Is the Information Overload in Japan Really Bad Design?
Tech & Experience Design #5
Which do you prioritize: the aesthetics of design, such as visual appeal and spatial beauty, or usability factors like ease of use and clarity? For example, looking at the photo of these remote controls, which one do you think is better? Which one do you prefer?
It’s difficult to determine without actually using them, but having too much information displayed can make it unclear which button is for what, while being too simple can make it challenging to navigate until you become familiar with it. Even simple tasks can become inconvenient when there are additional steps involved. Both approaches have their pros and cons. We want to achieve high precision in both aspects, but this is inherently challenging. Moreover, when it comes to business, cost issues also come into play, further complicating the solution.
In the past, Seven Eleven’s coffee machines had an “R” button on the left side and an “L” button on the right side, causing confusion among users. As a result, individual stores had to use label makers and provide additional explanations like “regular size” and “large size,” which overshadowed the original design concept created by the designer. The original intention of the “R” and “L” buttons was to indicate the cup sizes as “Regular” and “Large,” but the text was also difficult to read due to its small size. This coffee machine, designed by a well-known designer, became a topic of discussion on the internet, with some claiming it a #designfailure.
How far should we go with instructions (labels, etc.) for such objects? The issue of balancing aesthetics and usability often arises. Interestingly, the same problem occurs in spatial design, particularly in public spaces. So, in this discussion, we will consider not only object design but also spatial design.
Spatial design and information overload
Just as objects have instructions, labels, and symbols such as text, characters, and pictograms, spatial design also incorporates these elements. Think about public spaces like train stations, parks, and shopping malls. Representative examples include destination signs, digital signage, and warning signs such as “No Entry Except for Authorized Personnel.” In this way, various forms of information display coexist with architectural and spatial design in these spaces. We experience a range of emotions through our senses in these environments.
Now, in Japanese train stations, especially in urban areas, the amount of information display is astonishing. Transfer instructions, exit numbers, directions to nearby buildings, various warnings, and advertisements. These are not only in Japanese and English but also sometimes include Chinese and Korean translations, making it a total of four languages. Additionally, there are pictograms for restrooms and information. When you get off the train, you may feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of textual information.
However, there are advantages to this abundance of information. Since the destinations are often written somewhere on the buildings, you can usually figure out where to go without looking at information boards or overall maps inside the station. Even if you don’t remember which platform your transfer is on, you can stand on the platform and look around, and you will likely find a sign indicating your desired destination. On platforms where various types of trains, such as express, limited express, semi-express, and local, come and go, there are often tapes on the floor indicating the lining-up positions (queue lanes). In addition, at stations where multiple train lines intersect, each line is color-coded, and tapes or tiles of that color are placed on the floor or wrapped around pillars, making it easy to find the color of the line you want to board and navigate to the appropriate platform. Even non-Japanese speakers who can’t read Japanese can easily transfer trains.
In this way, in Japanese train stations and public spaces, sign planning is prioritized to provide two experiential values:
Two Experiential Values
1. No need to ask someone (self-sufficiency)
2. Immediate access to directions to the desired location (easily and quickly understandable and usable)
For people unfamiliar with the location, the experience value of having both experiences can be significant. On the other hand, if the information display is not well organized, it can be challenging to search for information that meets one’s specific needs among the overwhelming amount of information, which is a drawback.
In European train stations and public spaces, information displays are generally less abundant compared to Japanese stations. In fact, there are stations where such displays are almost non-existent. Do you know the reason behind this?
One of the reasons for this is that the experiential value and branding that can be felt through the five senses are also emphasized. In the design of public spaces and stations, the “comfort” of the space is universally considered the most important aspect. However, as factors that influence this comfort, there is also the experiential value felt through the five senses, including comfort, spatial beauty, spatial structure, and lighting, beyond just visual elements. Regarding the previously mentioned experiential values of “personal experience” and “easy to understand and use,” while they are part of the comfort aspect, their priority in design is considered relatively low.
In fact, in the book “Station to Design” by Tatsuzo Akase, who has been involved in the design of transportation facilities (station design) such as the Tokyo Metro, Minatomirai Line, Tsukuba Express, and sign plans for places like Roppongi Hills, it is mentioned that overseas stations are designed and operated based on concepts such as “feeling history,” “art,” and “creating a comfortable atmosphere like home.” Public spaces and experiences that deviate from these concepts, such as continuously displaying flashy advertisements on digital signage or plastering destination labels all over the walls with label makers, are avoided as much as possible.
Now, the question arises: do users not have any complaints about stations or public spaces where the above two values are not fulfilled? Upon investigation, opinions such as “if you don’t know, ask someone” and “if you walk a little, you’ll figure it out, and I don’t want the spatial beauty to be compromised by such things” were found. These opinions prioritize concepts and values of the two, though knowing the strengths of Japan’s stations and recent airport sign plans, there are also voices that want to introduce experiences while maintaining the design and concepts.
