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Design Across Cultures

As with the study of design anywhere, it is important to get an idea of what society was like at the time to get a somewhat limited understanding of the psyche of the people and the social movements that were occurring around it. This way, we will understand the full ramifications of what we are designing.


Team: Tokyo Design Community (Full credits listed at the bottom of this page)

Role: Researcher

Type: Personal Project


“Design should not dominate things, should not dominate people, it should help people. That’s its role.”
— Dieter Rams.

This is a project documenting my experiences as an intern in Japan with perspectives from the local design community. I hope to introduce my observations on what makes Japanese design so distinctive and give little insight into the cultural aspects that have influenced the design culture.


Design Systems and Localization

The End Of Design?

I came across an article by Dan Saffer describing his vision on how design could end and would be caused by design systems. Dan calls this idea 'Dreamcatcher', where an algorithm would process inputed information and spit out many possible designs.

However, good design isn't created from a template. Every person, object, feeling and context where it takes place is different, making it near impossible to replicate or scale. Having interned in Japan taught me a lot of valuable things about the storytelling piece in design. Being there taught me that an exceptional experience boils down to a series of well-timed, small gestures that make you feel appreciated. They make you feel welcome. They make you feel at home. Put simply, it is about being a good person. 


Cultural Concepts

The Spirit of Japanese Hospitality

Ultimately, it came down to the idea of "Omotenashi".

“Omote” means public face – an image you wish to present to outsiders. “Nashi” means nothing.

This idea is well documented by Panasonic interaction designer Kerstin Blanchy. She broke it down into three categories:


Anticipation of the others' needs:

The host should respond to the guest's needs before the latter feels such need him/herself.

Flexibility to the situation:

Refers to the appropriate amount of formality or casualness respectively.


The host should not display their efforts, in order to create a natural feeling for the guest.


So how does it translate to user experience design? When you think about these principles in your customer experiences, the results can be translated as a refined and elegant experience and you can apply them in both online and offline services.


Sushi Omakase is a great cultural example of Omotenashi. Each piece of sushi made is from the bottom of the heart – honest, no hiding, no pretending. (Photo by Thomas Marba)


Case Study - Based Abroad

Building Product Trust: Airbnb

There are companies that have leveraged these human values to create a positive product experience. Take a look at Airbnb. Founded on the idea of building trust between people who have never met, Airbnb has decided to challenge the concept of stranger danger. They approach this challenge in three ways as explained by Airbnb Design Manager Charlie Aufmann:

Design as the “mutual friend”: Airbnb acts as the mutual friend to facilitate introductions not only to your host, but to new places and experiences. Helping minimize uncertainties and setting expectations online in the product, and as an enabler for a meaningful experience offline, in the real world. 

Trust takes effort: Airbnb found that the more guests interacted with the host, the more trust a host was willing to give to that guest.

Design for first impressions: For Airbnb, it is important that hosts and guests construct an online profile confirming their name, contact information, or interact in a way that is appropriate for staying in someone's home. Things like verified IDs, reviews, references and connected social media accounts build up trust between hosts and guests.


We can make a connection between how Airbnb designs to all three elements of omotenashi. We need to be able to anticipate possible scenarios that people could be in, adjust the appropriate levels of formality, and make the entire experience invisible.


Case Study - Based in Japan

Bringing Culture Online: Kinoya.co.jp

Founded in 1957, Kinoya is a company that specializes in packaging fresh seasonal fish from Ishinomaki prefecture in Japan. The company has aim to establish residence in the hearts of its customers in three main ways:

Anticipation: The Kinoya website’s focus on putting the spirit of community and people-empowerment above all else, goes a long way in laying the credibility foundation from which the company’s product can be perceived by its customers.

Flexibility: As you scroll down, the website changes into a two sided grid layout. The layout allows the user to get acquainted with the “faces behind the brand”; consistent with the people centric brand identity.


Understatement: The Kinoya website reveals that the company is one that like many. Go to various lengths to establish residence in the heart of it’s customers. The “thanks” navigation tab and a dedicated page is included to express gratitude to the user/customer for their interest in the product.

This mimics the level of service customers see in offline transactions with businesses as well, bridging the gap between everyday culture and digital spaces.



The Power of Culture

This is the Japanese spirit of omotenashi; truly understanding the customers, anticipating their needs and finally, subtly but effectively going the extra mile in addressing those needs without getting in the way of their primary objective.

I believe that we all aim to design to make people's lives better, but when we are looking at people of different cultures, it is imperative that we physically go and experience it ourselves to the best of our abilities. Below is a quote by Mike Monteiro which resonated with me through this project process.

“bad design makes it into the world not through malicious intent, but through no intent at all.”
— Mike Monteiro, Design Director of Mule Design

Cultural and Technical 

Factors That Should Influence Product Decisions

Omotenashi is just one of many cultural and technical factors that should influence product decisions whether or not development teams are based locally or abroad. Below are a few more considerations that are worth looking into when localizing for the Japanese audience.

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Thank you "Arigatou!"

Of course there are still too many questions to answer within my short six months in Japan, but I hope we are on the right path in understanding our users worldwide to figure out their needs. I would like to say a word of thanks to the many individuals and organizations that pointed me in the right direction.


Thanks for reading!