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Kikubari – The Heart of Japanese Design

As I settle into Kyoto, I’m absolutely fascinated by how much care they put into the most mundane objects — everyday stuff like shelves, ketchup, butter.

The Shelf with Power Cables

As I was figuring out how to connect my microwave to the power socket, I found that my shelf had used up one of the precious power sockets in my tiny kitchen. I was wondering why on earth a non-electrical object needed power.


And then, I discovered this!

Japanese Shelf with Power Cables

There are two extra point sockets at the top part of the shelf itself — making it much easier for me to connect other appliances.

Whoa, mind blown! (Hey IKEA, are you taking notes??)

Squeezable Sauce Bottles

Squeezable Ketchup and Butter

Then there’s the squeezable ketchup and butter bottles. It’s so damn simple, why didn’t we think of this? Instead of having to wrestle with glass bottles and waiting forever for butter to melt — why not just squeeze it out?

Perforated Butter

Perforated Butter

Oh and on the topic of butter, they also have perforated butter. Yes, they’ve pre-cut the butter so you can have the perfect portion of butter every. single. time.

Designing with Kikubari 気配り

Japan is, of course, well-known to be perfectionists and absolutely zealous about making improvements. However, I think there’s another element behind these designs. It’s kikubari (気配り). Very loosely translated, it’s the art of taking care of others.

This seems to come naturally for most Japanese people I’ve encountered. They have a strong aversion to causing trouble for others. So they take a lot of care in observing others’ unspoken needs, intuitively sensing their feelings and “working around” them. The result we see is, of course, Japan’s unrivalled hospitality. And in these cases above, it’s clear that the spirit of kikubari pervades their products as well.

One of the recent topics  in the Westernised business world is human centered design or customer experience. While there’s a lot of talk, our products and services are never 100%-ly designed with customers in mind. A lot of time, we make decisions based on internal processes, management perspectives, cost effectiveness and so forth. The customers experience is not our #1 priority.

True customer-centric design with kikubari requires that we prioritise all decision-making on customer needs. It requires us to observe and truly understand how people use products and services and spare no effort to accommodate them.

There is actually a very beautiful and nuanced meaning to kikubari that I’m not really able to translate. I recommend reading this, if you want to learn more about kikubari.

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1 Comment

  1. Customer service is still insular, and as someone who is learning about human-centred design in her MSc, this was a timely read.

    Thanks for sharing.

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