What challenges should designers face now, as found at the GOOD DESIGN AWARDs.

FOCUSED ISSUES is a GOOD DESIGN AWARD initiative that depicts the future of design in society through the screening process.


FOCUSED ISSUES of this article

Just the right design

Leave space, and leave it to someone else in the end. Trust in users results in the creation of products that people can live with for a long time


The role of design is to find a “just right” relationship between people, the environment, and technology

I got involved in the GOOD DESIGN AWARD as a FOCUSED ISSUES Director, which was a good opportunity to rethink what design can do to contribute to society today.

Many people still often think that design makes something superficially beautiful or special. But you will find that is not always the case when you know about the history of design. On the contrary, tracing the history of modern design reveals that it was the other way around.

Modern design originated in England at the end of the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. The Arts and Crafts Movement, which began with thinker John Ruskin and thinker and artist William Morris, is said to be its origin. This movement raised a question on the situation where a large number of low-quality commodities and furniture appeared on the market owing to machine production. It was an indignant movement to restore the traditional culture and aesthetics of medieval Europe. Modern design was born out of an attempt to strike a balance by introducing aesthetics and resisting a society moving into mass production and mass consumption with new machine production technologies.

This was picked up by the Bauhaus, an educational institution founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. By this time, with the active acceptance of machine production, the balance between people, the environment, and technology had been struck through trial and error. The cornerstone of modern design was laid during this period. Design began as an attempt to find just the right relationship with ever-changing technology and its surroundings, and harmonize it, not as an attempt to make an object special.

Design with such an idealistic starting point was gradually incorporated into the market economy in the second half of the 20th century. Before we knew it, design began to play the role of encouraging consumption by differentiating objects and making them look special in order to arouse users' desire. Unfortunately, I cannot deny that designers, including myself, have taken part in this scheme. I think behind this was the social assumption that it was good to increase consumption and expand the economy. As a result, the economy has grown significantly, and our lives have become richer. In the 21st century, however, the limits of our pursuit of endless growth are becoming clear capitalistically and global environmentally.

I wonder if society needs the latent power of design to shape "just right" once again. With awareness of this issue, I set the theme of "just the right design" for FOCUSED ISSUES.

What is "just right" for the future?

"Just right" is not immutable. "Just right" changes with the times. The "just right" that Bauhaus aimed for in the early days of mass production should be different from the "just right" that we aim for now 100 years later.

To help you think about "just right" for the future, you can refer to the concept of the Doughnut Economics proposed by Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University.

Picture a doughnut. The area within the boundary of the hole in the middle of the doughnut represents minimal social foundations, such as food, housing, or education. Outside the inner boundary represents the lack of the essentials of life. On the other hand, the exterior of the doughnut is the environmental limits of the Earth. If the environmental limits are exceeded, the global environment will be destroyed, climate change will occur, and biodiversity will be lost. The Doughnut Economics is not to pursue economic growth but to improve social welfare without exceeding the global environmental limits, which means to stay in the doughnut. In other words, we should aim for a "just right" society that is perfect for humans and the Earth.


Design to eliminate unequal distribution

So how can we achieve a "just right" design? Looking at the winners of this year's GOOD DESIGN AWARD, I have seen some hints.

The first is to correct unequal distribution.

As we have seen, many social problems occur in and out of the doughnut. That is, they are caused by shortage or excess. Modern society is an unbalanced society where the problems of hunger and food loss occur at the same time. There are many instances where, for some reason, resources are not distributed fairly across the board, resulting in unequal distribution. Efforts to solve unequal distribution by connecting distant needs and dispersing resources will be critical to creating a "just right" society.

For example, HOWS Renovation "Kunitachi House.” According to Nomura Research Institute, while 20 million homes across Japan are estimated to be vacant by 2033, some 850,000 new homes are built each year. Kunitachi House is a project that has the potential to improve this unhealthy situation by unlocking the potential of old homes.

Until now, there were only two choices for most used properties: renovation or skeleton (only the framework of the building after all the interior, equipment, and partition walls are removed). However, Kunitachi House is sold as skeleton housing renovated to meet strict standards required of today's houses, such as legal compliance, earthquake resistance, and heat insulation. It is not just renovation or skeleton. By offering a new option, they incorporate both advantages in just the right way, and rebuild old homes as social assets.

These ideas may be applied not only to housing but also to other fields. At present, there is a lively debate in Europe and the United States about the right to repair, which is the right of users to repair purchased products without going through the manufacturer. By incorporating repair and renovation into the design beforehand, we may be able to change the consumption cycle that promotes excessive production and disposal.
A project of refined skeleton-infill housing of a thirty-year detached house. It is sold as skeleton housing with renovation planned to comply with current laws and upgraded earthquake resistance and heat insulation. Infill design is created with the resident for a tailor-made living style. Ensuring basic features, compliance, freedom to design, it meets the demands of used house distribution.

Fast DOCTOR is another good example of design to improve unequal distribution. This is a health care platform that connects patients and doctors at night and on holidays to achieve sustainable community health care. Partly because the aging population has increased the number of solitary households, many emergency calls are for a minor illness or injury which does not require emergency transport. As a result, delays in dealing with critically ill patients have created a social problem. Primary care doctors, who provide community care, are required to make house calls 24 hours a day, increasing the burden on doctors. Fast DOCTORS provide support to primary care doctors by offering online consultations and house calls at night and on holidays. By decentralizing medical services through the division of labor and collaboration, it is designed to provide patients with more options for medical care and to decrease the burden on the health care system.