Business and luxury hotel: differences between lobby’s spatial design
I have previously been involved in the experience design of a business hotel lobby space. At that time, the hotel management’s request was for customers to spend their time stress-free, especially when they are alone. Specifically, they wanted guests to be able to navigate the hotel without having to ask hotel staff for directions or information about things like the weather or nearby convenience stores. The reason behind this request was partly due to staff reduction and cost-cutting measures, but it was also because the hotel received numerous complaints from guests who didn’t want to go through the hassle of asking staff or searching on their smartphones. This indicates that many customers prioritize the value of being able to easily solve things themselves.
During my experience designing hotel spaces, I had the opportunity to interview a luxury hotel from a foreign company. The lobby of that hotel was spacious and beautifully decorated with large flower arrangements and art pieces, befitting its luxury status. On the other hand, there were no signage or information displays anywhere. There were no typical displays of cafe or restaurant promotions, and even the restroom pictogram was small and easy to miss from a distance. I initially thought that this meant I would have to specifically approach hotel staff for assistance, but when I asked the hotel about it, they gave me an interesting response.
“In the lobby, our staff always pay attention to the guests and if we sense that someone is looking for somewhere or needs assistance, we proactively approach them. We provide this level of attentiveness, so there won’t be any complaints from customers about the lack of signage or displays. In fact, we try to minimize anything that would disrupt the beauty and comfort of the space. By initiating conversations, we also have the advantage of directly hearing additional questions or feedback from customers.”
This is a completely opposite experience value and design compared to a business hotel. Considering the customers’ objectives, the differences in values provided within each spatial experience are understandable. Hotels have a clear understanding of their target customers, but train stations and public spaces, on the other hand, face the challenge of designing experiences for a diverse and unspecified audience, making it more difficult to design experiences that cater to everyone’s needs.
Space experience design is a total design
As mentioned earlier in Tatsuzo Akase’s book, it is stated that total design is necessary for public spaces. To consider the comfort and attractiveness of a space for a diverse audience, as well as creating a clear and understandable environment, it is important to not only focus on spatial design such as the structure and architecture of the space but also consider signage design in line with the concept and vision of the space. The challenge lies in finding the right balance. There is a concept called “tonmana” (tone and manner), but the value standards for this can vary from person to person.
Imagine if famous shrines and temples had information displays similar to those found in Japanese train stations. It might spoil the atmosphere. If signage is absolutely necessary, it should be designed to match the architecture and surroundings. For example, Kyoto City has established regulations and guidelines for outdoor advertisements as part of its landscape ordinance. Some areas have restrictions on the installation and content of advertisements to ensure the formation of urban landscapes. As an example, Kyoto City has provisions for color standards for outdoor advertisements. The saturation and color of the base color, as well as the proportion of color and area, are specified in detail.
It is debatable whether this rule is optimum provisions, but I would like to commend the attitude of considering the value of experience throughout the entire city.
The physical object’s design and the value of experience are the same
So far, we have been talking about spaces, but the discussion of design and the value of experience can also be applied to everyday objects. The remote control in the opening photo is a good example. Nowadays, there are so-called “stylish appliances” that feature sleek product designs, minimal buttons, and no excessive explanatory text (labels). They often have small pictograms on the buttons instead.
On the other hand, in some cases, reducing information displayed in design can lead to the unintended consequence of not knowing where certain buttons are located. As a result, people may resort to using label makers or sticky notes, which defeats the purpose. This is a moment where we realize that total design (comprehensive experience value design) is important not only for spaces but also for physical objects.
The prioritization of information is one of the characteristics of Japanese design
Nowadays, many people have high-performance smartphones. With a camera, you can take a picture of a sign and have it translated into your native language. Additionally, technologies like AR and MR have advanced, allowing you to overlay or add only the visual information you need in real time. On the other hand, it is difficult to remove unnecessary information from your field of view. Considering this, I sometimes think that it may not be necessary to display all the information.
Based on my research, in Japan, there is a tendency to prioritize the experiential value of immediately understanding oneself (the two experiential values mentioned above). Of course, there are individual differences, but this tendency seems to be strong in various aspects such as products, services, and spaces. Take a look at foreign movie posters as an example. In Japan, they are often filled with information displays, including spoilers such as “Award-winning!” or “The first spectacle fantasy in film history.” The other countries tend to keep its original simple design. In Japan, considering business and market factors, there is a strong tendency to prioritize having information rather than not having it, even if it becomes noisy as a result. What do you all think?
In this article, the term “design” is used to encompass the concept of aesthetic design as a whole. However, personally, I believe that experience design is also a part of design. The word “design” includes aesthetic design, UI design, UX design, and more, and I consider it important to optimize these aspects not only for products and services but also for spatial design.
In Technology and Experience Design, we will not talk about textbook UX design, but we will talk about design drawing from a wide range of knowledge. Regardless of whether it is digital or analog, we will dig deeper into what it means to design an experience by interweaving practical development sites, world affairs, and familiar perspectives such as our living spaces and human sensibilities and emotions.