As a designer and educator with a life-long commitment to ‘enabling design’ which dates back to my time as a master’s student at the Royal College of Art in London, I was recruited at a very early stage by the late Prince Tomohito to help him establish universal design (or UD) in Japan in the opening years of the 21st century. For many years Japan has looked to the United States for industrial inspiration and so it was natural that in seeking to create a ‘society for all’ we should look to the USA where universal design was leading the way.
However, I was aware that people in Europe were adopting a different approach, more allied to design and innovation, and so I was keen to open up thinking in Japan to ideas from both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, the emphasis was firmly on creating a legislative framework that would oblige public and commercial buildings and services to accommodate the widest range of users. In Europe, the focus was around social inclusion, and in the UK on understanding the needs and aspirations of an ageing population.
All had facets relevant to the Japanese situation that informed and influenced the early activities of the IAUD (International Association of Universal Design) when it was launched in 2003. The challenge, however, was to adapt these new ideas to the very special Japanese culture and way of doing things, and it has taken time for a truly Japanese approach to emerge.
Traditionally, collaboration and harmony have been central to Japanese culture and these attitudes, along with the rapid ageing of our population, have helped shape developments in Japan by prioritising empathy, kindness and consideration for others over pure functionality.
Traditionally, collaboration and harmony have been central to Japanese culture and these attitudes, along with the rapid ageing of our population, have helped shape developments in Japan by prioritising empathy, kindness and consideration for others over pure functionality. The goal is to ensure that our towns and cities, transport systems and public services are accessible to all, creating an inclusive and welcoming society in which all people can participate and contribute.
Initially the focus was on creating a barrier-free environment, in particular in city centres, but as our thinking is more centred on the group than the individual, we were concerned with the movement of larger numbers of people. Urban planning, in particular around transport interchanges and social spaces was more important than, say, residential housing. In parallel, important social values like respectfulness and consideration for others made it instinctive for us to think about ‘considerate’ environments and a service-centred approach to universal design that would eventually feed into our interest in robotics.
The other powerful driver in Japan was the demographic shift or ‘super-ageing’ of society, first seen in the UK, then in Scandinavia, and most recently and dramatically in Japan, which is now the ‘oldest’ society in the world. With this demographic shift comes huge social and economic changes, and for a country that has lived with a stagnating economy for some time, unlocking a potential market for age-friendly products and services was a clear imperative that proved hard to deliver on at first.
Another driver was the increase in tourism and the numbers of foreign visitors to Japan, which will reach a new peak in 2020 when the Olympic and Paralympic Games are staged in the country. Recognising just how ‘disabled’ western visitors are when confronted with Japanese signage, and what a barrier the Japanese language and script is to foreign tourists helped us to realise that disability is as much to do with context as it is with ability. This led us to concentrate a lot of energy on user interface design, language recognition, voice control and interpersonal communication, in particular for hearing impaired people, and later across languages.
Panasonic applied universal design thinking to ensure its product range offered benefits regardless of age
More recently, the devastating Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011 shifted our understanding of universal design beyond the goal of removing barriers and creating an open and accessible society and opened our eyes to the importance of safety and security, especially in emergency situations. Increasingly, UD is now seen as an innovative and effective problem-solving approach to a very wide range of social challenges, with its core value – engaging with the widest range of users in the design process – its greatest strength.
This broader understanding has become increasingly cemented in the design approach and brand strategy of major Japanese companies like Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, NEC Okamura and Sekisui, as exemplified by some outstanding entries for the annual IAUD awards. For example, on the basis of extensive consumer research involving more than 30,000 households, Panasonic Corporation has created a new range of domestic appliances addressing the needs, aspirations and preferences of older consumers, with an emphasis on Japanese lifestyle and aesthetics.
A goal was to reduce the capability demand made of the user by making operation simple and intuitive. The success of this approach is demonstrated by a coordinated suite of products, including a washing machine, air conditioner, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and a small-size rice cooker; each of which was recognised with a 2015 IAUD Award.
While focusing on the 50-plus consumer, Panasonic has applied universal design thinking to ensure that key features of this product range offer benefits to a wide range of consumers, regardless of age and ability. With an emphasis on convenience, ease of use and operation, combined with reduced size and weight, the build standard speaks of durability and attention to detail, while the aesthetic is one of simplicity and timelessness. Although Panasonic’s focus was to develop a range of products in harmony with the Japanese lifestyle, the resulting designs have the potential to appeal to a broad international consumer base.
And in an extraordinary collaboration, two companies, Panasonic and Mitsubishi, which in other circumstances would see each other as major competitors, joined forces to demonstrate the benefits of voice-guidance for domestic TVs through a programme of product experience events to introduce the technology to the many people with visual limitations who might benefit from it. Not only does the technology benefit people with limited or no vision, it offers convenience for a wide range of users who have difficulty using a remote control, and is an important way of extending the accessibility of products and services.
Overall, the successful internationalisation of this technology by Panasonic is a pointer to the potential market advantage of well-executed UD innovation.
Professor Keiji Kawahara is Head of the Department of Design at Nagoya University of Art & Design and Executive Director of the IAUD. This essay is reproduced with permission from NEW OLD, the Design Museum book accompanying the exhibition of the same name