Jul. 19, 2019

An Interview with the Judges

The KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD 2020, now in its 17th year, aims to grow further as an international competition for product design. To this end, we welcome two new additions to our panel of judges: architect Tsuyoshi Tane and designer Teruhiro Yanagihara. We caught the pair after a meeting on the competition’s theme and asked them for their thoughts on the competition and beyond.

The competition gives insight into KOKUYO’s philosophy as a company.

――  A meeting between KOKUYO and the judges to discuss the theme of the competition marks the beginning of that year’s KOKUYO DESIGN AWARDS. Seeing how the judges discussed things from the entrants’ point of view at the meeting really left an impression. First, could we ask your thoughts after attending this meeting as a judge for the first time?

Tane: Specializing in architecture, though it may seem similar to design, is actually a little different. I knew that this competition existed, but I didn’t know much about the specific entrant requirements. However, I now know from today’s meeting that entrants and everyone else involved in the competition are always challenging themselves and taking this competition one step further. I realize that I was asked to be a judge precisely because I come from a different field—namely, architecture. The ideas I have and my creative process are different from those of people from the fields of manufacturing, product development, or design, for example. Or maybe, you know, I’m currently based in Paris, and I have a long track record overseas, so it could be that they’re expecting things of me as a judge with an international perspective.

Yanagihara: When I think of the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD, the first thing that comes to mind is the hit product “Kadokeshi Plastic Eraser” (winner of the honorable mention from the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD 2002). It left a big impression on me. I still remember feeling that it was an interesting challenge that was more than just creating a piece of stationary. Organizing a competition and making the submitted designs commercially available provides an opportunity for KOKUYO to be more widely known. So I’ve been keeping an eye on the competition since then. Not only does the competition attract a lot of attention, it also gives insight into KOKUYO’s philosophy as a company. After attending the meeting on the theme today as a judge, I now have a more thorough understanding of how KOKUYO does things.

The pair exchange opinions as they look at past winners. Tane: “In an age where we possess a lot of things and information, I feel that it is possible to demonstrate talent.” Yanagihara: “The theme is very challenging this time. I want them to interpret it freely.”

I want to bring out strengths that aren’t obvious.

――  As a judge, what do you keep in mind?

Tane: Because it is a competition, you can see how capable the entrants are. But at the same time, the judges’ capabilities will also be brought into question, so I want to keep things serious and stay on my toes. Competitions are opportunities. However, they also tend to receive many designs that are similar to one another. When I’m choosing from over 1,000 submissions, I want to approach the designs with the excitement of seeing them brought to life and putting something out into the world together with the designers. The same goes for judging architecture, but the plans that are submitted to competitions are often predicable—from the standpoint of someone that has some degree of experience, you can tell where they’re going with it right away. In contrast, there are also times when judges intuitively see something unexpected in the designs that may not be apparent to their own designers. In a competition, the judges get to bring those hidden elements forward. I think that is the great fun of being a judge. I encourage designers to try and create something that exceeds expectations. I really look forward to discovering new talent.

Yanagihara: Mr. Tane said earlier that he was selected as a judge because he comes from a different field, architecture. I’ve worked in product design, but I’m not the kind of designer that creates mass-produced goods. Neither of us look at submissions from the perspective of typical product development. I expect that we can take a step back from KOKUYO’s usual way of doing things and bring out something interesting in the designs and help entrants create designs that go against KOKUYO’s style, in a good way. This company, KOKUYO, is saying they will take good designs and put them on the market. This may sound like a dream to designers, but when you look at the big picture, you may realize that the competition itself is a project that the company uses to try and identify challenges and issues. It’s an opportunity for the company to discover something, too. KOKUYO is not simply trying to make a product that sells. It is a company that is striving to grow as it finds and solves challenges in society. I feel that this competition is an opportunity for both the company and entrants to grow together.

Tane: I think it would be wonderful if, in that way, this competition were to end up turning out the next generation of designers. I hope that I can contribute to making that happen in any way I can. I am taking part in this competition as a judge, but I want to stay a challenger. So, as I listened to everyone in the meeting, I thought about how I would interpret the theme for this competition and what kind of design I would propose.

About the 2019 Theme: “♡

――  I understand that entrants also need the motivation to be creative and innovative.

Tane: I think as long as you have that kind of motivation, you can create something interesting and take it further and further. Having a theme is key to bringing out designers’ creative energy. This year’s theme, “♡,” is a challenging one. This is a theme that I wouldn’t normally choose, but after much discussion, I came to understand the message contained within it, and I started to want to support it over the other proposals. I was concerned at first that male entrants who look at this symbol may hesitate to enter the competition. But if that limits their imagination and creativity, then they are no designers to begin with.

Yanagihara: Nonetheless, I was surprised that it was chosen without resistance even though it was an out-of-the-box theme. I thought there would be a lot of opposition, but on the contrary, everyone at the meeting was open to the idea. This theme might appeal to people who have never thought to enter the competition before. Our role is to judge and select designs out of many entries, but there are hundreds of competitions around the world, and out of all of them, the entrants chose this competition to enter. Designers must consider which competition to place their effort and energy in. Their energy is not limitless. So in order to catch their attention and make them want to choose our competition, having a good theme is indispensable.

