Meet Noriaki, A UI/UX Designer That Thrives to Survive in Both Digital and Wild Life
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”.
Here we have Noriaki Kawanishi, a UI/UX designer fascinated by the design of the wild and nature.
DMM.com is a tech company that acquires wide range of business in entertainment, lifestyles, infrastructure, etc.. Noriaki is responsible for bridging the gap between business, development, design divisions, and I help the growth of both service design and team building within the organization.
1. What is your philosophy behind design?
I always think that everyone has the right to be involved in design.
We often think of design as a designer’s job and programming and system development as an engineer’s job, but essentially anyone can be involved in each area. In many cases, the position of a designer is implicitly exclusive, even though design basically exists everywhere, even in everyday scenes. As a result of that, I think there has been a long history of designers being a black box to everyone else, and no one really knows what they actually do.
To this problem I would like to say that everyone has the right to be involved and we need to think about design together. I want to reduce the barriers and reasons for not getting involved. That is the very principle I follow when I support organizations. I believe the ideal state is to have a situation where anyone can take my place even if I leave at any time.
Similarly, asking questions like “What is the purpose of this work?” or “For whom is this service being created for?” are not questions that only designers should think about. By having many people involved in the act of design, there is always something to be noticed and learned through observation and execution of the process and people can grow from it. I want to value this kind of thing myself, and I want those around me to value it as well.
2. What are your ways of boosting productivity?
I sometimes enjoy applying the methods and thought processes of UI and UX design to hobbies and work in completely different areas. It is a kind of an escape flight, but it is also a way to create a habit of gaining insights and learning that I would not experience at my daily workplace. Because you know, it’s not all that easy working for an organization…
Therefore, I devote myself to creating things that I can control, besides from what I am expected to do in my organization or even the society. For example, plowing soil in the field, or trying to cook a fish I have never seen before. I feel that when I engage in something a little more creative in my daily life, I feel more fulfilled and my stress at work is more durable.
I also think that it is often outside of work that we find unexpected hints for getting the most out of our work. For example, when you first try to cut a fish, you don’t know where to start. But as you repeatedly cut the fish, you gradually start to think about where to put the blade to make it easier to remove the head, how to cut it cleanly, and finally how to make it taste good when cooked.
Then you gradually become more familiar with fish. Eventually, you would say, “This fish has gone through a long history, and it has shaped its bones like this in order to survive in a particular environment.”. I realized that I was gaining a new perspective and understanding of ecology, organization, and structure through this experience.
I think that all work has a purpose, and if you keep asking “why”, you will eventually see the principle. In the same way, we can deepen our understanding of the ecology of services and users as long as we have an inquisitive mind. It’s more like a sense of exploring things in the depths. Because there are things that I notice from such daily life, I can’t stop doing activities outside of work even if I am busy. When I usually do farm work or make cooking videos of fish, people wonder what I do as a job and wonder if I’ve become a farmer….
3. Who has been your greatest influence?
In terms of how I got started in design, it might be Bruno Munari.
This man is a designer, picture book author, and an artist. He is famous for developing art and design into a form of creative thinking education, and his picture books “ABC” and “Fantasia” are my favorites.
I have been very influenced by him regarding the connection between nature and design. Munari proposes workshops where parents and children can learn design from nature and nurture creative thinking. He incorporates elements of design education into the fieldwork for children, and tells them about design in natural science by asking questions such as, “The leaves on the ground look like the letter ‘A’ ” or “The swirling ivy on the flowers looks like an 8”. They convey design in the natural sciences. The nautilus has a golden ratio, and that ratio has something to do with things in the natural world. There is a logic behind what we as humans find beautiful.
4. Is there anything particular that might be the roots of your designs and ways of thinking?
That might be “bushcraft” for me. It is a style of outdoor activity that allows you to become more united to nature. It is a general term for “wisdom of life” in natural environments such as forests, and is a way of changing the act of living in nature itself and learning the skills necessary for living.
