MUJI. Philosophical Innovation

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At the beginning of 2013, we held the first Design Share meetup. During this event we explored the future of design through a range of activities. One of which was to use brands as lenses to see the challenges and opportunities of the future. One of the outcomes of this activity was an idea that we called Philosophical Innovation. To talk about this idea, we will use MUJI as a case study.

MUJI is a Japanese lifestyle company that manufactures thousands of products which are sold around the world. The name MUJI is derived from its Japanese name “Mujirushi Ryohin” which translates to “no label, quality goods”. Launched in Japan in 1980, MUJI captured the spirit of the 90s with its no label, value-led, less is more concept. 

In 2001, Kenya Hara took over as the Art Director of MUJI. He has reconstructed the MUJI brand while keeping true to its core value ‘no brand, quality good’. In 2003 MUJI began declaring its vision for each year in newspaper advertisements. They were written with the intention of clearly communicating the thinking of the company. The advertisement for the first year, 2003, contained two pieces. One was “The Future of MUJI,” which described the history of MUJI from its birth more than 20 years earlier and its direction for the future. The other was “MUJI on a Global Scale,” which was based on the “World MUJI”. This quote by Kenya Hara summarizes one of MUJI’s thinking well.

We don’t want to be the thing that kindles or incites intense appetite, causing outbursts like “This is what I really want,” or “I simply must have this.” If most brands are about that, MUJI should be after its opposite. We want to give customers the kind of satisfaction that comes out as “this will do,” not “this is what I want.” It’s not appetite, but acceptance. Even within acceptance, however, there is an appropriate level. Our goal is to elevate it as high as possible…

…I would like to recognize the fact that desire sometimes involves obsession, causes egoism, or strikes a sour note. I wonder if humankind, having rushed after desire, has finally reached an impasse. Both the consumer society and individual cultures, chasing after desire and driven by appetite, are hitting a wall. In this sense, today we should value the qualities at work in acceptance: moderation, concession, and detached reason. Might acceptance be a form with one more level of freedom? Acceptance might involve resignation and slight dissatisfaction, but raising the level of acceptance thoroughly eliminates both. To generate “this will do,” by creating this very dimension of acceptance, one that is clearly self-confident and also truly competitive in a free economic society: this is MUJI’s vision.

This vision interests me greatly because MUJI is attempting to change a problem in our society, an obsession of desire. And it is challenging this problem, not through practical treatment, but rather through educating the people through wisdom. The medium they use to communicate this is products. It is noted that Kenya Hara was frequently heard saying “Death to poetry”, because the products themselves already have a concept and the most direct way to gain people’s agreement and understanding was to clearly communicate only the MUJI ideas that were already contained in the products.

MUJI is now extending its offering beyond products. They now aim to provide whole lifestyle experience beyond retail stores. The new offer includes MUJI Car, MUJI House, MUJI campgrounds (for a MUJI vacation experience), and currently being planned is a MUJI hotel.  Creative Director Koike describes this latest expansion as part of a complete lifestyle education program: “I expect MUJI HOTEL to be a place that reveals the wisdom and details of living that MUJI has accumulated. One of the great purposes of the hotel is to make these details and this wisdom tangible so that people who have not noticed them yet will pay attention” (MUJI 2010: 235). With MUJI Education, people can learn the wisdom through intimate immersion of MUJI lifestyle.

Their product embodies wisdom they have accumulated and the products teaches the user a new value and a new way to think. Furthermore, they are continuously developing their philosophy so their products continue to educate its users.This is what we think Philosophical Design is. A product that teaches the user. It is unlike usability design where problems are solved through tangible solutions. “MUJI’s marketing is not about making products that respond generously to people’s desires. It’s about creating a new market by changing the quality of people’s appetite for living, and influencing the shape their desires take”. – Kenya Hara.

MUJI does not meet its target market’s desires, it creates consumer desires. Furthermore, its deep philosophical vision makes competition somewhat irrelevant because applying philosophical vision is very difficult at a company level.

An important element of philosophical design is its dependence on good storytelling. For these products to teach something, it must communicate it clearly. Many of MUJI’s advertisement revolve around a key product and its story of how it became that way. One of the earliest examples of this can be seen in “The whole salmon is salmon” campaign. The ad explains that MUJI’s canned salmon uses flakes that include the meat found near the head and tail of the fish, encouraging shoppers to reexamine things that are often overlooked or discarded.

MUJI invented what we call philosophical design but it has not gone beyond their own brand. Perhaps because it is hard to start a business that does not meet market desires. But we see potential in this approach. It will be interesting to see where else this design approach can be used.

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About reynanshimada

Currently working at Creation Center and pursuing Master of European Design . Originally starting in a product design degree, my interest shifted towards a more holistic design while studying at Glasgow School of Art. I aim to broaden my experience and knowledge by working in varied cultures and strive to draw from these knowledge to create new possibilities.

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