Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mindful Design in Japan

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference last February I spoke about Zen and Design and what it means to design mindfully.  While vacationing in Japan last week, I was delighted to see how public spaces there are full of examples of mindful design.  For example, consider something as mundane as manhole covers.  In the US we never give them much of a thought; they usually look like this:

In contrast, manhole covers in Japan are an opportunity to bring unexpected delight to pedestrians that pass:






Manhole covers aside, how often have you seen sidewalk railing that looks like a cage or bars in a jail?

In Tokyo and Kyoto, the railing along sidewalks and bridges are opportunities to bring delight to the public:



In yogic practice we try to cultivate mindfulness by bringing our awareness to the present moment, without judgment.  Mindful design is about bringing attention and awareness to the things we otherwise take for granted, and creating joyful experiences through our interactions with those objects or surroundings.  The manhole covers and railings illustrate how mindful design can be applied to the physical appearance of an ordinary object.  We also found examples of mindful design applied to the experience of public spaces.  For example, this time of year, cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, and pedestrian malls and major roads are lined with sakura:


Compare this scene with California Ave, the local business district for my neighborhood in Palo Alto, which sadly does not even have trees after the city decided to chop them all down:

California Ave, Palo Alto:  Before, with trees
California Ave, Palo Alto:  Without trees

Another example:  many creeks in the US are filled with concrete, motivated by cheaper maintenance costs and more efficient flow of water to its destination:

La Ballona Creek, Culver City, CA

... while all the creeks we encountered in Kyoto were beautiful pedestrian paths:


Mindful design is not just about aesthetics.  User experience practitioners advocate for understanding users' latent, unmet needs.  Identifying these needs and creating an experience that goes beyond what is expected or required is also mindful design.  Consider the ticket counters at Tokyo subway stations:


That little blue strip of plastic is in front of almost every ticket counter and vending machine. It's not pretty, but it serves as a resting spot for one's umbrella or cane as owners purchase their tickets.  It's unlikely the Japanese public requested this feature; whoever thought to offer this feature had a heightened awareness of users' latent needs and, just as importantly, had the funding and support to provide this extra detail.  Great design does come with a cost, whether it is added expense or time.  Thus, mindful design has to come from not only the designer, but also those who enable or support the creation of experiences (e.g. sponsors, CEOs, supervisors).

How are you designing mindfully the products and experiences you create?