5 Pieces of Wisdom from Japanese Graphic Designer Kenya Hara

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Tokyo graphic designer Kenya Hara’s name is synonymous with the changing face of contemporary Japanese design. With his brilliantly simple design work for everything from bookstores to the branding for the Beijing Olympics, he also wrote the design bible “Designing Design” in 2007, which muses on the concept of emptiness in design aesthetics and philosophy.


Since 2002, he has been working as art director to Muji, Japan’s retail chain for household products (which is rather like the IKEA of the East). Even with everyday products like toothbrushes and garbage bins, they become oddly stylish under Hara’s design. Minimalism is a trademark to his aesthetic for a brand essentially considers itself a “no-brand.” Rather than using the well-worn traditional means of branding, Muji lets the products speak louder than the advertising around it. That allows the design to literally speak for itself.

Hara, who is also a design professor at Musashino Art University in Kodaira and director of his on namesake design studio, is exhibiting some of his best-of masterpieces at the new London Design Museum which reopened in a newly renovated space on November 24 and runs until April 23, 2017. To celebrate Hara’s design legacy, here are five nuggets of wisdom from the graphic design pioneer and his wise thoughts on making an impact in today’s industry.


Museum display by Hara focusing on staple foods around the world

5 Essential Design Tips from Kenya Hara

1. Vision is key for creating meaningful design.

Hara starts with traditional aesthetics—and four different design principles in relation to it: Delicateness, meticulousness, thoroughness and simplicity. S

ince he has watched local design factories decline over the past three decades from Asian countries to abroad, Hara has also watched Japanese design change in aesthetic but also structure.

“I feel the designer’s role has changed in recent years from one of creating beautiful forms or clear identification for brands to one where the designer visualizes the possibilities of an industry,” he told the Japanese Times. “Visualizing and awakening the hidden possibility of an industry.”


2. Design is a form of poetry, or even haiku.

In his book Designing Design, Hara writes about design in a way that is poetic, almost haiku-like when describing where exactly smart design comes from. “Design is like the fruit of a tree,” he writes. “Design functions from the perspective of how to produce good fruit. If you look at the tree from some distance, you see next to the tree that bears the fruit and then the soil in which the tree stands. Important to the whole process of creating good fruit is the condition of the soil.”

While many of his projects interpret the overlap between art and design (beautiful photography and smart compositions), he clearly defines the difference between the two in his book. “Art is an expression of an individual’s will to society at large, one whose origin is very much of a personal nature,” writes Hara. “Design, on the other hand, is basically not self-expression. Instead it originates in society. The essence of design lies in the process of discovering a problem shared by many people and trying to solve it.”


The exhibition TOKYO FIBER Senseware aimed to communicate the hidden strengths of Japanese fibers to the world.

3. Create culture in design as an aesthetic resource.

“We are going through a change from having to create products to having to create value,” said Hara. The value he refers to is an example he takes from a slice of Swiss Emmental cheese—when you eat the cheese, you consume a piece of foreign culture. “It’s about the value that is created around the product,” said Hara. “When we think about resources, we typically think of materials or minerals, but a resource can also be aesthetic or even cultural.”

4. Consider the theory of “emptiness” in design.

The theme of emptiness has consumed Hara’s work, from his stripped down public signage and logos to his minimal book design. “Emptiness, irrespective of who uses it and how, is the pursuit of ultimate freedom,” he said. “When an object is empty, it is ready to receive any image or use.”


Hara uses the example of two different knives; one Henckels knife from Germany, which is ergonomically designed to fit your hand, and a Japanese yanagiba sushi knife, which is a simple wooden rod. “The handle doesn’t instruct you where to hold it, so you can hold it in any way you wish,” he said. “This simple and plain handle receives all the incredible technique of the Japanese sushi chef. The Henckels knife is simple, but the yanagiba is empty. They are both wonderful, but there is a difference.”

5. Use the power of shared, collective design.

Hara thinks design is an intellectual exercise that upholds values he refers to as “the peace of the senses.” Even when countries have cultural and economic differences, they share a similar ‘surface,’ he says. “The role of design is not to surprise or draw people’s attention in with novelty,” said Hara. “It is to give humanity a chance to notice the wisdom accumulated over the ages that is hidden in all sorts of things. I believe that the act of noticing that is to touch the shared surface of humanity, which leads to understanding or a peace of the senses.”

Learn more about design in these online courses and workshops from HOW Design University:

  1. Brand Building 101: How to Build, Manage and Market a Brand

  2. Getting Down to Business: 8 Action Planning Steps for Creative Freelancers – Workshop

  3. Brand Strategy Development



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About Nadja Sayej

Nadja Sayej is a culture journalist and photographer who covers architecture, travel, design, technology and art. She writes for The New York Times, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Guardian, Forbes, Harper's Bazaar, among others. She has written four books, including Getting Your S*** Together and Biennale Bitch. Follow her on Twitter at @nadjasayej and check out her work at nadjasayej.com.

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