――  I think it’s safe to say that this time, we have a theme that will change the impression people have of KOKUYO.

Yanagihara: I’d assume that many people picture KOKUYO as being down-to-earth. But actually, I think KOKUYO has an extremely flexible way of thinking. It’s flexible and creative—it’s not what people think of KOKUYO to be. And people have a chance to discover that aspect of KOKUYO through the competition, rather than its products. I find that fascinating.

I want to evaluate submissions from diverse points of views that you can only find at an international competition

――  Last year, the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD received entries from 50 countries around the world, and 41 percent of them were from outside of Japan. What do you think the competition should focus on in order to continue growing as an international competition?

Tane: I would like to take a step back from the conventional ways of thinking about design projects that are common in Japan, and look at designs from a different perspective. I’m not familiar with the current state of design in Japan to begin with, because I have been overseas for 20 years. But the judges who have come together for this competition wouldn’t mind that. So I’m looking forward to judging. When I looked at the winners in recent years, I got the impression that most of the designs were simple and whitish in color, very modern and minimalist—I think they were probably influenced by their own image of KOKUYO. But one of those winners, Palletballet, a paint set created by Indian designer Soch which won a Merit Award in the last competition, was the kind of product that you can only find in an international competition. The idea was something you won’t see from Japanese designers, and I found it appealing.

Yanagihara: I think that judges need to have an unbiased perspective. When you know that your design could be made into a commercial product, you can’t help but consider if it will sell in Japan when you’re deciding on its colors and shapes. However, there are proposals from overseas that don’t have that kind of focus on marketing. Palletballet has vivid colors and the pottery-wheel-like design was remarkable. It was visually captivating and possessed all the qualities a product should have to make people desire it. Japanese designers often opt for colors that don’t raise eyebrows, but there are also designs that stress the colors as an important part of the concept. I would like to consider various perspectives when I select designs.

――  Mr. Yanagihara, you talked about the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD using the word “relationship” during the meeting.

Yanagihara: A designer’s idea alone does not make a product. You have to keep in mind what the other people involved are looking for and how to go about your ideas. It’s a gear-like relationship. Let me compare it to baseball. If a pitcher doesn’t throw a fast pitch, it’s hard for the batter to hit a home run. That kind of relationship is hardly ever found in typical competitions. That’s why they don’t inspire good ideas. However, at the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD, I feel that designs are born out of that relationship. That’s why the entrants, who pitch ideas, become more conscious of throwing fast pitches. I want to work on the competition as a judge while staying conscious of the relationship between us and the entrants.

――  It doesn’t just end with the competition. Relationships are also an important aspect when making a design into a commercial product.

Yanagihara: In this competition, we judge designs and make the winning entries into commercial products, but it’s not just taking them and making them commercially available without the involvement of their creators. The products are developed together with their creators, and that relationship also comes with responsibilities on KOKUYO’s part, as a company that is selling it as a product. Rather than dismissing things that don’t seem like they’ll sell, we have to think about how we would market them. This is a challenge on both sides. I also look forward to seeing the end result of that challenge.

We share dreams and grow together

――  To KOKUYO, this is a challenge that is full of possibilities. It’s like cultivating a field.

Yanagihara: I think, in an ordinary competition, the responsibility ends after the award is presented. The word “culture” comes from the word “cultivate.” This isn’t just a one-time competition—the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD has been cultivating the field of design for the past 17 years. We may see that bear the fruits of possibilities. This competition is creating culture. It’s no exaggeration that this approach of KOKUYO’s is creating culture.

――  Product design competitions differ from architecture competitions, but could you tell us how you feel about competitions in general, given your own experience?

Tane: I always take on a competition with full commitment, because architecture competitions only have one winner, and winning one can change your life. With that being said, I’ve recently only been a part of one or two competitions a year. So it’s an absolute requirement that I go at it with everything I have. I don’t think I would be who I am today if I hadn’t made works like the Estonian National Museum, which repurposed a military runway, and the Kofun Stadium proposal for the National Stadium of Japan. Of course, there have been many competitions where I came up short. If I didn’t have those experiences, however, I wouldn’t have come up with my current approach to architectural design, in which I connect the memory of the past with the future. When you work on something, you grow as much as you challenge yourself. I think that how many of that kind of opportunities you can make for yourself is the key to growing as a creator. Competitions are full of dreams. But you may never achieve certain things unless you take that first real step. If you feel like this is something you want to do, we would love to see you put yourself out there.

Yanagihara: I only entered one competition when I was young, but through that competition, I learned that things are born out of relationships between the parties involved. What the company is looking for, and what ideas I should propose, became the basis for my design. Mr. Tane said that competitions are full of dreams. The KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD is a competition that is built on relationships in which everyone shares a dream. We can grow together. I wish for this competition to be one in which the judges and entrants can both grow.