A Manual for Un-Knowing: Excavating Insights from Kenya Hara’s Designing Design

Ulu Mills
6 min readFeb 18, 2018

One of my favorite books on design is the first design book I ever read cover to cover: Designing Design by Kenya Hara. Ever since, I’ve been longing to own my own copy of this out-of-print classic, but used copies are upwards of $600! That’s how good it is.

But I am in luck (and so are you); to celebrate its impending re-release, here’s a review of the book that I wrote this past October.

Anyone who encounters the lifestyle brand MUJI can immediately identify its aesthetic: simple, raw, durable, utilitarian, elegant. In Japan, the adjective shibui often describes the brand, conveying an old-school cool where design elements are focused more on polish than on trend. MUJI’s full name translates to Unbranded Good Products, a beacon of self-awareness that commands admiration.

One might then expect the personal philosophy of Kenya Hara, MUJI’s current art director, to advocate the same pure minimalism and practicality in his own process. But a jaunt through the first pages of Hara’s Designing Design finds them populated with images of objects whose original utility is obscured by the questions their new forms raise. Mounted against MUJI’s signature white backdrop are items entirely alien by MUJI standards: juice boxes rebuilt in fruit skins, lanterns made of human hair, pasta vaguely reminiscent of theatrical masks. Only upon closer scrutiny does a portrait of Hara’s profound, inimitable approach to design meander to the surface.

The book reads less like a design thinking manual than the title suggests. Rather, concepts hopscotch across descriptions of Hara’s projects, with only the conclusion partitioned for defining design. It is the first of Hara’s works to be published in English, and the daunting task of introducing himself to the world might explain its somewhat haphazard organization. On the other hand, this could be interpreted as intentional: “Verbalizing design is an act of design” is the first thing Hara writes, and nearly every page thereafter carries a statement that could launch a dissertation. The book dances from one topic to the next seemingly in the order they materialized, engaging the reader tangibly with Hara’s thoughts. Designing Design doesn’t make for a well-structured design reference book, yet it is sure to leave its mark on any design enthusiast.

Sifting through countless standalone quotable passages, the reader can extract two overarching principles that are uniquely Hara’s. The first is Ex-Formation, the conscious process of undoing knowledge of a subject to understand it more deeply — antithetical to “information.” The first chapter explores it as an unnamed notion by detailing Hara’s 2000 “RE-DESIGN” exhibition, for which he tasked his colleagues with creating entirely new constructions of mundane products. The results — including square toilet paper rolls and architectural roach traps — make for intriguing photographs, but swell to brilliance when Hara elaborates on the motivation behind them. Later, in the chapter that finally defines Ex-Formation, he assigns his university students a topic and instructs them to challenge their notions of it through research and proposal of a new form. The resulting products are nothing new to the world, but in context offer a convincing argument for expanding the definition of the concept (for one, the idea of soft serve ice cream as a “resort”). Hara’s point is that rather than conceding that information should serve as the currency of knowledge, the task of a designer should be, through un-knowing, to incite wonderment and curiosity in the audience and awaken infinite new discoveries.

The second notion discussed at length is that of Sense-Driven Design. Hara laments the diminishment of humans’ sensory perception coinciding with the rise of technology, and suggests that the lightning pace of technological advancement is detrimental to its own maturation. He proposes Sense-Driven Design as a means of both combatting further sensory decline and allowing for technological possibilities centered around haptic stimulation. The chapter and exhibition aptly titled “HAPTIC” showcase works of Hara’s contemporaries that can be experienced through the body’s many receptors. The next chapter, “Senseware,” at last presents a collection of Hara’s own designs, from the debossed program for the Nagano Olympics to the cotton signage of a birth center, curated to emphasize how their tactile nature appeals to an array of hidden senses.

In descriptions of speculative work he either created or facilitated, Hara offers an abundance of fascinating insights. Frustratingly, most are only touched on in single sentences or paragraphs. Others, like the two introduced above, extend beyond their designated chapters, yet remain fledgling in exposition (several have since been expounded in their own full-length books). In this regard, his chapter on MUJI’s approach to design stands in contrast, likely because its refinement began twenty years before Hara took over as art director.

Eschewing trendiness in favor of simplicity was once a strategy to minimize production costs without sacrificing quality, but as outsourcing created price competition, that motivation was forced to evolve. Now, for a customer to declare that a MUJI product simply “will do,” Hara says, is the driving force behind their design choices. MUJI now sits comfortably in the niche it’s unearthed, offering products neither exorbitant nor a bargain, neither ordinary nor eccentric. They are vessels for interpretation that converge gracefully with everyday items across the globe.

Hara’s discussion of the development of Japan’s distinctive design sensibility, through the lenses of history and geography, is perhaps where he’s most convincing. He beams with cultural pride but denounces nationalism as a catalyst of conflict. He states that Japan’s arduous history with Westernization, as well as its position at the outer frontier of Asia, allowed it to be the terminus for perspectives transmitted across the Eurasian continent. These advantages, Hara argues, are why Japan can refine those perspectives and present them anew on the world stage.

Designing Design employs a walk through the portfolio of a global design visionary to deliver early drafts of several design thinking manifestos. Similarly, the translation oscillates between conspicuously Japanese linguistic peculiarities and passages with the sophistication of a great English literary work. Hara insists that the translators conveyed his message scrupulously, and with the overall meandrous nature of the book, this could even be considered part of its charm. In any case, it is an ambitious and beautiful undertaking. Hara posits in the last chapter that all designs descended from the “stick” and the “vessel,” and Designing Design is in turns both: assertive and pointed in its messages, while still feeling incomplete enough to invite readers to fill it with their own ruminations.