Ross McBride is probably the foreign designer who has been living and working in Japan longer than any of us other Gaijin. More than 20 years ago he started off as a graphic design employee and over the years established his own successful business Normal Y.K. – a product design company in Azabu-Juban, Tokyo. PingMag went along to interview an old friend about what it takes to set up your own business in Japan, how the market has changed and of course: what Normal is up to at the moment.
Written by Uleshka
Ross, how was it “back in the days” when you first came to Japan?
When I first got here, Japan was in the middle of the bubble economy and there were a lot of foreigners around – earning a lot of money. No independent designers though, they were all working for bigger companies. When the bubble burst, everybody left! There really only stayed about 5 people – and I know all of them. (laughs) A Canadian graphic designer, Douglas Doolittle, another German guy in Osaka… they obviously stayed because they liked living in Japan.
After the bubble burst those 2-3 years that followed weren’t only tough financially, but were actually really boring, because everyone became so careful. The first thing that went were design budgets! Nobody was afraid to make mistakes before: you could print a whole catalogue and if they was any tiny problem, they would simply re-print the whole catalogue and not worry about it. But then – just the thought of reprinting a catalogue was a disaster! They just wanted everything to be too safe.
After all that it got quite interesting again. People got used to the new economy and the few who stayed got really well established because they had gone through the whole bad economy together with everybody else. I think that was about the time when Namaiki and KDa came. KDa were basically the first to really make it BIG and international in Japan.
Why and how did you actually shift from graphic to product design?
I was doing graphic design still long after the bubble – maybe 10-11 years? I had my own graphic design office and was basically working as a freelancer. At one point I got so fed up with it…. I liked the design, but I was starting to hate the business – it were really the clients that bothered me. I was just about to quit and go back to the States, but thought that before I quit I’d just give product design a try. I never studied it, but was always interested and made things for myself. As a test, I made my first clock – the grid clock – and that sold pretty well.
That gave me enough confidence to do the second product which – totally flopped (Hahahhah!) – but I learned from that!
There was the Normal brand first, then you collaborated for a while with some other people under the Postnormal name, but then finally went back to just focussing on your own designs with Normal design. I just wonder in terms of production in Japan – what kind of difficulties did you occur, especially in the beginning?
It was actually much easier than I expected it to be. I needed about a year to get it all together: finding the factories, getting the products made and getting the costs down. Haruko Masuda, now a good friend of mine and also a product designer helped me a lot with that in the beginning. It was her calling everyone for us.
Once you find the right people which are the specialists in that area, you basically got it. The key point is cost control – not only getting the best quality, but also getting the costs down. If you make things in Japan – you can still sell them in Japan, but you really can’t sell them oversees, because you can’t get the price down. That was all a big learning process for us as well.
What do you do with the final product then? How can you sell it in Japan?
To my big surprise, you can really go to a shop in Japan, show them the product and if they like it and it’s a good price – they will buy it from you and sell it.
You just need to find a few good shops in Tokyo: Axis Building, Living Motif, HH Style, Cibone, Bals Tokyo……. and then everything else takes care of itself, because all the media is in Tokyo, all the stylists are in Tokyo and all the shops from outside of town looking for new products come to Tokyo.
If you can place your products in a few good shops then the right people will see it, it suddenly appears in a magazine or you get a call from a shop out of town…. things then sort of automatically fall into place.
Luckily, because I was a graphic designer, the whole promotional side of it was quite easy – websites and that sort of thing…
What does it take to set up a successful business in Japan, in your opinion?
Being humble! If you have an attitude that naturally fits with Japan, then you can also put up with all the stupid things that happen here and enjoy all the unique and precious things about being here. Some people just can’t! If I meet a person who just came to Japan – after a few minutes I can kind of tell if they will last here or not….
The more Japanese you speak the better – obviously! If you don’t speak it, then you are always dependent on somebody else, so make sure you hook up with somebody who you really trust and understand. Even I don’t do it all myself. All the designers that really made it here seem to have a good business partner. Someone to take care of communication details, dealing with money matters…
As a foreigner you just naturally stand out, so it is easier to promote yourself, to get a foot in the door. IF you have a portfolio that is worth anything, I think it is rather easy to get work BUT once you get work, I think the process of staying in tough with the client, maintaining the relationship – is a little different than it is in other countries….
