How a culture shock influenced me as a designer and human being.

Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto

Being surrounded by a completely new culture, everything was about design. Everything.

The first 2 aspects of design I had to deal quickly with were:

  • Writing. To learn the language and being able to direct myself.
  • Living. Well, everything else almost. Sleep in my low bed (luckily, not a futon), wear my (too small) girly slippers, understand the multi-functional toilet, clean myself in the shower room and relax in the family bath ôfuro (which means you get clean before and no, you don’t invade the water with millions of shampoo bubbles). Wear a school uniform. Eat with chopsticks. Take public transports… shall I continue?

I believe the best way to understand something is to experience it. When simple things from your daily life are radically different in another country, you start being conscious. Conscious of design, how it looks, how functional it is but also you pay more attention to people’s behaviours, individually and in a community.

Whenever I think of design in Japan I always come back to that idea of minimalistic elegance, asymmetrical yet balanced aesthetic where playful is useful, meaningful.

Just take the floral art Ikebana as an example. Each type of flower or leaf, is the unique element of a greater picture. Nothing alike like our European bouquet where you just put a bunch of pretty flowers all together. Here we talk about which flower, how big, in which angle, the combinations of elements individually and together. I think that’s why I actually enjoy doing interface design and the concept of atomic design. Each element, atom, has its own purpose in the molecules forming the organisms and so on.

How Japanese design influenced me

  • I observe people’s reactions. Their face when they talk, listen. Their hands and their general posture. I try to decrypt these messages independently of what they could be saying. I did not know the concept by then but it started shaping what’s called emotional intelligence.
  • I like decluttered space (if yours is, read this book). As much as I fancy buying some pretty but useless things sometimes, there’s always a point where I feel the need to clean up, order, re-balance. Same goes for design, I tends to get rid of useless graphics, I like it clean and well thought.
  • I love handmade ceramics, it somehow makes me feel good. They are unique, possibly imperfect, authentic. I brought some back and I enjoy having a look at pottery whenever I visit a country.

How Japanese design influenced my own vision at work

My approach is minimalistic yet it’s not always about less is more. I like to think of it as “delicate”. In practice I care about what the final goal is, what do I need and how easy it is for the user to reach that goal. And of course it has to look good. And so create great, simple designs is indeed not that simple.

When I’m not designing from scratch but considering previous designs, I’m asking myself every 2mins: Okey what’s the purpose of that? and is it the right way to do it? What could I do better? And soon I’ll start digging and ask why and how and is it proven? or how can we measure the real impact?

These questions help me to achieve greater results because it pushes my objectivity and prepares me to explain my choices when dissident voices come in.


I’m Annabelle and I’m a UX/graphic designer. 
10 years ago I was leaving France for a full year in Tokyo as an exchange student. Today 10 years later, I’m trying to analyze my experience with more hindsight. List of articles here.