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Designing Rules for New Asians

Updated and adapted, our philosophies can help create aesthetics that are world-class, modern and Asian.

In the world of desires, there is often tension between what looks best, and what works. In fashion, that special look is key, even if haute couture may be unwearable beyond the runway. Other products, however, are primarily judged by their function.

For electronic devices, the critical features – gigabytes, megahertz, or some other tech measurement – are specified on the side of the packaging in small print. In the past, these engineer-created devices didn’t look great but some were iconic. For every Walkman, many more were nondescript, performing and looking much like their competitors. Think back to the 1990s and that office computer in shades of beige. You did not like it, but there seemed to be no alternative.

Then, the engineers were challenged by usurper designers, and the balance shifted. Wallpaper magazine, launched in 1996, brought design to the masses and generated more attention than any technical brochure (who ever reads product manuals?). Then, there was the second coming of Steve Jobs at Apple, and the original iMac.

The engineers scoffed. The iMac did little that was newer or better than normal desktops. Moreover, it was not versatile. It had no slots to allow geeks to upgrade processors or a floppy-disk drive. Yet, the iMac was a hit and game changer.

Apple and Jobs rethought the norms to offer USB, meld the monitor with the CPU, and get rid of messy cables to reduce clutter and set-up time. Like a bright star in the bland universe of beige and boxy, the iMac offered translucent candy-coloured plastics and a cool, egg-like shape; in a word, design.
We were transfixed. Now, how an electronic gizmo looks and feels are probably the most important criteria – not the precise technical specifications.

To survive, devices must offer touchscreen and a gleaming, svelte body (like Kate Moss, if she were a gadget). Our prioritising of design applies not only to gizmos, but also to what we wear, drive, what our houses look like and so much else in our lives. Design is everywhere and nearly everything. Adapt or die.

Look at the Blackberry, now something of an endangered species. Its keyboard is still best-in-class and, yet, customers under the sway of design prefer touchscreen and endure the many misstatements that come about from predictive text (which remains hilariously unpredictable).

Looks and decoration can overwhelm function. When that happens, we suffer products that are fussy and overly complex; boutiques where the fripperies get in the way of customers and merchandise; and restaurants whose themes border on amusement park.

Yet, despite the excesses, design is taken seriously today not only by companies, but by entire countries – like South Korea.

The chaebols realised, as costs and prices rose from the 1990s, that design could keep their products competitive. Trendy design is evident in the Samsung Galaxy mobile devices and some cars, and contributes to Seoul’s overall hip reputation (not to mention plastic surgery that “redesigns” your look).

Much of this, however, is only clever catch-up copying. Despite gaining market share, Samsung is dogged by accusations – both in court and among design aficionados – that it apes Apple. To build up its retail outlets, it hired the man who designed Apple Stores, a certain Tim Gudgel. Similarly, South Korean carmaker Kia hired Peter Schreyer, the former chief designer from Audi and Volkswagen. He’s launched a “tiger nose” to make the Korean car an “object of desire”.

Imitation may be a compliment, but Asians need not copy the West, or hire only Westerners as key designers. To get beyond low-cost manufacturing and copy-cat items, there are two intertwining needs. First, the world of ideas, aesthetics and design must be incorporated into the engineering mindset (and some engineers remain indeed very set in their minds). Design must not be treated as extrinsic and fussy, a superficiality, but as intrinsic to the object. Products must both look and feel right, and function well.

Second, design in Asia should find its own path and precepts. After all, Asian art and thought have been major forces in American contemporary art – as recognised in the Guggenheim Museum’s key 2009 exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia (now a book and available on-line).

There has always been an ongoing exchange between different traditions. There are beliefs that can – when updated and adapted – help create designs that are world-class, modern and also Asian. Try Japanese philosophies, like the idea of kanketsu, which means simplicity.

This well describes a company like Muji that, at its best, delivers deceivingly simple solutions to daily needs. Or the concept of iki – elegance and sophistication that avoid being arrogant and exuberant; something like understated chic. A geisha viewed in Gion district is iki; Miley Cyrus isn’t. A Delvaux bag inherited from your mother is, whereas something with a loud and showy logo printed all over the leather, isn’t.

We don’t have to turn Japanese (although if given snow crab, oden and onsen on a dark winter’s day, I might consider). Nor should we stereotype and artificially split East from West. Here are things to open our eyes to design. First, recognise what you like to use and try to figure out why they work for you. Conversely, look at objects that others desire but that you somehow don’t. For instance, while we all admire the look of an iPad, I don’t use mine much.

I realised this was because of its size and weight and lack of a keyboard. For reading, I still favour the tactile feel of a book and have a habit of scribbling in the margins, so I actively look for thinner novellas and essays to read when travelling.

The second suggestion is this: Seek out design that you like in daily life. When typing a document, don’t settle for the default font when there are so many to choose from. For meals, resist the idea that only the taste matters and, instead, take in presentation, service and how the venue looks and feels – the whole experience of the meal.

I confess I may be over-emphasising design. But that’s because of where I started writing this: in a top-floor suite at Palace Hotel Tokyo, opposite and overlooking the Otemon Gate of the Imperial Palace, with its grid-like moat and swathe of green trees and gardens. The hotel, opened in 1961, has been rebuilt but not as another anonymous international-chain hotel.

The modern design incorporates traditional elements – willows and bamboo for greenery, tall windows that let in light, and Aji stones in the driveway that match those used in the imperial moat. Yet, sockets at the desk are exactly where a working traveller needs them and the chairs are quietly ergonomic, while service during my too-brief stay more than matched the best of the best international hotels; exemplary omotenashi – Japan’s customary hospitality.

To sit and write at such a place – so well-sited, lit, furnished, and (in short) designed – heightens the appreciation of aesthetics.

Design emphasises how things look, and the world of what we prefer has changed. Yet, how something feels and functions remain no less important, and cannot simply be covered by neon-lit plastics and brushed aluminium. Design that can bring these different elements together is indeed a true luxury.