered as quick as a cat.Beyond cleverly designed logos, Japan is the land of Good Design. They seem to take the time to think about systems – take the shinkansen (bullet train), for example. Every station has a wealth of signs in Japanese and English directing you to the right place. They even have signs on the platform for each car, and which escalator is closest with which car. Lines on the ground demarcate where you stand to queue up for getting on the train. On the train, an LED sign lets you know which stations are coming up next, and which station the train will be immediately arriving at. And trains are ridiculously punctual, they leave exactly on time and I swear you could set your watch by them. The Japanese seem to put a lot into the design of the experience rather than just “the train” or “the bathroom”, perhaps that is what sets my experience of Japan apart from everywhere else we've been. But good design is just as much about execution as it is about the concept, and the Japanese have it down to a science. You can see the fanatical attention to detail in the bento boxes, houses and office buildings, even the toilet seats. Everything has to be just-so. One piece of carrot too many and you've thrown the balance off. I've been thinking a lot about karate lately in relation to what I've seen, and how much time one spends on precision and getting it right, because putting your foot at fifty degrees is not at all the same as putting it forty five degrees. And the idea of always polishing whatever it is that you're doing (ren ma) is expressed in the carefully perfect rows of crops in the fields, the beautifully maintained taxis, the small tended gardens in front of urban homes. I am far from an expert on Zen Buddhist philosophy, but I do think it has influenced the design sense in Japan. I've noticed that there is a simplicity in the design of temples compared to what we saw in Thailand and China. Simple but not simplistic – it's about letting the materials speak for themselves rather than adding too much embellishment. In a contemporary expression of this, take for instance the food packaging, which I adore – contrast between matte and shiny textures, lots of white space, sweeping and bold calligraphy, subtle patterns, coordinated palettes across a product line, a glimpse of the product through the packaging. A good example is the small shops that specialize in selling sweets like mochi or small baked cakes because each has its own signature design. The individual wrapper, inside and outside of the box, paper that wraps the box, and the shopping bag that the box goes in are all coordinated. And of course the packaging harmoniously coordinates with the physical space of the shop. Sometimes the packaging is so nice that you don't even want to open the package and eat the damned thing. And of course you can't forget the ultimate in Zen lifestyle design – Muji! I totally geeked out when we went to the 3-floor Muji near Yurakucho Station in Tokyo and loaded up on pens, stationery and random plastic containers. They had everything: a cafe/grocery area, furniture, clothing, beauty and bath products, potted and cut flowers, even an eyeglass center. Btw I totally think that Muji sends the not-so-well-designed stuff to America because the clothing selection in the store in New York is Crap compared to what we saw. Anyways, it's everything Muji is known for: beautiful, subtle packaging and labels, natural and soft colors, clever and thoughtful design touches. I think it was just the range of stuff that blew my mind in terms of the consistency in feel across such a diverse array of products, but it's just a reflection of how the philosophy of “no brand” can actually be the strongest identifier of brand. Lastly, I've found that Japanese designers are trying to engage beyond just the packaging where the designer takes on the role of cultural anthropologist. I picked up a very interesting magazine from D&Department promoting the idea of “design travel”, where this design group sends an editor/designer to live in a prefecture for a few months to do research by interviewing locals about projects that are specific to the context of the place. For example, the current issue features a furniture designer who's moved back to Kagoshima to set up a studio that uses traditional methods, a designer of some of the trains used on Kyushu, and a soy sauce brewer that's been around since 1785. Once the time period is up, the research material is gathered and published in a bilingual magazine issue. In addition, a“design travel office”, designed in collaboration with local designers, is set up in that prefecture to support further promotional activities. They even have an iPhone app that you can use as a reference point when you're traveling in the prefecture. The design group has found the ultimate way to fight against crappy package tour travel and to help promote these small, context-specific projects that make a place so special and worth visiting in the first place. (You can pick up the magazine and other great design related books and goods at Aoyama Bookstore in Roppongi).
A few months ago I had been reevaluating my understanding of what the practice of design is. I had been so focused on the web for the past couple of years that it was hard for me to see beyond the pixels – usability, elegance, web standards, etc etc. After attending the Better World by Design conference in September I realized that many of the projects I was interested in were collaborative, contextual initiatives that were focused on a process rather than just the end result, and some had nothing whatsoever to do with the web. I was totally lamenting my lack of skills and knowledge in other mediums because it seemed like so many of the presenters had such specialized knowledge. Then I sort of shelved all this thinking because I was like, dude, we're going on a trip!But! Once we got going of course I couldn't stop thinking about design. Some of the things that I've seen on this trip now have me completely convinced that everyone can be a designer – if I just tweak what my definition of design is. It's not about years of schooling, in fact it's quite the opposite. It's really about jumping in, trying things out and learning from mistakes. It's about knowing a little something about everything – from physics to plumbing to chicken wrangling to business basics – or asking somebody who knows about it or reading up on it. It's taking your resources – whether it's skills, people, materials, knowledge – and figuring out a process to serve some kind of purpose. It takes creativity to mix those things together and to see constraints as a positive aspect. And it's being honest with yourself about the success of a process, and figuring out where you can make improvements or even to start all over again. We saw ingenious solutions for dealing with water, from capture to storage to irrigation to filtering to making it hot, and they were created with a minimum of technology and parts so that maintenance can be easily done by many people. Various composting processes take advantage of the climate or properties of different microorganisms. I could see the design evolution of the earthen buildings at Pun Pun, where successful features like termite-proof concrete foundations and spaces under the eaves for air circulation have been incorporated, and formulas for exterior finishes have been refined over time. It's also been helpful to have other community projects that I've visited in the past like Bulungula to compare with to see how specific environmental and cultural conditions impacted the solution to similar problems. Gaining experience doesn't have to take a lifetime, either. A short tutorial with a morning practical of building adobe bricks, and then plastering and painting a bench in an afternoon, made building so much more approachable, tangible and possible. It seems like the key is to have hands-on workshops where people can get a taste for a particular process and then they can take it as far as they want, and to constantly circulate people back into the community to share new techniques and successful methods. You can't discount the power of collaboration in this definition of design either. Nobody knows everything, and it's so much better to share that knowledge; people who are new to it may have some great insights into a process because they're fresh to it. And above all a successful project is dependent upon possessing complete confidence that everyone you're working with is one hundred percent capable of being a great designer.