NHK started broadcasting its children’s TV program ‘Design Ah!’ two years ago, and it’s immensely popular not just with kids but adults too.
Color. Shape. Word. Number. These simple elements that small children play with are also the same fundamental tools of a designer. However, precisely because they are so simple, it’s no easy task to properly communicate to kids what “design” is.
PingMag’s Tom Vincent recently sat down with graphic designer Taku Satoh, art director for ‘Design Ah!’, and interface designer Yugo Nakamura, for a sprawling two-hour discussion. Here are the highlights!
Tom Vincent (TV): I was searching on YouTube this morning for ‘Design Ah!’ videos and I found an interesting one. There’s a father filming ‘Design Ah!’ on TV with a handheld camera. His small child is watching it with him.As the show starts, the child starts saying “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah…” along with the intro song.It was so loud. I thought, I can’t watch this!The child kept on repeating the intro, “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah… Mama! Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah…” And then, after the intro had died down, all went quiet. For the next fifteen minutes, the child watched in silence.
Taku Satoh (TS): That’s interesting!
Yugo Nakamura (YN): At the first meeting we had with Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius), the song was going to be a kind of theme song.
TS: Right, that came from NHK.
YN: But Taku was pulling a “not this!” kind of face. Keigo Oyamada suggested since it was “Ah” that we make the whole song just out of “Ah” sounds.
TS: And then instantly I said that was interesting. I thought that would definitely be interesting.
YN: Right, that’s what it was like.
Rhythm and Respect
TV: Yes, the sounds of the show are very strong. Even just the counting part — one, two, three — is really addictive. You just kind of have to watch it. What is that about?
YN: It’s edited quite graphically, isn’t it? Web and graphic design are fairly similar — it doesn’t matter when you start watching or when you stop. For a time, big movies were the “in” thing in web design, such as BMW Films, where a big name director would make a two-hour online film.
With web design there is this rhythm, a loop, where you can kind of close your eyes, like a spell. “Looook! Looook!” It’s edited hypnotically, to make you want to look at it. And there is also this kind of thing in graphic design.
TS: Listening to that, I just thought about this again: Are we doing graphic design? But with graphic design, actually you kind of entrust the way of looking to the viewer, and you can’t enforce what you made.
TV drama and films show you something unilaterally. They are saying, “Stay here for a while. Keep watching.” If you think about it, both Keigo Oyamada, Yugo and myself entrust things to people. We could call it a kind of respecting. And then, normally in our work we think about how much people will watch what we do. That’s probably something we all share.
TS: It’s completely different to “Look now!” It’s more: “Would you care to take a look?”
TV: What you share in your work is your focus on simple elements. No, “simple” is wrong. It’s a way of thinking where you narrow down on the fundamental, the basic things. Taku, you’ve made dissecting one of your axes, right? Yugo also first designed things with very simple concepts — just three red circles, for example. And then you experiment with what to do next, what happens when you put two things over each other, and so on. This seems very similar to me.
TS: I want to clarify things. It’s not about the emotional or ambiguous, or shrouding things in fog — but making things clear. If there’s a question about something, I want to make it clear. Doing this always leads to further questions, which I then also want to make clear. I want to make things clear. I always end up getting right into things. Yugo, you have this rather emotional side, right? Do you want to make things clear as well?
YN: I want to make things clear, yes. I add things together, add colors. It’s kind of like escaping.
TS: Yes, me too. Perhaps that’s a Japanese thing?
YN: iPhone buttons and so on have a very three-dimensional feel to them, don’t they? That too is clearer when there’s nothing there. When you have to include contexts, then it feels like losing. Those kinds of things feel a bit like losing.
TS: That’s losing.
YN: Well, you haven’t lost to anyone. It’s like sitting on the fence.
TS: That makes sense.
YN: It’s like even though you could have made something flat or rather more primitive, but you just couldn’t do it.
TS: Is it that you should then do it with just the bare minimum of elements?
