Oliver Reichenstein, a well known and influential digital designer talks with the Verge about his thoughts on design, as well as why he built much of his career in Japan. The thoughts resinate with being an expat in a country where you essentially know none of the language and accepted social norms. As Oliver puts it, it’s like being a baby and learning everything again, which can be a rewarding experience. Also, agreed with Oliver on how when being an expat in a place like Japan or Korea, many natives think foreigners are crazy, so if you are, it makes no difference and gives you more creative freedom as you are by default outside social norms.
Arriving in Japan without any knowledge of the language, I lived in a world without words, where, almost like a baby, I had to learn everything from scratch. I think the experience of being illiterate and then slowly growing back into society has made me a better designer. When you can’t read or write and you need to interpret everything you encounter by deciphering visual clues, you begin to understand how things and people function behind the words. If, in plus, a lot of the standard mechanical interfaces work differently, it was a magnificent training in basic interface phenomenology.
Being literally speechless for almost three months, I also discovered the aesthetic and functional beauty of Japanese typography and, through that, of Latin typography. One of my favorite places in Tokyo is the calligraphic museum in Ueno. I went there on my first trip to Japan, and it amazed me that I was able to somewhat guess the broad meaning of some calligraphy solely by looking at the shape. When I started to learn kanji and how signs represent what they mean, I started to see that a lot of our words visually represent the things they describe. The English “dog” looks like a dog sitting, the German “Hund” (same root as “hound”) looks like a dog standing. I won’t get too deep into this, because it sounds kind of insane. In any case I started to see and think language and its visual representation from a completely different angle and ultimately that gave me the visual and mental freedom to build iA.
I enjoyed the size of Tokyo and the freedom it gives you to be yourself. In a city with 36 million people, no one tries to force you into a certain way of living. Being a foreigner is even easier, because Japanese people mostly think we’re all crazy to begin with anyway. For the first time, I was able to say and do what I felt, and no one tried to correct me back to the “standard” way. This liberty also brings you together with people that are like-minded. I could go on forever about this… as you can clearly tell, I miss Tokyo terribly. We still have iA Tokyo in a beautiful office in Shibuya, so luckily I can still go there every few months.
The full article is a great read, and has very interesting insights on the design process. And speaking of design, The Verge is a classic case example how a new publication should be. They have amazing writing, in depth, interesting, and niche. They have amazing layout and design while taking advantage of the digital affordances. They have probably the best consistant video production. I’ll probably be posting from them many times in the future.
On a side note, but related, I heard yesterday on Bloomberg West that about 50% of the companies based in Silicon Valley were founded by people born outside the US. Which I think goes along the same lines of Oliver’s experience. When you are living in a foreign place, you look at the building blocks instead of defaulting to the perceived accepted norms.