Yesterday evening at the Design Museum, a year since a massive earthquake shook Japan, and a tsunami devastated Tohoku district, Naoto Fukasawa unveiled and presented the results thus far of MUJI’s ‘Product Fitness 80’ initiative.
Fukasawa introduced the project as a direct response to the aftermath of the event, and more specifically to the terrible images of Tohoku that we have now become accustomed to seeing: beached cargo-ships, and incongruous combinations of cars and light aircraft mixed together in a sea of matchwood.
It was these images of vast tracts of human belongings turned to waste in a few short hours, as well as the struggle to conserve energy in the aftermath, which led him to recall the phrase ‘Hara hachi bunme’ which very roughly translates as ‘eat til you are 80 percent full’.
It is Fukasawa’s belief that this concept – practised by Okinawans as a form of self-imposed calorie restriction – should be applied to products as much as food. The hypothesis then, is that where MUJI designs products with this in mind, they will help to stave off the kind of material obesity that becomes apparent when a natural disaster brings a society’s true level of consumption into sharp relief.
By launching the project in London, Fukasawa and MUJI hope to share some of the insights gained through conceptualising, implementing, and developing Product Fitness 80 most effectively with the international design community. Included in the launch event to facilitate a multi-faceted discussion (and, just perhaps, to attract a bigger crowd) was a panel discussion featuring Fukasawa and fellow MUJI designers Konstantin Grcic and Sam Hecht.
Tyler Brulé – from Monocle and Winkreative – was given the difficult task of facilitating the panel discussion and a Q&A session, and did a stirling job of stitching something together from the (typically for three designers) tangential answers of his panelists.
In his earlier presentation Fukasawa had used an analogy to describe MUJI’s approach of creating products which occupy a postition of adequacy, by taking on board inputs from multiple groups. Ask a group of people to draw a circle by hand and none will be perfect. If you overlay all their attempts, however, you will be left with a perfect circle with a thick outline. Needless to say this sets off alarm bells in the minds of designers aware of the potential dangers of ‘design by committee’, but Fukasawa maintained that for a company like MUJI, which tries to be a sort of perennial mean value in the world of product offerings, it is essential to take on board the views of as many stakeholders as possible.
Fukasawa’s thick circle analogy creates a convenient segué into Sam Hecht’s answer when queried about designing value into a product which aims for ‘adequate’ functionality. He asserted that something as simple as having a greater wall thickness differentiates MUJI shampoo bottles from the throwaway ones sold in supermarkets, ergo giving them increased value in the consumer’s mind despite their essentially identical functionality. So it would seem that an ‘adequate’ product comes about by designing into products just enough, but not too much, difference from their low-value equivalents.
Brulé brought one of the most interesting topics to the fore when he asked Fukasawa whether he believed a change had been taking place in Japanese society in recent years, as the post-war obsession with economic growth and massive production faded. Fukasawa’s answer was that he believed the approach of people was indeed changing.
Faced with huge economic and environmental issues people were increasingly turning their energies away from striving to be the biggest and best in the world and towards smaller scale, more immediate and manageable projects. Taking the example of the new Boeing 787, he opined that Japanese people are very proud that a very high percentage of components in the ‘Dreamliner’ are made in Japan or based on Japanese technologies, but they do not want Boeing to be a Japanese company, they are happy to leave managing the complicated and enormous global business machinery to the Americans.
What strikes is that this idea of Product Fitness is essentially a Modernist one. When Adolf Loos equated ornament with crime in 1908, his goals of removing the unnecessary from our built environment were similar, if expressed somewhat more melodramatically. What follows, then, is an ethical discussion. Do you believe that there exists an imperative to design, produce, and consume only what is sufficient? Is Product Fitness 80 an ideal to be applied universally or an idea to be selectively used as a tool?
Product Fitness 80 is on at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, until the 18th of March.
For some great shots of the exhibition itself check out Notcot’s post here.