TS: So it’s not about something you can’t understand, but that even just a circle is enough. You can make something with circles. Why do you have to meander around and around? I don’t make words with my feeling. I hate it when it’s just a vague feeling. I hate it when it’s not clear why something is like this or that. I think Yugo’s the same here. I can answer straightaway if I’m asked a question, like why did I do something. Yugo gets embarrassed and doesn’t talk much, but I’m sure you’re like that. If you’re asked, you say: “Well, it’s because I thought in this way…” That’s a bit similar to me.
TV: Sure, it’s similar. Earlier you said something was “perhaps a Japanese thing”. I don’t know if that’s true but I think Japanese are perhaps better at it. It’s one of their fortes or ways of thinking.
TS: But there are also very sentimental Japanese people as well.
YN: Well, there’s all kinds of people. But keeping on going is a standard, right? That kind of approach is Japanese.
TV: Then there’s even older Japanese things, like calligraphy. It just starts from simply writing words with black ink onto plain white paper. Calligraphy is about how to make the universe from this. In a certain sense, it’s incredibly simple.
YN: ‘Design Ah!’ teaches you a lot. That’s why it gets rebroadcast so, so much on NHK. Ones that were made two or three years ago are even now always on TV. It comes from it being on film. You get sucked into it really quickly. When I thought a lot about it, there are things I thought would be embarrassing three years down the line. Even something that’s the norm, the bare minimum, something that has no excessive parts, later it becomes embarrassing to watch. With something on video it can get exposed by the flow of time. This is most of all with NHK.
TS: Yes, that’s true. Programs from about ten years ago like ‘Nihongo de asobo’, they get broadcast a lot. Sometimes it surprises you. You feel like you don’t want them to be shown now. Of course, you can say that you can’t see that far ahead, but there’s also merit in making something in preparation for that.
TV: You were just talking about ‘Nihongo de asobo’. Of course, this is also true about designers but NHK educational programs at some point — perhaps after ‘PythagoraSwitch’ — suddenly became extremely sophisticated and smart. In the old days, they were more like kids’ shows.
TS: That’s because at NHK there was a change in the way some people thought — they realized that an art director was needed for children’s programs. About that time, to start with they called in Masahiko Sato for ‘PythagoraSwitch’ and then me for ‘Nihongo de asobo’. They also called in the illustrator Ryuji Fujieda. They started to invite art directors to take part in programs. So it was around this time that at NHK there was this change in thinking that for making kids’ programs, it was best to have an art director there.
YN: I also started to work at ‘PythagoraSwitch’ at that time and I really remember. Before there had been lots of programs that looked down at children. But from ‘PythagoraSwitch’ the approach suddenly changed. There was no looking down, rather it was about expanding things so that even kids too could understand.
TS: Yes. This looking down at children was a feeling that I had, that the grown-ups were just looking down at what they thought was child-like. With children, you don’t know if they are “grown-up” or “children”, so this is just adults enforcing what they think is “child-like”. I said we’ll stop all this at ‘Nihongo de asobo’. So, it’s the same. What seems to be looking at kids “at their level” is actually just adults forcing it on them.
What is simple?
TV: To go back to what we were saying before, Yugo was saying about explaining everything, when every detail is highly sophisticated, it becomes really cold.
TS: Yes, it’s cold. It just tends to become explanatory.
TV: How do you then make something that is highly simple and with no excess, but not impersonal — like the iPhone’s sense of the three-dimensional you mentioned.
YN: Well, it can work out by lots of coincidences. Keigo Oyamada’s music was really good, so that really helped me out and we could get a good balance. There was a surprising amount of self-indulgent efforts by the creative people involved. We filmed lots with Katto-chan and listened carefully when we talked about how to show something. It felt very dense.
TS: Due to this, it seemed to become something with texture. Humans can only hear up to 20khz. But we can feel high-frequency waves above that on our bodies. There are people researching this “hyper” whatiscalled. Sound has this, as does video. Take the show with the numbers, 1, 2, 3… The words shake, right? There’s a clink and they shake. That sense of the shaking is not a slipshod one. It has this unique texture along with the sound.
That can be communicated regardless of whether you’re a child or an adult. You feel it. You have to have texture to reach the place where you feel it.
