A Chat with Kontrapunkt : How a Danish Design Agency sees Japan
September 2021, just when the pandemic decreased in Denmark, and when they had taken down all restrictions, I was in Copenhagen to help out “Design Matters 21” a global design conference. During my stay, I had a chance to visit Kontrapunkt, which is a traditional design agency in Copenhagen. I sat down and talked with Philip and Troels, along with Michael from Design Matters, talking about how they see Japan as a Scandinavian designer and also the cultural differences that they’ve faced while working on projects with Japanese companies.
Kontrapunkt is located in the central part of Copenhagen, and we decided to go there by bike, just as other Danish people would do. I rented a bike from the hotel, and Michael showed me the way.
Philip and Troels welcomed us at the office. It was lunch time so we sat down in the meeting room with a delicious plate and started talking. Here is a little excerpt from our casual conversation.
Why Japan is such an inspiration
Philip: Japan has always been the source of inspiration for us. And I know that goes for so many other creative people around the world.
Ryo: Why do you think so? We certainly admire Scandinavian Design, but I’m kind of surprised to hear that we are an influence as well.
Philip: I think there are many explanations. We’re talking about a country that is by itself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on top of two tectonic plates, which has caused numerous amounts of natural disasters over thousands of years. Also, withstanding the superpower from China, pressing this culture to be so unified, Japan has cultivated such a unique culture so different from any other country in the world. And that in and of itself, along with a humility that you are being met, when you visit Japan, that rich heritage and culture, stemming 1000s and 1000s of years back, is just something that you immediately feel.
This sense of time is just so different from the rest of the world, where everything is fast-paced. And there’s another sense of belonging that I personally find extremely resonating, and just makes you want to delve into all of these cultures, history, and stories, and it makes me think, how can I revive these things? So for us, at least in Kontrapunkt, heritage is one of the biggest sources of inspiration. And, I think that’s what Japan really represents.
Michael: But at the same time, it’s also why Japan is struggling when it comes to the digital part.
Philip: Absolutely. If you want to personify it, you can put America on one side, a country with one of the shortest histories in the world, super fast-paced, super high-tech. Then you have Japan on the other side, super-rich heritage, but slow on certain technological advancements, but still also very advanced. And then you have Europe somewhere in the middle.But you really want to group that together because there are things to learn from both sides, and I think it could be fun to cultivate.
The Coexistence of Minimalism and Complexity
Troels: But I think for me, Japan is also really about contrasts. For instance, you would have these super luxurious ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels) with a silent, calm atmosphere and beautiful nature. And then you have the bustling city of Tokyo with neon lights and sounds everywhere and an overwhelming explosion of basically everything; chaos, noise, and impressions from colors and light. The city never sleeps. And then again, you have this contrast on the countryside, handwriting, food, etc. It’s just a contrast that’s so fun to experience.
Philip: You find contrast everywhere when we’re in Japan. It’s just too crazy.
Ryo: It’s interesting that you focus on complexity too. Designers tend to focus on making simple and minimal designs, especially from a digital design perspective. But when you look at domestic products, that is not always the case, and often designers would not be very proud of the complex structure of domestic products. Maybe because many products are very well designed in terms of usability but might necessarily look good aesthetically. So it is kind of encouraging when you say Japanese design is not just about minimalism because I definitely think dealing with complexity is also our strength.
Philip: What you’re articulating here is so interesting because these contrasts are certainly one of the things we think about when it comes to Japan. And to have that narrative around Japan, it’s not just minimalism or just complexity. It’s both things that are important, and that’s what really creates the balance.
Michael: But when it comes to digital design, Japanese designers are absolutely not minimalist. So I think the challenge is to find a new way that actually works. We need to do research and find good examples on Japanese websites, and then we can convince the community of that new style.
Ryo: One problem that I see is that we adopt too much from the Western countries. We tend to lean towards making the design simple and minimal, but we hardly ever talk about keeping the complexity as a positive aspect, especially in a design context. But as Philip said, I think there’s a way to balance and take both aspects positively and somehow put that into our original design practice.
Troels: I think the important thing is to be open to new trends and solutions. Every time you have a new project, you need to be open to ideas in all directions. You shouldn’t be too snobbish about only doing minimalistic design or any other style of design. Especially if we’re opening up the discussion, we shouldn’t be talking with the same people because then the contrast or the gap just gets bigger.That’s what we’re good at in Kontrapunkt. Whenever we start a project, we start from scratch and look at every project as a new opportunity. You can have a certain style, and the output may look super nice, but when you keep on doing it, you lose the innovation.
Michael: I think that’s a good point. We just need to find good cases and convince designers to go on stage and have them explain why it’s good.
The Behavioral challenge
Philip: But then sharing is maybe the biggest behavioral challenge that you are facing in Japan.
Ryo: It sure is. Especially when it comes to the more prominent companies, chances of them sharing creative knowledge are very low.
Troels: Of course, confidentiality is an issue, but I think it’s also about sharing internally. For instance, when we have projects here, it doesn’t matter who comes up with the idea, right? It’s like an open discussion. But what I saw when I was working in Tokyo was that all the employees were kind of scared to show what they had done because it was very hierarchy based. It was almost as if everyone had their own turn to speak, and I was really frustrated at first. But then I used my position as a foreigner and just threw out all the ideas, and then we finally had a discussion. It was a little frightening because I knew that I was going too fast for them. But I knew that it would be better for the project guests to share because then everyone had to chip in and say something.
Ryo: Certainly. You should fully exploit your position as a foreigner! But while there are styles we can learn a lot from you guys, I won’t say that the present style is totally bad either.
Japanese people tend to be quiet and very careful about what they say, and it does slow up the discussion at times, but then I guess it’s just that they have so much going on in their heads. When we poke them in the right direction, they do come up with good ideas which are nicely taylored. I think it’s just how we are, so here we should also take balance and make use of these two styles.
After a while, Michael and Philip had to go, so Troels and I talked a little bit more, which I wrote in a different entry.