Meet Mayu, a Curious Designer Burning Down Common Sense With PK Fire

People have their own ideas and perspectives, and each have their own inspirations and roots from the past. Although those episodes may appear to be random at glance, dots connect to lines and somehow link to what they do now. Different people have different roots, and do different designs, and we are here to realize that in “Diggin’ Roots”.

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In this article, we dig into the creative roots of Mayu Nakamura, a designer who is burning with curiosity about many questions and thoughts, never leaving the “obvious” untouched.

Mayu Nakamura
Principal Designer, ustwo Tokyo Portfolio / Twitter

Following earlier work as an engineer at a Japanese company, Mayu Nakamura now serves as Product Design Leader at ustwo, a digital product studio based in London. She leads a team at the company’s Tokyo office, designing products and services that make meaningful differences in people’s lives. Through agile design and user-centric thinking, she helps companies grow.

1. What is your philosophy behind design?

Perhaps it’s “question the obvious.”

When I was working as an engineer at a Japanese company, I had to finish things perfectly. When I joined the company I work at now, my position and my occupation changed, and changes happened in my way of thinking, too.

My first senior colleague in charge of me after I joined once complimented me when I submitted a design sketch, saying, “That’s a great idea.” But the next instant, I was told, “So, forget about this for now, and try drawing it again.”

Every time you think you’ve done your best, you can still come up with new ideas if you keep trying. So, I was given instructions to raise up the hurdle again and again, to see if I could do better. I think I was given training in doubting what I had made, including my thinking and things I took for granted, and to question things that I had made as a matter of course. I realized that searching for a better way can be more important than arriving at the right answer quickly.

But at first, I wondered why that was. In any case, I wasn’t used to an environment of trying to do things by trial and error and took feedback as if there were some problem with my personality and skills. I would get frustrated, think that I’m no good and inefficient, and feel down.

But I noticed that the quality of my output had improved, and when I looked back after some time, I saw that the improvements clearly did make things better. As I piled up experience, my thinking also changed.

2. What are your ways of boosting productivity?

Headphones are a must when I want to concentrate on work. Sometimes I listen to classical music and sometimes hard rock or jazz, depending on my mood. It really varies with my mood at the time.

I have a cat at home. There’s music for cats on YouTube, and sometimes I play cat music, without headphones.

Also, I don’t have one yet, but want to get a standing desk. They seem to take up a lot of space, though, so I’m wondering whether someone can make one the right size for a laptop computer.

3. Who has been your greatest influence?

My outlook on management changed when a British woman became my direct supervisor. 

There are two main reasons for this. One is that she’s a woman. When I worked at a Japanese company, my direct supervisor was a man, and so was the next higher-up, and the next, and next. So, I had the image that a manager meant a man older than me. But when I saw my manager now, who isn’t much different from me in age, I realized that women can be managers too.

Also, my manager has a natural management style. There’s an image that design leaders are typically very precise people. That’s why I had an image that leaders would be smart, charismatic people who appear perfect and never allow any mistakes. But my manager doesn’t try to show herself off as perfect. When there’s something she doesn’t know, she says, “I’m not so good at this,” or “I can’t do this, so I’ll leave it to you.” She’s really natural, always remaining herself.

She doesn’t have that atmosphere of “I’m in charge, I’m the manager.” She’s the type of manager who really likes the team and carefully leads members in how to best exert their abilities. She’s good at getting everyone on board and listening to everyone’s opinions and moving forward as a team. Honestly speaking, I wasn’t particularly looking to go into management, but after working together with her, I started thinking that I wanted to become a leader too.

An in-house workshop

4. Is there anything particular that might be the roots of your designs and ways of thinking?

As a UX designer, there was The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. I feel that this book writes about UX design and interaction design in terms of what designers should aim for, which seems to be the starting point for my design. I’ve read it over and over.

My thinking of ​​”questioning the obvious” likely has roots in Norman’s book. I often think about designing a UI for use by people in terms of how to match that perception (“the obvious”), and how to update that.

Most recently, I was influenced by Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women. This offers examples from many fields of how the social systems of the world have been created with men as the norm.

When I read this, I thought, “This is a design book.” As one example, the book says that the locations of bus stops and bus routes are decided based on information from the world of men, lacking the perspective of women who aren’t able to wait alone at dark bus stops at night. I see that as truly user-centered design.

When creators are all people with similar attributes, not only gender, they will design things based on their world. That’s why it’s difficult to imagine how people who fall outside of those attributes will use things.

