Channeling Culture

Zoji Lattice

Why I think culture is an important differentiator in our world of goods and services

Thanks to the exponential growth of the internet we live in a world where knowledge is easily accessible and goods from the other side of the world are delivered to your doorstep. From a manufacturing view point the world has got smaller and more definable, but for me as a consumer and designer the result is everything looks and feels the same;

Google products look like B&O products, a chair designed in Japan looks like a chair designed in Denmark, a US banking app looks like a Swedish banking app and German cars look like Korean cars. Its hard to differentiate and even harder to understand where products come from.

Increasingly my work with Japanese companies has been focused on communicating their ‘Japanese-ness’ in the design of products for overseas markets. The Japanese believe this is important. It involves understanding which elements of Japanese culture and craft will identify the product as Japanese and therefore differentiate it from others in the market.

In a recent project for Zojirushi a maker of vacuum flasks and rice cookers, I was asked to design a new product and exhibition booth which would help them differentiate their products in the European market. I studied Japanese craft techniques and settled on the iconography of traditional folding screens and wooden lattice, used in architecture, as a way to quietly communicate ‘Japanese-ness’. The result was a successful launch in Europe followed by European and American design awards.

It’s an imprecise art. I don’t employ any pseudo-science but use my extensive experience of Japan, design skills and the understanding of how we in the west view Japanese culture.

Using cultural references in design is nothing new – but I believe its something many have lost the ability to do or even have interest in. We have forgotten the value of our own cultures as a differentiator and how to think outside the narrow channels we have created for ourselves. And ultimately manufacturers (and designers) are sleep walking into a world of me-too products and services which increasingly have little or no inherent value.

Do you see things this way ? If so, what aspects of Japanese culture would you like to see reflected in products ? What aspects of British, American or other cultures would you like to see ?