NewsMar 9, 2018

Dissecting design in Japan

International course explores the intersection of sociology and design

An advertisement on an 18-wheeler with a woman with red hair and a shirt that says 100% girl. Repeated four times on the truck.

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.

Surprisingly, however, designers and sociologists tend to overlook these details, say Lesley professors Kazuyo Kubo and Kristina Lamour Sansone.

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.

A classroom of yellow chairs that all have round trays attached underneath.
The trays are designed to keep personal items off the ground, something important in Japanese culture.

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.

People with disabilities and needs are featured on this print: person with a cane, mother with baby, person with crutch, pregnant woman.
A print used on priority seating on a Japanese subway.

“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.

The original image - an icon of a person, a square and an eye
The professors created the diagram to help students evaluate the objects of the course. See the students' interpretations below.

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.

Sansone, too, noticed the manhole covers and speculated that the reason for their variety was perhaps cultural pride, prefecture identity and having “beautiful things as a way of life.”

The ability to insert design into any facet of life inspired Wood, a daycare teacher and future elementary educator. She said the experience will affect how she manages and arranges her classroom. Before the trip she noticed how certain configurations and details affected students. For example, the kids were much rowdier in a windowless classroom than one with natural light. Now, she feels the freedom to step back, ask questions and adjust spaces to better fit the user.

For student Raine Ferrin the concepts of the course were as much of a revelation as a confirmation.

“By the end of the trip I realized it was something I had always taken notice of, but maybe not in an academic perspective,” said Ferrin, a sophomore studying design.

The Japanese, however, didn’t seem to notice the intricate design choices that so fascinated the American students. Part of the trip involved a tour of partner university Osaka University of Commerce. Although the university is a business, not a design school, the Lesley group was surprised to find that their new building, named re-Act, was full of design elements that made it conducive to interaction and studying – moveable tables and chairs, comfortable nooks for studying and lots of chairs. There were at least six different chair designs in the building, from desks with trays, similar to the one Sansone saw on her scouting trip, to one with a cutout to hang bags and purses.

Professor Kazuyo Kubo looks at poetry printed on the walls of a subway station. Between each line is a band of color.
Professor Kazuyo Kubo looks at poetry printed on the walls of a subway station.

“It seems more of an innate process,” said Ferrin. “For them, when we brought up design, they sort of really didn’t know what we were talking about, but at the same time were displaying that they did.”

Ferrin would like to see such attention paid to the spaces she uses each day.

The students’ course culminated once they returned to Lesley, with presentations on their observations of constructed space.

Rosie Boucher, an art therapy junior, and Renata Watson, a junior design student, each spoke about the different uses of red in Japan and America.

“We tend to view red as a more aggressive color,” Boucher said. In Japan, the color was sacred, symbolizing good fortune or happiness, while it signaled caution or seduction in the U.S.

Fatima Mian, a junior in illustration, compared Japan’s conservative manner of dress to America’s casual style. She found that the Japanese often wore muted tones with most of their skin covered, while Americans tend toward informal, laidback clothes such as jeans, T-shirts and shorts.

Fine arts senior Carolina Laredo found commonalities in the low-income areas of Osaka and those of Dorchester and Mattapan. Unlike the more polished tourist-concentrated areas of Osaka and Boston, these neighborhoods had graffiti, poorly maintained buildings and poverty.

Moving forward with design

Like the students, Kubo and Sansone are still figuring out what to do with the observations they’ve made about constructed space and its role in their work.

Above all, they want to further explore the role design has in their work and in their teaching. For Sansone, it means incorporating sociology into her design process and teaching, something she never considered before.

For Kubo, it means looking at human behavior in a new way — through the things they design and how they use them.

The applications are far reaching, according to Ferrin.

She said, it “applies to all design, whether it’s graphic, it’s interactive, for a space or experience. It’s more of a human-centered design.”