The layout of a room, the design of manhole covers and the use of color can all be considered “constructed spaces,” often unintentionally communicating information about the time, place and people who created and use them.
Kubo, a sociologist in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Sansone, the associate dean of Academic Affairs and professor of design at the College of Art and Design, are rethinking the interplay of sociology and design after leading a cross-disciplinary course in Japan. The two professors challenged the 15 undergraduates in the class to “see the everyday through design.”
This was Kubo’s third year co-leading a travel course with an Art and Design faculty member. Previous trips focused on animation and illustration.
The idea for this year’s course came as the two professors scouted locations in Japan last spring. Sansone, who has taught design for more than 25 years, was in awe of the design elements included in every aspect of life, such as a simple chair with a tray attached to the bottom for extra storage to keep personal items off the ground.
Japanese practicality, said Kubo, “becomes part of people’s behavior and that becomes part of people’s design.” A native of Osaka, Kubo found such design details unremarkable until she began to see it through Sansone’s perspective.
“Many times, sociologists do not think how our behavior is also guided by the particular space that we are in,” said Kubo.
One example, offered by Sansone, is how different chairs affect people's use of space. Does the height of the chair accommodate someone using a laptop? Does the chair’s shape ease relaxation or does it promote slouching?
“If a person is meant to study or seek comfort, the wrong chair can affect behavior for the given task, like making us jittery when studying,” she explained. Likewise, all design affects the user in some way.
But American design often fails to look at how identity affects constructed space. How will people from different backgrounds respond to the graphic design on a label? How will a red room affect someone from Japan, where the color is used in reverent and honored places, versus an American for whom red communicates passion or alarm? There aren’t many answers to these questions.
“I think the research part of the design process has always been pretty shallow, but with more user experience curriculum now in our design programs is helping user variability awareness,” said Sansone.
Yet, the Lesley group found that Japanese design was more attuned to these concerns, even as the Japanese themselves seemed unaware of it.
Constructed space, identity and observation
To help students digest the concepts of the course, Kubo and Sansone created a diagram in three parts: identity, constructed space and observation. Students could reshape the diagram as they interacted with the concepts while also comparing Japanese design with the U.S.
Using the hashtag #LUJapan18, students logged their observations on Instagram, photographing signs, shops, schools, fashion, advertisements and more that caught their eye as they visited city centers, schools, neighborhoods, historic sites such as Hiroshima, museums, parks and shops. They also kept journals of their experiences.
Christie Wood, a junior studying early childhood education and English, wanted to approach the trip by asking simple questions as a child would. Her mother is Japanese, and she visited the country many times growing up.
But she said, “I never took the time to stop … and look at things and ask why is it made or how is it made. I usually just pick it up and use it.”
Like her professors, Wood found detailed design everywhere once she began to pay attention. Manhole covers, in particular, drew her attention. Each district and site they visited had different designs, often colorfully painted.
“All of these little details are put into the simpler things,” she said, noting that manhole covers in America tend to be more homogenous.