If you get a job, it is because of your foreignness – to a great degree. If they wanted you to do something that a Japanese person could do just as well, they would ask a Japanese person!
There are different stereotypes for different nationalities as well, but if they give you a job you can be “foreign” (somewhat full on and demanding) but you also have to be humble enough to know, that you don’t know everything!
A lot of people come here with the attitude, that they know better than the average Japanese designer. If you grow up in one culture, you only know one way and certainly can’t judge the other culture without being there for a while. Some things will just seem ridiculous if you don’t understand them, but they might actually be very valid here. Knowing, that you don’t know is the first thing that you need.
I always have the feeling, that everything business takes really long in Japan, maybe because it takes so long for the trust to build up?
I think that mainly depends on your attitude – some people make it faster than others. Claudio Colucci for example made it pretty big pretty fast.
What were your experiences with design presentations in Japan? I remember being totally shocked when I joined a big presentation at a well known Japanese company for the first time. People presented straight from the browser and even clicked around in Photoshop layers, when all I was used to were super-slick Flash presentations that just looked flawless! It took me ages to digest, that this was the way to show, that the work was still in process, that it wasn’t slick and perfect yet and that pretending that it was would have been considered dishonest and fake. If there was a button that didn’t work yet, you would avoid mentioning that in the West. Here, that button was clicked on purpose to show: “That is still not working either – but we are working on it!”
I remember working at Igarashi Studio as a graphic designer back in the days and he would decide the final design for a logo in one week. Then all of us other designers would sit down and try out as many different versions as possible for about half a year. At the final presentation, the entire room was wall papered with all the logos we had designed. Takenobu Igarashi demonstrated to the client: This is the work – the exploration we did for you in all this time. and then he would pull out the logo he designed in the first week and say: This is the ideal one.
He is a sensei- so he wouldn’t be questioned anyway, but putting all this effort into the presentation just had an amazing impact on the client.
Being a panel member means, that we are the jury. Anyone who wants to present at 100% design has to submit his/her portfolio and every month we go through a list of companies and projects – and say: yes or no.
Since IDEE and Designer’s Block disappeared last year, Design Tide and Cibone came in. The head of Cibone – Masaki “Mac” Yokokawa – is also a panel member of 100% design, 100% is a sub-devision of Designers Week, and so finally the whole relationship between the different event organizers got a lot better. Practically up until that point Designers Week and Design Tide were separate, but now they got closer together, share information, and it’s all much more coordinated: bigger, better and easier to understand……
This year I will also show my new wrist watches through Design Tide.
Ah! That leads in to my next question: Clocks! You really seem to like them! Why?
(Ross laughs) Yes, I know…. Even before my first product ever, I had a first exhibition in 1997 which showed 12 clocks I designed and the grid clock and the Beethoven clock were amongst of them – prototypes at the time.
Well, I guess you can go philosophical about it, but in the beginning it was just easy to think of clocks! I like the idea to design time in a way, I guess.
Sinking Clock Horiz
Digital Dali – even though an older design, this is the one that just got picked up by Gizmodo
Where is Normal heading to? What is coming up next?
Normal actually got a lot of attention recently. We were on Gizmodo and a another Taiwanese website, which completely crashed my site…… I was recently on New Design Paradise – a TV show on Fuji television where they have a new “how to re-design something”-theme every week. So that was really good, too.
Right now our biggest client is World Co., Ltd., they are a Japanese company holding various fashion brands (brands like INDIVI, …) – about 90 brands in total. At the moment we make the interior design for one of their brands called Soup. Interior design is good for Normal, because money comes in big chunks and it is also an improvement in terms of “respect”. If you can do good interoirs, it helps the image of the studio. Plus when designing a cafe, we can also design a light for the cafe, which then can become a product of its own.
This is kind of the direction we are moving in at the moment.
Ross, thank you so much! I very much hope that your experiences help the new big wave of foreigners giving it a try in Tokyo!