You can say it’s one of those camping techniques, or a rather tough camping style where you just dive into the mountains with the most minimal equipment and spend a few days there surviving.
It’s a thing you call “benefits of inconvenience”, a way to enjoy inconvenience and to think about what we are usually satisfied with. For example, we can set up a tent that will only be used for a day using materials that are only available in the mountain, make a fire from nothing, and eat a meal with a little stockpile or locally procured food.
I used to be a Boy Scout when I was a little kid, so I am able to put that skill into practice. We don’t usually realize it, but everything in today’s world is designed to be convenient for someone. But what would happen without them? Without understanding the materials, topography, and other information available to us, we would not be able to build anything, or make a living in that environment. I feel that knowing various things opens up so many possibilities, like knowing the usefulness of a piece of stone, or knowing that you can basically do anything with just a single knife. To combine such knowledge and resource and creating something to achieve a certain goal is to me, design itself.
Say if you’re designing for paper, you need to understand what CMYK is, the ink types, paper materials, and the situation it’s going to be used to create a good design. It is the same when it comes to digital. The knowledge, resources, and skills aren’t just for survival in an uncertain environments, but a “drawer” to enrich your life experience.
5. What were you into as a teenager?
Minecraft is what got me into digital design when I first encountered it in my late teens. I was so addicted I became a junkie.
The game is now out on various platforms such as Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android, but at the time it was in beta and with a different name. I’m sure you’ve heard of it before, but Minecraft is a game where you build things with blocks. Each block has an attribute such as “earth block” or “wood block,” etc. and once I realized that I could basically make anything in this digital world, I was hooked. I could build my own city in a virtual space and invite people to come and live there. Also, using certain blocks you can create circuits to automate certain procedures. For the first time, I felt that anything can be created in a virtual space, and was excited to think that anyone can enter the space and communicate with each other.
I had wanted to pursue a career in traditional crafts, but I had a physical breakdown when I was a university student. My hands were shaking and I couldn’t write, so I thought I’ll never be able to make a living as a designer. But through Minecraft I thought if it’s “digital” design, I might be able to pull this through without worrying about my physical conditions. It was great that I was able to imagine my career as a digital designer through my gaming experience in my teens.
6. Are there any services that inspired you in terms of design?
My long-time favorite is “Airbnb“. When I quit my previous job, I was thinking of going freelance and going back to my hometown in Kanazawa, but at the same timing I was invited to join DMM.com which had an office in Kanazawa, so I started living in multiple locations, going back and forth between Kanazawa and Tokyo.
“Kurosaki BASE” is where I live now, and it’s a guesthouse which I renovated from a vacant house my Grandfather had. My brother is the manager and I am the owner. Before the pandemic, I used to go to Tokyo very often, so that’s when I started using Airbnb, both as a user and a host.
I wanted to start a guesthouse where I could invite people from various regions to experience the countryside and sightseeing together, but there was no such model at the time. Normally, ryokans (a Japanese style hotels) and pensions had to create their own reservation pages, but with Airbnb, you could immediately meet people who wanted to stay. When we registered as the first guesthouse in Ishikawa Prefecture, within a day or two, we had 10 people from overseas coming to our guesthouse. It took us less than a week to establish our own business. Nobody has ever thought that this old man’s house in the countryside would turn out this way, since we’ve always thought is was a negative legacy. It was such a memorable experience.
Airbnb has established a unique worldview of co-creating a place together between hosts and guests, rather than the traditional “the customer is god” mentality which is particularly strong in Japan. This is something I value very much in my own service design practice too.
DMM.com : Noriaki’s current workplace
DMM WEBCAMP : An online development school in which Noriaki supervises
Kurosaki Base (Airbnb) : Noriaki’s Guest House in Ishikawa Prefecture
D.Tokyo : An online 1on1 service where Noriaki provides mentoring and coaching in UX design