Design guru Naoto Fukasawa's philosophy of sleek simplicity and user-friendliness has influenced many top design firms with blue chip technology clients
When Meral Middleton, a senior industrial designer at Portland (Ore.)-based Ziba Design, faced the challenge of designing a concept computer for client Intel (INTC) in only three months last year, she looked to a collection of photographs posted on a board near her desk for quick inspiration. Among them were numerous pictures of ultra-sleek, minimalist personal electronics—including phones, a CD player, and a humidifier (as seen to the right)—with simple, intuitive interfaces by the Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa.
Fukasawa, who is based in Tokyo, might not have the "rock star" status and widespread recognition of Apple (AAPL) designer Jonathan Ive, the name that most C-suite executives drop when discussing the power of design as a business strategy. But among industrial designers at top design firms across the U.S. who have created popular products for leading companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and, yes, Apple, Fukasawa is the guru of spare, elegant product design.
His influence among the current generation of industrial designers is unmistakable. Lunar Design's Principal and Director of Design Ken Wood, for example, says Fukasawa's work inspired his team when designing the Apple PowerBook 100, released in 1993; Smart Design's Director of Insights and Strategy Tim Wallack says Fukasawa's focus on simplicity and ease-of-use influenced designers at his firm when working on the Photosmart 375 printer for Hewlett-Packard, which the company says outsold its expectations fivefold after it was launched in 2004.
Managers at corporations looking for models of inventive, user-friendly products would be wise to familiarize themselves with Fukasawa's design strategies. (Fukasawa is the subject of a just-released and lushly illustrated book from Phaidon Press, Naoto Fukasawa, a rich resource for those unfamiliar with products he has designed—many of which are only available in Japan.)
"He is quite passionate about the seamless integration between industrial design and interaction design, and the idea of simplicity and magic," says Ziba's Middleton. "He focuses on creating objects that are in harmony with the environment around them. His overarching effect on design is really about shifting design from being object-centric to an approach of creating dialogue with object and user."
The Déjà Vu Hook
Middleton took these Fukasawa-influenced ideas and applied them to her PC design for Intel, and devised a concept computer that is inspired by the traditional Japanese shoji screen. The hard drive is housed in a spare, white casing, which is slightly angled to balance when standing upright on a desk. It's designed to provide privacy for workers in an open-plan office—like a shoji screen. And the ventilation system is provided by small holes that form the pattern of bamboo stalks, a decorative and practical touch. It's an example of innovative design that balances aesthetics and usability in a powerful and original way. (At this time, Intel does not have plans to manufacture the Shoji PC, as Middleton named her project, but the company is presenting it at internal meetings and events.)
The Shoji PC illustrates one of Fukasawa's key strategies of incorporating traditional elements in the design of new products. He says that evoking another, perhaps even unrelated object helps to breed a sense of déjà vu among potential customers, and therefore instant familiarity with new and innovative products. "When I work on something, I tend to extract the essence from existing relationships between people and objects," Fukasawa explains via e-mail from Tokyo. "I think this is the same as working on something that is totally new. There are always shared memories [of objects] we can import and apply into new product developments."
Products "Without Thought"
It's a strategy clearly at play in one of Fukasawa's most iconic products, his 1999 wall-mounted CD player, designed for Japanese home accessories maker MUJI. The device is meant to recall a fan—you can watch the CD spin like a fan's blades via a clear window, and the power cord that houses an on-off switch hangs down from the wall mount like a pull cord. The idea behind the CD player's design was to hint at an object that potential buyers might already know—and draw them to the newer product.
This design also illustrates Fukasawa's concept of "without thought." Fukasawa explains that this refers to creating products that are intuitive and instinctive to use. Fukasawa uses an elegant and universal metaphor to describe what "without thought" means. "When we walk and take steps on the ground, we sense and choose the surface for each step. But this is more about our subconscious response," he writes. "However, being subconscious does not mean to be without thinking. It means that our brain may not be conscious about something, but parts of our body such as hands and legs recognize the environments and react to the situations or to things."
Career by Design
Fukasawa, who was born in Yamanashi, Japan, in 1956, got his start at Seiko Epson in the early 1980s, where he worked on watch design and other electronics. He moved to San Francisco in 1989, joining ID TWO, the design consulting firm that later became IDEO—the only such design company to appear on BusinessWeek's list of The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2007. Tim Brown, IDEO's chief executive and president, recalls Fukasawa at work. "Naoto has been a preeminent practitioner of simple, human-centered, essential, and often humorous design, and through this has influenced many designers," he says.
Fukasawa left IDEO's San Francisco office in 1996 to establish the firm in Tokyo, and he worked there until 2003, when he set up his own practice, Naoto Fukasawa Design. Today, he has a staff of nine, and is currently working on about 50 projects, for clients ranging from Japan's Matsushita Electric Works, to fashionable European furniture maker Vitra, as well as his own home accessories line, Plus Minus Zero. But his ties to IDEO have remained strong and he regularly returns to run workshops with the company's designers.
In Fukasawa's book, Dezain no rinkaku (Outline of Design), published in Japan in 2005, he discusses his idea of how designers should "remove oneself" from objects. "By that, I didn't necessarily mean make yourself anonymous. When designing something, you have to consider and then decide which factors are most important to your final product," he says. "The design will materialize as you begin to work with the factors you've decided are most important. But a designer who then adds something for the sake of expressing the self is letting his ego get the best of him. There's no reason for the extra curve and yet it's there to signify this is a signature item."
The designer also believes that "haptic branding"—creating a distinctive feel and not just an eye-catching look—is a wise design strategy. "When people use the same product over and over again, tactile memories [made] with hands, fingers, or with the other part of our bodies can serve as 'brand recognition,'" he says. Fukasawa's 2005 plastic self-inking rubber stamp, made for Japan's Shachihata, featured an indentation in its spare, cylindrical silhouette. The indentation is meant to guide users instinctively toward the proper orientation of the stamp, so characters would be printed right-side-up on the page. But the indentation also serves as "haptic" branding for Shachihata.
"There's so much focus on 'big I' innovation—as in the game changers, the category killers, the disruptive tech these days," says Smart Design's Wallack. "I think Fukasawa makes a big case for the power of 'little I,' or quiet innovation.
"Most designers think of people as 'users' and we look for problems we can solve," Wallack continues. "Fukasawa looks for what will delight and surprise. He considers the whole person and asks, 'What could really delight?' And now that the time has come when most of us have too much stuff and don't have the patience to read manuals, an extra bit of delight makes people want to buy a product. If it's focused and simple, they'll respond to it well."
Click here for the slide show.
All images of Fukasawa's work are courtesy of Phaidon Press. They appear in Naoto Fukasawa, edited by Naoto Fukasawa with essays by Antony Gormley, Jasper Morrison, and others, published by Phaidon Press, 2007, www.phaidon.com.
With Kenji Hall in Tokyo.