Published Sep 2015
In 1978, just as the People’s Republic of China had begun its transition to a semi-market economy, Deng Xiaoping became the second chairman to follow Mao Zedong. Around the time of his inauguration Deng made the proclamation, “One must cross the river by feeling for stones.” When a country of (in 1978) one billion people looked for direction, their leader spoke of uncertainty, humility, a belief in a particular intent, and a nation working within the context of its greater economic and social environment. At the same time, just beyond the East Sea, a small offshoot of the Japanese company Seiyu opened its doors under the name Mujirushi Ryohin. They had named their company 無印良品 (nothingness symbol/logo, quality products) for much the same reason that Deng felt it necessary to omit staunch bravado when leading the most substantial human venture in world history (again, a billion people!). For what we know as MUJI, the Japanese lifestyle and goods company, “no brand” and culture have largely become its reputation–an irony impossible to downplay as “nothingness.” The culture has become one of humility and simplicity; one that could be baffling and unrealistic for the oft audacious cowboy. It is a culture that the prominent “business guru” and author Jim Collins (Good to Great) describes as the “Triumph of understanding over bravado.” Collins, in fact, has scribed entire books in his decades of management experience and research on the fundamental relationship between humility, faith, and patience, as well as the dependence great organizations have on these traits. The China and MUJI parallel is worth noting not only because both happen to be from the same region of the world and are guided by similar cultural and social norms, not only because their philosophies stand in sharp contrast to the classic American gunslinger paradigm, and not only because it emphasizes patience over atypical “growth,” but because this approach is appearing to win out in the long run. MUJI started out with 40 (mostly) food items, and now sells over 7,000 products ranging from pencils and stationery to prefab houses and even airport terminal furniture. (MUJI designed the low-cost terminal seating at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.) Perhaps the only thing that MUJI has appeared to have a problem with is conveying to people outside of the organization what MUJI actually is. It is not just a simple, superficial aesthetic, or a capitalist means of consumption, but a set of design principles rooted in a sort of naturalist paradigm. The mushroom parable famed industrial designer and now head of MUJI’s advisory board Naoto Fukasawa shared at a recent luncheon decorating his vision to extend MUJI’s reach to Palo Alto, California speaks to this paradigm. Fukasawa explained this parable after being asked to explain how MUJI represents the “antithesis to the habits of consumer society” as the company claims, despite operating over 640 stores worldwide. Fukasawa explained that, in MUJI’s infancy, the average Japanese consumer would not purchase dried shiitake mushrooms if they were not whole, so halved and quartered pieces would usually be discarded by producers. “It’s just for soup,” Naoto said, slightly vexed at the nerve of such behavior. MUJI and Naoto believed that it was so wasteful (and slightly absurd) that they featured the quartered and halved mushrooms as one of their first 40 products–a rather sensible stance on “repurposed” in the context of an immoderate 1980s Japan. The imperfect shiitakes not only embody common sense and insight (Why would you waste perfectly good mushrooms because they are not fully intact?) but they also speak to the mentality of those running MUJI to this day. It is a mentality of the sanctity of the relationship between humans and the world around us. It an unspoken and modestly bold (or without a logo, in this case) to be able to stand up to the “data” and create a product that stands for something more than a Yen (¥) earned. The process of creating new products for MUJI also embodies a sense of modesty. From China to the Czech Republic, “found MUJI” is what the company calls the “indigenous design concepts” that they rummage markets and homes for to inspire new products. What was once a Ming Dynasty-style pottery piece is now “refined” and born as a “found MUJI” bowl. It exhibits a satisfaction in featuring another’s proven design over one’s own. It’s not that MUJI is the only company to steal ideas, it’s that they are the one unassuming enough to admit that they do, and even form a large portion of their marketing and communication around it. “Found MUJI” is an appreciation for what has worked so well with humans for centuries. The use of the word “habits” internally by MUJI suggests that consumers are driven by universal patterns of behavior–something that Fukasawa confirmed when describing how MUJI approaches the interaction between form and use. The word Fukasawa uses is “affordance.” James Gibson, the psychologist and academic who coined the term affordance, said, “It is a mistake to separate the cultural environment from the natural environment.” In the same vein, affordance is what is of use to the human; the function that is derived from any particular object or other animal. It is a symbiotic, yin-yang-esque exchange; an exchange that Gibson describes as complex and “lawful.” Essentially, the human and its environment, the buyer and the seller, the designer and the user are two sides of the same coin. As a fruit calls to be eaten, water yearns to be drunk, and a lion screams to be feared, objects in our environment innately inform us of their use without a trace of conscious thought. For Fukasawa, a seat must beckon to be sat on–a conclusion that requires a deep understanding of human behavior as well as a belief in the idea that we don’t have as much control as we think we do. Because of the appreciation and respect MUJI has for its users’ marriage to nature, it has been able to model not only its designs, but its entire ethos around the qualities that make us animals. Behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive science have largely validated designers like Fukasawa and companies like MUJI, (See work by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, and Robert Cialdini on said topics.) and have revealed the limitations, evolutionary human tendencies, and subconscious behavior of a war and peace torn primate. MUJI is a rare case in this sense, and is facilitating a rather radical way to understand design and business, especially from a “Western” perspective.