Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, California | Leading By Design

Takuo Hirano

Product Design '57

As one of the first Japanese citizens selected by that government to study design in the United States following World War II, Takuo Hirano has been called “the father of modern Japanese design.” He founded Hirano & Associates in 1960, which has become one of Japan's largest and most successful design consultancies. Now, with offices in Chicago, the company includes clients such as Tanita, Masuda Funai, Diner's Club and Cunat. Hirano is the president of the Kanazawa School of Arts and Crafts and currently serves on the Award Committee of the Good Design Associates, a prestigious honor given by the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization. This interview was conducted in 2005 during a traditional Japanese lunch at the Okura hotel in Tokyo, whose interiors were designed by Hirano.

Art Center: What impact has the computer had on achieving these Bauhaus ideals?
Takuo Hirano:
Unfortunately, the human touch is disappearing from design. People say this is an unstoppable trend; that the computer replaces the hand. But it is so important to use your hands. I think that some companies, maybe Sony and maybe Honda, are aware of this and are making an effort to remind the design world to re-enlist our hands.

That said, modern technology is really about making life easier for humans. Not long ago, if you dropped a cell phone it would probably break. But now it won't break, because technological advances-and advances in design-have allowed us to improve the product. Our machines are learning to be kind to humans. The machines can even self-diagnose sometimes, and solve their own problems. We need more of this, so the computer will remain an indispensable tool.

AC: Technology aside, how has design evolved in the past 30 or 40 years?
With globalization, design becomes more than just the product. Design is about researching a problem, then seeking out an answer that works on a global level. So design has become something that is widely translated. Now, politics is part of design, too. All global ideas have a political component, and designers must keep informed of the problems that incumbent politicians wish to solve. Now more than ever, the designer has a great responsibility to address and try to solve human problems.

AC: How do designers address the idea of fulfillment, particularly across cultures?
There is a slight difference between the attitude of Americans and Europeans in this area. Scandinavian design, for example, really aims to help all types of people in their daily lives. American designers do, too, but I think maybe when they try to help, they try too hard, and sometimes those who might benefit may also resent the manner in which they are being helped. But still, I feel great about the attention to helping others that Americans embrace.

AC: Having a sense of the big picture seems important to you. Would you encourage young designers to keep their focus broad rather than to specialize?
Designers should maintain a wide perspective on the world. The details can always be researched. In Japanese society or, specifically, in the Japanese design community, people always expect a 100 percent perfect score. That's wrong, because somebody who gets a score of 70 or 80 has just as much to offer. In fact, if you focus so much on achieving that 100 percent, you may well be sacrificing the real gift-the valuable contribution-that's contained somewhere in that first 70 or 80 percent, which ends up being forgotten in the pursuit of perfection. America is a country that really encourages its people who score in the 70s to participate in creating the future. America has gained a lot from this approach, and that's one reason why I like America so much.

Takuo Hirano wrote an essay, History of Japanese Design: A Personal View, for Japan 2000: Architecture and Design for the Japanese Public. Published by the Japan Foundation and Art Institute of Chicago, the book is a series of in-depth essays that introduces the architectural and design era of the post-boom 1990s in Japan to a Western audience. View a PDF version of the piece here.

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