Sony design and the shape of things to come

Takuya Kawagoi has been a Sony man for nearly 20 years now. Having spent plenty of time based in Japan as one of the graphic designers at the heart of the company image, he has now been appointed head of Sony Design Centre Europe. We stopped in for a chat to see how life in London was treating him.

What is your background?

I joined Sony in 1991 as a graphic designer - that was what I studied as - and I was mostly involved with branding and logos. While I was at the Design Centre in Tokyo I created the Sony Ericsson logo. The idea is that it is in two parts, the silver and the green. It's supposed to be more friendly, more emotional, the green is the organic partner, the end user and the silver represents Sony such that we're balanced between content and life.

Before Sony I was at university. I went straight from there. I'd studied graphic design in Kyoto at KIT, the Kyoto Institute of Technology, where they have a special department for graphic design. Kyoto is a very traditional city in Japan and it was very good for me as a designer to get this mix of the modern style of the school and the traditional influence of the city at the same time.

Who are you biggest design influences?
Well, as a graphic designer, it would be Ikko Tanaka who is a famous Japanese graphic designer. He used very vivid, very bright colours together but in very simple designs. He reminds me that simplicity is the most important part of any design and it's not an easy thing to achieve. With so many functions in our products these days I have to avoid too many things and too much confusion on a screen or UI, for example, at any one time and it's important to remember this. Mr Tanaka and I also happen to come from the same town, Narra, so that's another reason I look to him.

And what about technology design, which products do you respect the most?
This may sound boring to you but I love cars - particularly British cars. Here cars are a real lifestyle for people. There is the space for larger lower cars like Jaguars and for people to really live them and have them as part of their lives, even when not driving them. I bought myself a Jaguar in Japan when I started at Sony in 1991. It was a beautiful car.

So, what exactly is the Sony Design Centre all about?
Sony Design has been there for nearly 50 years - since 1961 - when the first Design Centre opened in Japan. At the time, the company noticed that foreign products, particularly ones in Germany, for example, had a style that we wanted to bring to Sony. The classic sliver and black looks from Germany gave the products a more premium feel and so the Design Centre looked at aspects such as these to see how we could improve.

Sony design works with the four principles of originality, lifestyle, function and utility and we make sure our products represent each of these. There are now Sony Design Centres in London for the EU, in Singapore for Asia and in Los Angeles for North America as well. The idea is for them to both inform Japan of the global trends and styles in these areas, as well as create products on their own for the world market and to make sure that the products coming from headquarters will work in their parts of the globe too. In the EU team we have 16 designers representing 7 different nationalities, which is very good for our design influences. Maybe not so good when the World Cup comes round next year. Maybe there'll be a little tension in the office.

What is your role as Head of Sony Design Centre Europe?
Something that I'm looking into at the moment is really the life of the product all the way down the line - from manufacture to the customer purchase and even beyond to installation and customer care. Total experience, we should be more friendly and we need to collaborate more. Smarter styles. The customer journey is very long and we would like to be with them as far as we can. Retail experience is one area of this that we've been looking at and bringing a more obvious branding to the shops, educating the sales staff and providing digital signage in some of our flagship stores, hopefully by the beginning of next year too. Customers will be able to use touchscreen displays to find out all the information they need about different products.

User interfaces are also something we've been looking closely at too. Recently, of course, we've seen the XMB (cross media bar) used in all consumer arms of Sony - Sony Ericsson, PlayStation and Home - and we've recognised how significant the UI is. It's a very strong part for us, as functions become more and more complex. It's very important.

You said before about making packaging more environmentally friendly. How do you plan to do that?
It's not an easy thing to achieve with so many products and different packing needs, but we're already trying different techniques on some product lines. Bravia TVs are coming with no paper manuals at the moment with all the information in on-screen menus. There are also one box solutions for them with the TV stand packed into the same space and we're also testing out pulp moulds for packing, which are 100% recyclable. It's all in the early stages but obviously it will be good if we can bring it into products like headphones which have all plastic packaging, but it's harder to see how that will work with the current designs.

How do European design tastes differ from those in the rest of the world?
Hmmm, that's a difficult question to answer but a good example would be the Bravia picture frame TV. It's specifically a very strong European design where people do not always wish their technology to be the focus of their space. In fact this is another area where we'll be looking to work with living room related products. Home entertainment is very important to the EU team. We have a very strong will to newly define the living room. TV used to be a static focus but now they are internet connected so that we can change the style of family life and the attitude towards them as well. I would say it's a global idea, and communication would be the most significant barrier. The XMB is a good step towards this. In the future, hopefully, the arms of Sony will become more borderless. Bravia must be friendly with PlayStation and we should navigate and appear to the consumer in the same tone and manner.

Does that mean we'll see the three consumer arms of the business merging? Are we going to get Sony Ericsson phones with Bravia screens?
There already is a Bravia phone available in Japan but there no plans to merge the parts of the business at all. We just hope to homogenise some of the ideas.

Why is it that we don't get all those incredible gadgets we see in Japan?
Well, we cannot experiment with all of the products all over the world at the same time. Sometimes we feel that certain products will work best in certain regions and we try them there first.

So, does that mean you're here to fight for Europe to get them?
This will be the biggest job for me.

 



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