The power of pushing
the boundaries in design
All human beings have different irises. The “CODE project“ was launched to turn
this unique trait into graphic patterns and incorporate them into one-of-a-kind products.
Led by Yoshiteru Tomooka, a designer pushing the boundaries in many different ways,
this project unveiled new technological possibilities.
Tomooka talks about the future of design and the designer’s role in creating social value.
Finding beauty in biological information
―― You are leading the CODE project which is focused on finding new ways to utilize biological information. What exactly does this entail?
Tomooka: Until now, biological information has been used for personal identification and authentication, but the CODE project aims to use that information to create personalized products. In particular, we focused on the iris. Using a special algorithm, we created distinctive graphic patterns based on photographs of irises and then incorporated the patterns into fashion items. More specifically, we collaborated with 4th generation artisan “Yuichi Hirose” of Hirose Dyeworks, “adachiyukari.” jewelry brand, and heat-resistant glass maker “HARIO Lampwork Factory,” to produce unique works. Then we exhibited these works at South by Southwest (SXSW), the world's largest event celebrating the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries, held in Austin, Texas, in the United States.
Part of the motivation behind the CODE project was to turn people's different attributes into beautiful accessories, and rediscover the beauty of each person’s inherent individuality and diversity.
―― People usually associate the iris with security technologies, and much less with fashion items. What was the reaction of the artisans you collaborated with and people at SXSW?
Tomooka: The concept of converting iris information into graphic patterns is not easy to explain with words alone but the artisans were intrigued by the idea when I showed them actual materials and demos. At SXSW, there weren't very many booths exhibiting jewelry in the first place, so quite a few people stopped by. We actually photographed the irises of attendees and made stickers for them with the graphic patterns generated from their irises. I also spoke with many manufacturers in attendance, and some suggested that designs like this could be used for car fabrics or for furniture.
―― This project wasn't simply about selling products – it also led to new discoveries. How did this project originally come about?
Tomooka: We started the project with the aim of creating new value from NEC’s technologies by introducing a design perspective. First, I met with NEC researchers to see if there were any interesting technologies I could use. I decided on biometric authentication, which is one of NEC’s focuses. Personalized services have become a major trend, such as customizing your own sneakers or buying cosmetics that are optimized for your skin condition, so I thought that NEC could do something similar and create high value-added products based on the iris. Iris recognition is still a minor technology compared to face recognition, but I found iris images to be mysterious and attractive. Also, interestingly, a person's face changes throughout their life, but their irises stay the same from birth to death. The division in charge of business using iris recognition technologies also became interested, and several members were assigned to the project, so internal collaboration was very smooth. I think that this created a win-win situation. We could get partners for driving the project, while the division could expand into new areas, having previously worked mainly on security-related business.
―― The project involved many new endeavors, such as being designer-led and exhibiting at SXSW, so I am sure you encountered many difficulties. Could you share some of them?
Tomooka: This was NEC’s first time exhibiting at SXSW and we had no precedent to follow. We had to work out everything ourselves, from liaising with SXSW to shipping the works abroad, and there were few in-house people we could consult. So, I took part in meetups for SXSW exhibitors, exchanged information, made contacts and asked them for advice. In this way, we communicated actively with people outside NEC.
Continuing to push the boundaries in design
―― This isn’t the first time that you’ve been pushing the boundaries in design. What are your thoughts when looking back on your own career?
Tomooka: After I joined the company, I was involved in mobile phone product design for a while. That was the heyday of flip phones, and companies were competing to release new models every six months. Even so, I was trying to design a phone that people would grow attached to and use for a long time. Afterwards, I worked on user interface design for enterprise systems and have been gradually expanding the scope of my work from there. An enterprise system's ease of use is directly linked to productivity and efficiency, and I learned that it is important not only to make the system easy to use, but also include graphics that motivate the user.
―― So you started in product design then moved to designing the user interface and user experience.
Tomooka: After that, I worked on the project to launch a new financial services company. I joined at the beginning of the project, when we were still deciding what kinds of services to provide, so I was in charge of the overall design process, from app development to the company’s logo, website and promotional videos. In addition, I started working on the spatial design for a project to revamp and reimagine the offices at NEC headquarters, and am currently involved in a project to create an in-house co-working space called "BASE." For this project as well, I participated from the very start when we were coming up with the concept itself, not just the design of the space and furniture.
―― You really are taking the lead in pushing the boundaries. Is there anything that you keep in mind while working across different domains?
Tomooka: I think that a fundamental role of the designer is to focus on "people," so I am always thinking about the user – is this product or service easy to use, is it attractive, and am I properly conveying what I find attractive about it? But that is not all. It is also important to collaborate with a variety of people, because that is more effective than working on my own. For example, when redesigning the NEC offices, we held in-depth meetings with people to hear about issues they have with the existing offices and how they want to work in the future. As we proceeded, we assembled a team of people with different strengths, such as people who are good at interviews and analysis, and people who are good at designing spaces.
―― What are some of the challenges when trying to push the boundaries?
Tomooka: When working with a team of people with different areas of expertise, it can be difficult to acquire new skills or find a common “language.” That said, I find it really exciting and rewarding to take on new challenges and put myself in new environments. I think that working together towards a common goal while respecting each other’s abilities produces a shared sense of accomplishment. That, to me, is the value of pushing the boundaries.
The changing role of design in society
―― In recent years, design has been playing a larger role in business, giving rise to concepts such as design thinking and design management. When do you think this shift began?
Tomooka: At NEC, I think it started around 2014. The company was starting to incorporate designers into business development. I was one of the first, moving into business development. As a result, NEC started recognizing the value of designers participating in business, and designers have continually been involved in developing new businesses since 2015.
―― Is the role of design steadily changing?
Tomooka: Yes, it is. For example, when I was in charge of designing mobile phones, design meant a product’s "look," and the goal was to use design to differentiate products by their outward appearance. Gradually, design’s role expanded beyond the product’s appearance to include also the contents, and we saw the birth of concepts like design thinking, leading to a shift in how people in business development viewed design. Design is now even considered to be important to society, so its role really has expanded considerably.
―― What role do you play in business development?
Tomooka: I think that what designers do very well is visualizing information and people’s ideas. Over the course of many discussions, eventually, people start talking more and more in abstract and fuzzy terms, and everyone gets out of sync. A designer can organize the discussion using charts and illustrations, to keep everyone on the same page. The designer's role is also to think about the user first, so it is important for them to propose user-oriented ideas and bring the discussion back to the user's point of view, rather than the business rationale or the developer’s perspective.
―― Do young designers joining the company or working on projects bring new perspectives with them?
Tomooka: I think that, of course, their perspectives are probably different from when I was a student, but as for what we are trying to convey to people and how we want to make people feel – I believe that is still the same. However, I feel designers these days are more diverse. In the past, we thought of designers as being people who could draw and who went to art school, but now designers come from a much wider range of backgrounds, including, for example, people who studied psychology. Despite this, there are still many people who expect designers to be people who can draw pictures. We need to update people’s perceptions of what designers do.
―― It seems that pushing the boundaries is becoming more important in design. Finally, could you tell us what social value creation means to you?
Tomooka: NEC is a company that brings amazing ideas to life, and, for me, an amazing idea is something that moves people. As a designer, I believe that social value creation means delivering products and services that users want to have and use, in other words, products and services that move them. Personally, I hope to continue to work on design in a wide range of areas and try anything that comes my way.