Recently in an effort to grow the design team, I’ve had the chance to speak to many designers. I like to ask the designers I meet, who their favorite designers are, in order to have an image of where their design sensibilities lie. The name I would hear first and the most, was undoubtedly, Kenya Hara.

Kenya Hara is a famous, if not, the most famous Japanese designer of this generation. Even I knew who he was before coming to Japan. I was a big fan of MUJI products, and as a result, interested in the person behind the graphic design. His designs are not just beautiful, but often very profound and sometimes hard to understand on first glance. They express not just beauty, but draws emotions from the audience.

I wanted to understand what makes him such a respected figure in Japan and around the world. I spent the new year reading his book, “Designing Design”. Many of the ideas about design discussed in the book are very complex, and can only truly be expressed by a person who have thought deeply about them. He often dives past the surface to the root of different aspects of design. He reminds a little of Jordan B Peterson, a professor from Canada often regarded as one of the greatest living thinkers of our time, who would often approach debates not only by answering the lingering questions, but by first tackling the definition of the question itself. For example, in the book, Kenya Hara dedicates an entire chapter to the color “white”, where he talks about white being the original form of life, drawing the relationship to the color of breast milk and eggs of different animals. To answer the question, you must fully understand it. And more practically speaking, you had to make sure everyone understands the question the same way as you do.

I started being interested in this book because of the title, “Designing Design”. Recently, there has been a small reorganization of the design team in the company and during this process, I thought a lot about design and what it means to each person of the team and the company. At the time of this reorganization, I slowly developed this feeling that to produce good design, the thoughts and circumstances behind the beginning of the idea had to be designed.

Design is the occupation of straining our ears and eyes to discover new questions in the midst of everyday life.

Kenya Hara

In this book, there is a chapter titled, “What is design?” that goes back to describe the birth of design. “Design began at the very moment man started to use tools.” and describes the moment when anthropoids begun walking upright and picking up stick-like objects and using them as weapon. Design, described here, is the transforming of the world based on understanding, which forms our environments. In other words, design is application of human wisdom to better the environment.

In Repro, I often describe and approach design as problem-solving, which is why I am usually particular about getting to the root of user problems. Where most would think of design as aesthetics, resulted from the combination of layout, typography and color in branding or using of UI frameworks or usability testing in UX design, but I see all of these as merely part of a designer’s arsenal of tools to solve a problem. In fact, everyone can technically be a designer, but just employing different tools.

Kenya Hara is also a very precise and rigorous person. In the pace of a tech startup, exploration of ideas and attention to details are often regarded as luxuries that can’t be afforded. For an ad campaign for MUJI, he and photographer, Tamotsu Fujii, travelled to the salt lake at Uyuni, Bolivia. They had the staff worked all night welding pipes into scaffolding, so that they could take a picture elevated at the height of 4 meters. If such a proposal would be made in a tech startup, you would immediately be asked to use a stock image instead.

Photo from Hara Design Institute

Surely, the cost of such a project would be immense, but I found that the most value of such an endeavor is in the intention itself. It reminded me of a documentary I saw about the re-opening of Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York, named best restaurant in the world in 2017. Will Guidara, one of the owners, would have the wait staff place dishes with the logo on the underside of the dish facing the same direction for every table. While the logo is never visible to customers, he sees the value in laying out the dishes with more intention doing so.

Another part of Kenya Hara that I found impressive was his understanding for the need of collaboration. He describes projects he’s been in as a tennis match, where design in a tennis ball and the relationship with other designers is like a series of top players are returning serves he makes.

When I wrote about the Value of Design, I highlighted the need to break down silos between designers and the rest of the departments. Kenya Hara obviously sees this, and collaborates with a series of designers by helping them understand the profound meaning behind each project.

Most designers I’ve met often tell me that they like simple, clean and minimal designs. But when looking their works, I see cluttered layouts and large chunk of unnecessary information. I, too, understand the pressure to include information to grab as much attention as possible. In MUJI’s advertising, I see the antithesis of this practice. In a word, he describes MUJI’s advertising as “emptiness”. Instead of filling an ad with information, he offers it as an empty vessel for the audience to fill themselves. He relates it to Japan’s national flag, where the red circle has no meaning on its own, but people supply the meaning. Perhaps the ability to justify such radical and unique designs is his best weapon.

From the way he talks about his works, I affirmed something that I usually neglect, which is that the story behind an image sometimes hold more meaning than the image itself. An example would be the story of a photo titled, Starving Child and the Vulture, which shows a vulture landing behind a starving child. The backstory also describes photographer Kevin Carter taking his own life due to being haunted by vivid memories of killings. The photo went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and became one of TIME Magazine’s top 100 most influential photo of all time.

Starving Child and the Vulture by Kevin Carter

Kenya Hara is a complex man, certainly not someone that can be understood by reading one book of his. Perhaps the best way to end this post is a summary of a passage from the book.

Acquiring knowledge is not the goal, but instead, it is no more than an entrance to thought.

And this book is the entrance to thoughts about design that every designer should have.

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About the Author
Alex Kwa

Design Lead, Repro
Alex has been designing for Repro since the company begun. He worships his design heroes, Dieter Rams, Tokujin Yoshioka and Naoto Fukasawa. He's an occasional digital nomad and is obsessed with the streetwear brand, Supreme.