In addition, they have launched a service to provide medical care combined with home-nursing visits by distributing online medical resources, which tend to be concentrated in urban areas to areas with fewer doctors. By taking advantage of location-agnostic benefits of digital technology, they aim to provide appropriate medical care to people in areas where access to medical care is difficult owing to a shortage of doctors and eliminate the unequal distribution of medical care in cities and rural areas.
There have been limited means available for sudden illness or injury at night or on holidays (calling an ambulance or going to a hospital that provides night-time/holiday care). Fast DOCTOR suggests and provides appropriate medical procedures by assessing the urgency of symptoms, providing nearby hospital information, and arranging for home medical care (house calls/online medical care).

Design to stay together for a long time, not to make an impact on the sales floor

Another important perspective in achieving "just right" is the length of the time horizon to consider when designing.

It takes time to determine whether a design is really "just right" or not. Even if a design that focuses only on the sales floor appears to have solved a problem, it often causes other problems in the long run. A "Just right" design can be said to be design taking a long time horizon into consideration with a strong will in economic activities demanding short-term results.

In society before the spread of social media, it was difficult for companies to listen to the real voices of consumers. They had no choice but to measure the success and failure of products based on purchase data. For this reason, design has been required to attract consumers' attention at the sales floor, and convey product characteristics at a glance, thereby lowering explanatory costs and contributing to sales.

However, we are now in an age where user opinions after purchase are visualized and shared through social media. The way we buy things has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Online sales are becoming more common. People are more likely to read company websites and see reviews before buying. Design has begun to be evaluated from long-term perspectives, such as why and how it was made, or whether it works and is comfortable to use in life, rather than the impact on the sales floor.

My First Stationery Set for Primary School by Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. is not very decorated unlike other children's stationery. It may have a little impact in shops, but it is designed for children to easily use in their lives because it is flexible to accept their individual way of using it. The price reduced by omitting decoration may also help close the education gap, which has become a serious problem in recent years.
This series of stationery is suitable to start a primary school pupil's education with. Taking into account the perspective of school children and also their parents and teachers, we rethink the elements necessary for studying. They omit excess information or decoration; the stationery leaves room for creativity and ingenuity while using it. The products are reasonably priced for everyone.

The Hitachi Cordless Stick Vacuum Cleaner, a GOOD DESIGN GOLD AWARD winner, is another great example. Recycled plastics are used for more than 40 percent of the body, exterior parts, and accessories, and it has succeeded in reducing environmental burden by minimized painting and printing. In developed countries, where vacuum cleaners are common, vacuum cleaners already have sufficient high capability to satisfy the inner boundaries of the above Doughnut Economics. If this is the case, it makes sense to aim to develop products with lower environmental impact.

In the future, not only products but also corporate philosophies and attitudes toward social and environmental issues that were previously difficult to see in stores will become more visible. I think companies that make decisions with conviction at every point in the supply chain often earn respect, have strong fan communities, and consequently lead to business success.
They aimed to realize a highly recycling society by actively utilizing recycled plastic materials in stick cleaners, which are home appliances used by many people. While replacing not only the internal parts but also many parts that make up the product, including accessories and exterior parts, with recycled plastic, they chalked on the design without impairing the appearance quality.

Space left for users creates "just right"

So far, we have looked at tips and examples of how to achieve a "just right design," which is the theme of this year’s FOCUSED ISSUES. In order to achieve a "just right design," it is important to look further than ever in space and time, and try to incorporate the design object within the doughnut. To achieve this, it is important to involve many people with different perspectives. Furthermore, I believe that the curiosity and flexibility to use imagination to involve people on the other side of the world, not only humans but also other living beings, as well as apparently unrelated things, will create the next "just right" design.

On the other hand, "just right" is a physical and personal sense. Feelings that fit into the body are difficult to verbalize and share. The hard-to-verbalize bodily feelings, whether the product fits the body and fits into the lifestyle, the details are calm and fit the space, and the experience flow is smooth, largely determine the quality of the final design. In order to get society to implement the idea of making "just right" and to get many people to accept it, I think it is important to look at the entire picture and listen to the small voice of the body at the same time.

Because the "just right" feeling is personal, there should be space left for the diversity of users in design. In other words, instead of imposing usage restrictions and values on users, leave space in the design and leave it to them in the end. Trust users and respect their autonomy. The more items and time to consider in the first place, the more complex the stakes become and the harder it is to come up with an answer. It may be closer to a sense of balancing various factors like mediating a dispute, rather than solving problems. Because it is important that the answer is in the doughnut, there should be a "just right" range. The range is the space.

As for the award winners I mentioned earlier, Kunitachi House satisfies the basic performance of residential buildings and leaves “how to live” to users as space, which creates the “just right.” My First Stationery Set for Primary School by Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. also has space to allow various children to use it in their own way.

Design with rich space may seem bland and sometimes inhospitable, but its space gives rise to a range of acceptance and uses, which will be "just right" for many users. It has been a long time since the terms "design in the broad sense" and "design in the narrow sense" were used. I think the state in which the macro and micro perspectives are linked creates a "just right" design, rather than separating them.

Gen Suzuki

Product Designer|Director, GEN SUZUKI STUDIO

Suzuki is a graduate of the Design Products Program at the Royal College of Art in the UK. After working at Panasonic Corporation and the London and Boston offices of IDEO, he established GEN SUZUKI STUDIO. He collaborates with domestic and international firms, including Herman Miller, Casper and OMRON with a seamless approach between living and design at a studio set up in his house. He has won prizes including IDEA Gold Award, GERMAN DESIGN AWARD Gold Award, and his works are part of the permanent Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum collection. He is a part-time lecturer at Tama Art University and Musashino Art University. Chair of Product Design of British D&AD Awards 2021