Before landing in Narita, most of my exposure to Japanese design was stuff-for-export-to-the-US: toys, consumer electronics, anime, clothing, etc. It wasn’t until we landed at Narita and started making our way to the hotel that I realized just how different the two countries actually are. Sure, the language and cultural barriers are pretty steep, but there’s also some fundamental differences in how Japanese designers address problems.
Here’s one example: luggage. In the states, luggage is all about ease of movement through airports or accessories that make your luggage clip to other luggage and so on. The problem is, “how do I move a bunch of bags from my house to the airport to the hotel and back again?” and the answer is the latest and greatest products from Victorinox, Samsonite, and their ilk.
In Japan, this problem is solved with an actual service, not better luggage. It’s trivial to drop your luggage off at the airport and have it delivered to your hotel, or delivered from your hotel to another hotel or back to the airport. Within Japan, we travelled only with overnight bags, our massive luggage were dropped off at the front desk of one hotel and delivered to our room at the next.
I don’t think that someone actually said, “how can we solve the luggage problem” as much as someone saw a business opportunity. Yamato Transport doesn’t just move luggage, they move pretty much anything from one point to another. Services instead of consumable products were everywhere. Instead of a stack of napkins at the restaurant, we were given steamed hand-towels. Instead of a bunch of signs at a construction site warning passersby of danger, a real, live human apologized for the inconvenience and directed traffic as needed.
When we checked in to our hotel — jetlagged and confused — we discovered a few other little touches that made a huge difference in our stay and how we thought about our environment. After finding our room and dumping our luggage, we were confused by the fact that the power was out. It took us a few minutes to find the slot by the door where you store your (RFID enabled) room key. When you’re in the room, you put your key in the slot, and the power is turned on for your room. When you leave and take the key with you, everything except the fridge and the washer/dryer are automatically powered down. Not only do you always know where you room key is, but you get a daily reminder of how much energy is wasted by standby power or lights that were accidentally left on.
We were also happy to find that our hotel had a “washlet“, and by the end of our stay we were trying to figure out how to smuggle one home. And also wondering if, perhaps, the Japanese think we’re a bunch of dirty savages when it comes to bathroom hygiene. I’m sure the toilet paper industry would not be happy about the mass adoption of washlets in the States, but I think it’s something that’d probably be better for us (and the environment) in the long run. Washlets are another case of the “service instead of commodity” thinking — instead of buying the best/nicest toilet paper you can afford by the pallet at Costco, why not have a toilet that does most of the cleaning for you?
I’ll end on a question that popped into my head while trying to find a trashcan on the streets of Tokyo,
“Can you design a solution that doesn’t create new consumption patterns?”
 For the purposes of simplicity, I’m not going to try and guess whether it was a service designer, interaction designer, UE designer, industrial designer, or whatever designer that designed things that I used.
Technorati Tags: design, japan