December 30, 2008

Muji’s Design Mojo

Image by Rod sin cables, MUJI for LIfe & LOve

After reading about Muji in Time magazine’s December 22 issue, I thought of Walden Pond. Somewhere in the Japanese retailer’s headquarters, the executive offices I would imagine, there must be a portrait of Henry David Thoreau, a man who epitomized simple living. Their corporate site’s “What is Muji” section (I read the English-language version) reads like a manifesto for making and living simply. Their current headings of “Selection of materials,” “Streamlining processes,” and “Simplification of packaging” match the substance and beat of Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.” The Made to Stick fellows may not appreciate this tagline, but Muji has transformed it into roughly 7,000 products. The tagline of Muji’s design team is “The design that is not designed.” As the group’s leader Satoshi Yasui elaborates, “It might sound sarcastic, but it is the ultimate design—anonymous, free of décor, without mark. It is not a monster of functions. It is simple.” The article also relates practices by the design team at Muji that echo two thoughts about design:

Design is redesign
This is the tagline-esque title of an essay by Jan Michl, Professor, Oslo School of Architecture, Norway. The design team at Muji not only invests their energies into the creation of new products, but also into improving existing ones.

Build products that we want to use ourselves
This belief from founder and Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, is aligned to Yasui’s attitude: “We think of what we want and why it doesn’t exist. That’s where we begin.”

Muji’s “undesign” approach has attracted descriptors like “mundanity.” The company’s success, and struggle in churning affordable “no-frills, no-mark” design, has turned mundanity into modernity. Not one to be seen at a Muji store if he were alive in this age, Thoreau may have potentially approved of the company’s take on simplicity, with a wink.