Product Design and Studio Ghibli

When someone mentions Studio Ghibli, what often comes to mind is the childhood nostalgia associated with Hayao Miyazaki’s Movies.

I’m a huge fan of his work and I aspire to reach his level of storytelling one day. I often think- “what just happened?” when I watch one of his movies. The plots seem to be spontaneous and random, however, it never fails to leave me with a feeling of awe and inspiration.

My Neighbor Totoro

Design is all about storytelling. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Designers want to evoke an emotion or encourage an action while people use their product. By examining the works of Hayao Miyazaki, there seem to be a few distinct characteristics in his most successful movies that parallel storytelling in design.


1. Anything goes

I’m sure you’ve noticed how spontaneous his stories seem to be. Like in the movie Howl’s Moving Castle, the castle doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s not a very efficient vehicle, it’s loud and has legs when it can work better on something like a tank tread. I think this applies to the first stage of every design. Anything goes.

Howl’s Moving Castle

When I first started designing, my design mentor would never let me get on the computer and use Photoshop before seeing all of my craziest ideas on paper. If they weren’t crazy enough or looked too similar, I haven’t gone far enough.

Being creative is really difficult. It makes your brain hurt and sometimes you curse and wonder why you can’t think of anything new and innovative. Forget it. Stop trying to think of a great idea that’ll solve your problem right from the beginning, because you don’t even know what it would be! By staying on the most trodden path, you get stuck circling in a roundabout. Try thinking of things like, what if you had all the money in the world to make it? How would an alien perceive your design? Would this make Kylo Ren smile?

From the SNL undercover boss episode featuring Kylo Ren

While you’re in the zone exhausting yourself of these out-of-the-world versions of your design, you might actually think of something new and feasible. Having an “anything goes” attitude during the brainstorming session will get the creative ball rolling.

2. I can totally relate

Ever thought about what makes Ghibli movies so immersive? I don’t know about you, but when I watched Spirited Away it felt like I had been in that world for a year. But when I look at the length of the movie only 2 hours had passed. That’s crazy; what filled all that time?

I think it’s because I feel so emotionally invested in the characters that I’m experiencing every second of it with them. It’s the little details that the movie makes you watch.

I know, designers are ALL about detail.

Looks familiar, right? (Fortunately, we can just use alt + ↓ now) Although I understand the importance of pixel-perfect design, that’s not what I mean.

When Chihiro puts on her shoes, she takes the time to tap them on the ground and make them comfortable. She makes all the facial expressions a child would make and when she’s nervous she grabs on the edge of her shirt. That’s what makes her realistic and relatable. Hayao Miyazaki once said that animators are actors themselves. They follow their characters and animate them as if they were playing them out on a stage.

This concept also applies to design. How can we connect with our users if we don’t get into the persona? It’s important to do research and take some time to use our designs as if we were the intended users. Perhaps we’ll find a spot where the experience could be enhanced with a different approach.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Many designers already apply this concept and one way is to storyboard (exactly like storyboarding a film). Storyboarding allows us to understand the foundations of a story that would greatly help in creating a more immersive and convincing design.

Storyboard from the book Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind : The Original Storyboards

3. Be an advocate

To invoke emotion and action, there is no more powerful method than storytelling itself. As humans, we mostly make decisions based on our feelings. As designers, we have the power to use this for advocacy.

Despite most Ghibli movies looking like they belong in a completely different world, there is always an underlying message about the state of our own world. The most obvious movie that advocates for environmentalism is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In that movie, while most of the planet is polluted with toxins, a princess defends her home known as the last livable land. It’s clear that the message Miyazaki sends is about how humans are damaging our own home through ignorance and violence. As a result of pairing the dilemma with a character that people can see and relate to, the message very moving and thought-provoking.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

So why do we design? Do we design solely for more user engagement that’ll lead to more income? For fame with our innovative breakthroughs? We design because what we create will ultimately impact all people (which includes ourselves) at some level. We have a duty to those we provide for by concerning ourselves with people’s health, society, and our environment.

While marketing large planet-saving campaigns can be effective, sustainability and accessibility should be the central philosophy at the heart of any product.


Thank you for reading my little thought piece. I wanted to make a connection between my two passions and sources of inspiration. Reposted from my website Alenadelena.com