5 Product Design Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Japanese Tradition

Flashy new tools aren't the only road to product success; classic methods that stand the test of time can be applied for modern product success.

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By Frederik Bussler

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In a world where "innovation" is the new buzzword, it's easy to forget that some of the best ideas come from time-tested traditions.

Japan has a long history of creating products that are not only durable and reliable but also aesthetically pleasing. From cars to electronics, the country has a reputation for quality, and this is no recent development. In ancient Japan, artisans strived for perfection in their craft, and this commitment to excellence is still evident in products made there today. So, what can we learn from the Japanese approach to product design? Here are five secrets to success:

1. The design must be an experience in itself

A Japanese idiom says, "mono no aware," which translates to "the profound appreciation of the beauty of fleeting moments." This philosophy is evident in many Japanese products, which are designed to be enjoyed for their aesthetic appeal as well as their function.

One product that epitomizes this idea is the Furoshiki, a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth. These cloths are typically made from beautiful fabrics, and they can be used to wrap gifts or to carry objects. The act of folding the cloth into a specific shape is a meditative process, and the result is a work of art that can be reused again and again.

Modern products, too, can be designed with the "mono no aware" philosophy in mind. For example, even a simple suitcase can be transformed into a luxurious experience if it is well-crafted and beautiful to look at. The luggage and travel firm Monos.com is named after this Japanese concept, which recently raised $30 million in funding, demonstrating that there is strong demand for products that offer more than just utility.

2. Form should follow function

The Japanese aesthetic known as "wabi-sabi" embraces imperfection, and this principle is often applied to product design. The idea is that a product should be designed to perform its function well, and its form should be secondary.

This philosophy is evident in the design of traditional Japanese swords. These swords are designed first and foremost for battle, and their form follows function. They are not meant to be beautiful objects; instead, they are meant to be deadly, efficient weapons.

Ironically, the functionality of these swords often makes them more beautiful, as their simple designs are elegant and efficient. In a world where many products are overloaded with unnecessary features, the wabi-sabi philosophy is a refreshing reminder that less can be more.

3. Simplicity is key

Another Japanese aesthetic, "shibui," translates to "elegant simplicity." This philosophy is evident in many Japanese products, which are designed to be as simple and efficient as possible.

One example is the bullet train, which was designed to be a fast and efficient way to travel between cities. The trains are sleek and streamlined, with no unnecessary flourishes. This simplicity makes them not only efficient but also beautiful in their own way.

4. Materials matter

In Japan, great importance is placed on the selection of materials. Artisans take care to select only the finest materials for their products, and they often use traditional methods to process them.

For example, Japanese paper is made from a type of tree called kozo. The bark of the tree is harvested and then boiled to create a pulp. This pulp is then formed into sheets of paper, which are left to dry in the sun. The result is a strong and durable paper that is used for everything from arts and crafts to traditional architecture.

5. Quality over quantity

In Japan, it is believed that a product should be made to last a lifetime. This philosophy is known as "monozukuri," which translates to "the art of making things."

Monozukuri is a holistic approach to product design that takes into account everything from the materials used to the manufacturing process. The goal is to create products that are not only functional and reliable but also beautiful and timeless.

This philosophy is evident in Japanese cars, which are known for their durability and quality. Many Japanese cars are still on the road today, decades after they were first manufactured. This is a testament to the quality of the materials and the care that goes into their construction.

Japan has a long history of creating quality products, and there is much we can learn from their approach. By applying the principles of "mono no aware," "wabi-sabi," and "monozukuri," we can create products that are not only functional, efficient and reliable, but also aesthetically pleasing and timeless.

Frederik Bussler

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Marketing Consultant

Frederik Bussler is a marketing consultant for a wide range of businesses from startups to F500. Bussler is a published author and contributes to publications like VentureBeat, Forbes, Hacker Noon, and more. As a public speaker, he’s presented for audiences including IBM, Nikkei, and Slush Tokyo.

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