Minimalism and why we love MUJI so much

Aramahoshi: a Japanese phrase from the Middle Ages meaning, “I’d be happy if I had this.”

“I’m a designer” doesn’t say much these days. What kind of designer are you? There are so many types of designers with titles ranging from the traditional graphic designer to experience designer, oh and have you heard of food technologists? Yep, another stream of designers working with food as their medium. Over the last decade or so, we’ve branched off into so many hybrid models (e.g. learning to write content or front-end code on top of our core talents) but we all come from the same humble beginnings: pen and paper.

Reed pens bound by linen, Brooklyn Museum

Did you know that the earliest pens were made out of reed to write on papyrus scrolls in Egypt? For the next 1200 or so years, the majority of writing was done using quills on parchment. The first inexpensive ball point pen was made by Bich, a French Baron, and they are what we now know as Bic’s. By the 1980’s, the Japanese company Ohto invented the rollerball and in 1984, Sakura launched the world’s first gel ink. All of this paving the way for Muji’s sacred gel-ink ballpoint pen.

Whether or not we’re technically trained in the art of design, the pen is the most basic and essential tool for any designer. Play a Lynda course on Wireframing basics or sit in on a first year class in a UX Design program. You’ll always start off brainstorming shapes and words using a pen on a pad of paper. And if you whisper the name, “MUJI,” all ears in the room will perk up at the sound with reverent attention. If you’re reading this article, you’re not here to find out what is MUJI. You’re here to find out more.

A little bit about MUJI

MUJI was originally founded in Japan in 1980. In Japanese, it translates to “Mujirushi Ryohin” meaning “no-brand quality goods.” Its three values align with what most (if not all) designers today preach with the utmost respect: minimalism.

  1. Selection of materials
  2. Streamlining of processes
  3. Simplification of packages

It’s the focus away from “this is what I really want” to “this will do.” While the first voice emphasizes a superficial need for consumeristic goods, the latter resounds a basic satisfaction. With MUJI products, customers get a minimal, gets-the-job-done kind of product, made from simple ingredients with little to no extra frill. When the first MUJI store opened at Seiyu in 1983, Japan was experiencing a bubble economy where products were being sold at prices much higher than they were worth. In disagreement of such trends, Ikko Tanaka, MUJI’s art director at the time, developed MUJI’s design values according to traditional Japanese aesthetic and advocated to create good, clean, and simple products and only present them as such.

Branding hikes these doggie bowls up to $650 (resale value as of January 2018)

Today, the words millennial and minimalist run almost synonymously and we can venture to say that minimalism has also been trending (cringing term but true) for the last few years in the design industry. Historically, it can be argued that minimalism is rooted in geometric abstraction from the early 1900’s. Using synthesized shapes, abstract space, and constructional elements in composition, abstract geometry was used to explore forms and materials. It paved the way for the Bauhaus movement, Swiss Design, all the way to present day’s household term, “minimalism.”

Geometric abstraction in art

This is where MUJI comes in. Here, as a focal principle, customers can be assured that they will not pay for what they cannot use. Try their right-angle socks, their mattress with legs, or their wool turtleneck sweaters with cotton added to the necks (for minimum scratchiness). MUJI puts “micro consideration” into all aspects of their product design workflow. As part of their research process, MUJI regularly visits homes to see how household products are used daily or habitually and where there are pain points that could be improved upon. It was from these experiences that MUJI decided to develop storage bins for interior clutter and mini organizers for bathroom counters where colourful products were constantly strewn about, with each brand fighting for attention.

Round, capped, MUJI pens

MUJI’s gel-ink ballpoint pens have a mechanical feature that prevents air from leaking into the pen or flowing in the wrong direction. It minimizes the likelihood of ink malfunction that’s found often in other brands. I mean, if you’ve ever had to scribble onto a scrap piece of paper to determine whether or not a pen is truly out of ink this time, raise your hand. MUJI also uses water-based pigments that achieve vibrant colours that do not bleed through or smear, so these 👐 can stay pristine without spreading little ink prints all over your sketches and paper prototypes. These pens come rounded or hexagon, and capped or clickable, in various shades and shades of shades so you can definitely find one that you can’t live without.

Oh, wait. Not that you “need” it but you’ll be satisfied, plain and simple.


This article was NOT sponsored by MUJI. It was inspired by DesignX community’s list of design tools we cannot live without.