YN: Simple things have the most texture, right? Like a desk, a desk with a woodgrain or one that’s solid wood — they’re totally different, right? We could say it’s this feeling.
TV: There is a relationship between design and TV in Japan today. Both of you are engaged with television and other designers like Kashiwa Sato also appear on NHK, as designers and as art directors. The design industry must be very grateful for this, no?
On the other hand, I also feel that the quality of major Japanese product design is going down. The iPhone is a good example here. Major Japanese corporations are really aware of Apple. Everyone is always talking about Steve Jobs. “Why can’t Japan do that?” Look at Samsung — its design is also very strong, very strategic.
In comparison, Japanese electronic appliance makers are not so impressive. Why is that?
TS: The marketing is no good. Marketing only prioritizes economics. It’s rampant. It puts economics first and just looks at the distant future. They then will say that this will turn out to be an economic loss. But pioneering is not about interpreting things economically. That comes later. The skill to make the ambition to create something innovative a reality. This innovation is not being prioritized. Economics always spreads its net over everything. And then you are bound hand and foot.
What do you think?
YN: Yes, I’m also distorted by client requests. It’s retail logic. Like with nobile phones or smartphones. When you consider it, all designers think about rebooting the basic mobile phone and creating something that’s super minimal. Until now there were lots and lots of these block-like things built up from zero. They were really successful. It’s like nothing else sells in mobile phone shops. Even the ones that are really cool just don’t sell. This retail logic is too strong. We’ve become unable to do things minimally, to cut down and truncate.
Money kept on coming to a certain extent. People couldn’t risk it dropping. Once you’ve had a certain amount of success, there is a lot of money flowing so you can’t then scale back. Everyone understands the merits of going back to something minimal like the iPhone. But everyone always thinks that their own company just couldn’t make something like that.
Unless the people at the very top have the bravery to throw that out, then things don’t move on.
TS: Yes, and on top of this world we live in where economics is always prioritized, there is also the adverse effects of democracy. You have to listen to everyone’s opinion.
Someone has to make a decision. That’s not now but for the future. But no one knows what they will do in the future or what it will actually be like. There are no people who can decide what do for five or ten years’ from now. No one who can just say, “Shut up, this is what we’ll do!”
When people like Soichiro Honda and Konosuke Matsushita were around, they founded their own corporations. In a good sense of the word, they then had the power to say, “No, shut up. We’re doing it how I say.” That generation has now gone and we’ve become “democratic”.
But design decisions cannot be democratic. They cannot be decided by the largest number of votes. But that’s how it’s actually being done. They do a marketing survey and then say that this is what everyone wants. But that’s just right now. One second from now it won’t be like that.
YN: But even then, to succeed with a phone redesign, success with an actual redesign is really rare in the world. Even with Apple, it’s just two or three products. Samsung is basically just copying. It’s incredibly difficult to look at things globally and take what you’ve cultivated till now, write it off and re-do the design.
TS: Yes, in many ways. That’s why it’s so rare. It’s difficult to judge.
Thirty Years From Now
TV: Okay, now I want to ask about making a fifteen-minute TV show about design for small children. Why did you make the program?
TS: For over thirty years from now.
A design mentality is necessary for everyone. There’s nothing in the world that doesn’t relate to design. It’s also like this in politics, economics, medicine and science. Numbers and words are also design. Arranging things, structures and organizations are all design. Town-building and urban planning too. And if design is connected to everything, then everyone needs a design mentality, not just the people aiming to create design.
So, learning it from university onwards is then too late. We have to hand it on when they are children, no matter how the seeds then grow up. There will be some who don’t really take advantage of it and some who do, but at the least we have to set up an opportunity for children to come into contact with design.
That’s why we did this experiment. We did it under this assumption.
Actually, I want to interview people thirty years from now who watched ‘Design Ah!’ and can just about remember it. I don’t know if we will still be alive, though! Then we’ll see whether the show was useful to people thirty years on. Maybe it won’t be useful. I don’t know! [Laughs]
Thank you, Taku Satoh and Yugo Nakamura!
‘Design Ah!’ Exhibition
Venue: 21_21 Design Sight
Until June 2nd