This was the book that taught me that it’s necessary to exercise care in a number of ways when designing, as underlying data and information are biased. I’m single and don’t have children, so I don’t have a perspective of doing things with children in tow. The book made me think about how I can incorporate perspectives that I myself don’t hold.

→ More of Mayu Nakamura’s recommended books are introduced in this article

5. What were you into as a teenager?

When I was a teenager, there was a lot of great content with a futuristic feel. I liked future dystopian stories like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, and imagination-spurring content that made me wonder whether the world might become like those if digital technology advances. 

Science fiction works often have a worldview in which human brains are connected to computers and can be hacked and controlled, or in which AI and robots behave like humans. Could it be possible for a computer to calculate human thinking and behavior? If so, what happens to the heart and emotions? Where is human-ness to be found? I often think about these things. When I look at dystopian works and how root causes in these differ little from those of modern society (political corruption, war, group psychology, and so on), or how society doesn’t seem to change that much no matter how much technology develops, I wonder whether that’s because the works are created by humans, and, if AI advances and creates the future, whether the same sort of problems will arise. How humans will react to that, whether they will fight back and cause a war (something common in science fiction), or whether they’ll even notice that AI is in control… I think about a lot of things.

I also like role-playing games. I like wandering around the cities more than defeating monsters. I especially like “EarthBound Beginnings” and “EarthBound”, which I’ve played them many times. It was fun to go to different towns, talk with people, and peek into the shops.

“PK fire” is the name of a move that appears in EarthBound Beginnings.

Heroes and dragons and other RPG characters often take on images from medieval European fantasy, but MOTHER is more relaxed. The main characters are ordinary kids who fight with bats and eat hamburgers to recover. The monsters are somewhat loose, with creatures like delinquent mice and giant moles; game items, too, are all meaningless things like kokeshi doll-erasing machines and zombie traps. In a way, I think it’s really a treasure trove of creativity, full of things and people that I couldn’t have imagined. Also, it was created by a copywriter, Shigesato Itoi, so the lines in the game are funny and sweet. I walked around the town, talked to different people, went into shops, and enjoyed food items available only in that area. It’s a game where you get excited to see what comes next, so finishing it is a bit sad.

6. Are there any services that inspired you in terms of design?

I think the growing number of digital companies that respond quickly to changes and circumstances in the world is a movement toward good design.

As an example, Clubhouse, which became a hot topic in 2021, frequently changes its icon. When hate crimes targeting Asians increased, Clubhouse changed the icon to a picture of an Asian woman. The schedule for changing the icon was probably already decided, but I like their speed of decision-making and agility in incorporating the message “let’s stop doing that” in the design to combat a negative movement.

Clubhouse’s Twitter account introduces the person behind the icon with every change (Source: https://twitter.com/Clubhouse/status/1386416510596304896)

In May 2022, some services changed their icons in response to the Ukrainian and Russian situation. Airbnb was quick to announce financial support for hosts affected by the conflict, along with aid such as welcoming refugee guests. I think it’s wonderful when business owners quickly make expressions of intent when things happen in the world, and when these are quickly reflected in products.

I think businesses are able to do this because they’ve created structures in which the companies are close to users, which is an ideal situation for product teams.

Airbnb.org – Requesting cooperation in taking in people fleeing Ukraine

Reacting to social circumstances takes courage, I think. The ideal for design and digital products is no longer necessarily about user experience and ease of use alone. I feel that it’s precisely because of this that the trend is now to show the sort of thinking and position from which a company conducts business, and what sort of stance it takes on things happening in society.

I think that makers are increasingly coming forward to express their thoughts on the philosophy they take in creating things, while users are starting to use services from an approach that includes what sort of people are behind the services. I feel that design and product management that is capable of skillfully showing this sort of transparency are important. A digital production company that can communicate with transparency is worthy of attention.

Related Links

Portfolio:Mayu Nakamura

Written By

Arisa Nojima

Arisa is an editor at Spectrum Tokyo. After graduating from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she worked for a game production company and a HR startup for designers before going independent in 2021. As a freelancer in the design community, she currently supports recruitment and writing at various companies. She loves radio and cats.

Sayaka

Sayaka is a designer who creates anything digital, from web to UI/UX. She was born in Osaka, raised in Kobe. From mostly self-taught, she worked for several production and apparel companies in web business. Currently, she plan and operate new businesses while also freelancing and creating contents. I live off of books, music, anime, manga, coffee, and wine.

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