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Japanese electronics companies are looking to re-engineer their design mojo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Akihiro Adachi, a 31-year-old audiovisual equipment designer at Panasonic Corp, longed for some personal space during his long train rides from Osaka to Tokyo. So when his company, to stimulate innovation, which he together with some colleagues and came up with “Bear Area,” a headset that limits noise, and peripheral vision.

A designer of Panasonic is showing a prototype of ‘Wear Area’ during a photo opportunity in Tokyo, Japan, October 29, 2018. Photo October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A lot of Panasonic were amazed.

“Someone said that the office is filled with people wearing this would look weird,” said Kang Hwayoung, another member of the 10-person design team.

But the prototype unexpectedly won a global design award, and received positive feedback from an unexpected angle, such as sake tasters, who wanted to limit sensory input.

The project is among several efforts in the Japanese electronics industry to breathe new life into industrial design. After years of losing ground to design-first rivals such as Apple and Dyson, Japanese companies are now working to restore the processes and creative flair that has produced iconic products such as the Walkman.

Panasonic, Sony and Mitsubishi Electric are among those the implementation of the practices that are routine at many AMERICAN and European companies, such as the involvement of designers at every step and treat the packaging as part of the product.

“We have the designers only involved in the last phase of our product development process, for an aesthetic solution, Yoshiyuki Miyabe, Panasonic’s technology and production chief, told reporters. “We are the refurbishing of the process, so that designers can join us from the planning stage.”

The Japanese government is promoting efforts: a report in May spurred corporate executives to seek “design-driven management, in which a company uses design as a primary indicator of the competitiveness.”

It also called for tax incentives for design-related investments and new laws for a better protection of intellectual property. The government is set to revise such laws next year.

“Of course, We had an argument about how much the government can do and must do with the private-sector issues like this,” said Daisuke Kubota, the director of the government the design of a system for the registration, planning bureau, who was involved in the panel.

“But many of the design experts asked us for the initiatives of the government, to say that this is really the last chance, and Japan would never be able to catch up with global rivals if this opportunity is missed.”

Another member of the panel, Kinya Tagawa, a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art and co-founder of design firm Takram, says that there has been a strong increase of the large companies, ” requesting design lectures for their executives.

“I’m seeing a sign of change,” he said.

THE WAY FORWARD

All agree that there’s a long way to go. C-suite designers continue to be a rarity on most electronics companies, while technologists dominate, the responsible officers of the company and industrial designers say.

Japan last year was 31,961 applications for design registrations, only a fraction of China’s 628,658 and the half of South Korea’s 67,374. In the heyday of the Japanese electronics industry in the beginning of the 1980s, Japan had nearly 60,000 applications per year.

Tagawa said the root of today’s problems was the failure of Japanese companies to absorb lessons from the software revolution, who see the importance of user-centered design principles and easy-to-use products, such as Apple’s iPhone. Instead, they remained fixated on the technique.

Ryuichi Oya, who has resigned as chief design of Sharp Corp last month, says he saw that the attitude of there when he moved to the Sharp four years ago after a long stay in automaker Mazda Motor.

“Designers at home electronics companies have little say in comparison with engineers,” he said. “As an engineer dismiss design proposals are too expensive or difficult from a technical point of view, designers can easily succumb.”

Oya said he found it particularly difficult to convince management of the need for a design vision.

“It’s not about whether you want this color, or form,” he said. “There must be design principles unique to Sharp, and consistent in its product line.”

COMPETITION

Japanese designers cite the contrast with South Korea’s Samsung Group, where the patriarch, Lee Kun-hee said in 1996, that design was one of the main resource management is “absolutely necessary for a company to survive in the 21st century.” He significantly enhanced both the number and the status of the designers.

At Sony, insiders say design began its return to the forefront after president Kaz Hirai took over in 2012. Change is slow as the company went through a painful restructuring, but the results can be seen from the approach to the revival of the Aibo, a robot dog.

Designers worked to craft a holistic user experience, from the moment a customer opened the box, tapping into a community of Aibo owners, Sony design chief Yutaka Hasegawa said.

“We had an intensive discussion about how Aibo must be packaged so that it looks closer to a living being. It is important that the opening of the container box that shows the customer’s first encounter with the dog.”

Slideshow (6 Images)

They decided to put Aibo sideways with her head to tilt to the left, a more expensive option than placing it face down because the interior packaging should be asymmetrical.

The result was a buzz among the Aibo-owners, with a number of posts on the Internet videos with a “ceremony for the opening of the Aibo container.”

($1 = 112.7200 yen)

Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki; Additional reporting by Yoshiyasu Shida; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Gerry Doyle

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