From Design

Looking at how how things work, not just what they look like

Why Japanese Web Design Is So… Different

In the mind’s eye of many people Japan is a land of tranquil Zen gardens, serene temples, and exquisite tea ceremonies. Both traditional and contemporary Japanese architecture, books and magazines are the envy of designers worldwide. Yet for some reason practically none of this mastery has been translated into digital products, in particular websites, most of which look like they hail from around 1998.

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Everyday Usability in Japan (Part 1)

While I design software for a living, it’s often the design of everyday physical objects which intrigues me the most. From ticket machines to toilets, every time I travel somewhere for the first time it always fascinates me to see the various way people have solved the same problems – for better or worse. Read more

Design is…

I’ll save passing comment on iOS 7 for another day (short version: brave new world) but more than this I wanted to share the beautiful video’s Apple made explaining what design means to them – a mission statement if you like.

“I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation, it’s about bringing order to complexity.” – Jony Ive

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

Minimal Business Cards

I recently designed some new business cards for Randomwire and instead of the normal multi-field affair I wanted to make it as simple as possible. Since my email address already contains my name, twitter handle, and website address I choose to show just that with a bit of markup to delineate each part:

Minimal Business Card Design

A friend of me pointed out that someone had already done something similar but mine uses symbols rather than words as markup. I’m not sure which is more/less ambiguous but I’d like to think mine might work better in a multi-lingual environment.

Randomwire Business Cards

I think the end result, printed by moo, came out quite well!

User Experience Lost in Translation

Tokyo Gas Control Panel

Above is the gas supply control panel in the apartment I’m staying at in Tokyo. Assuming you don’t read Japanese, how would you go about turning it on?

Arthur Dent: I wonder what’ll happen if I press this button.
Ford Prefect: Don’t.
Arthur Dent: [presses it] Oh.
Ford Prefect: What happened?
Arthur Dent: A sign lit up saying “Please do not press this button again.”
– “The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” Episode #1.2

I think most peoples first response would be to press the big pink button in the bottom right but this actually does nothing but play a robotic women’s voice (presumably telling you not to press that button again!).

It took me 30 minutes to work out that what looks like an LED indicator light in the top-right is actually the on/off button that needs to be pressed before the big pink button to get the hot water flowing. The up/down arrows set the temperature which is more obvious.

Control Symbols

This got me thinking about user interface design for global audiences – the problem here is that the device was communicating both visually and aurally in a language which I don’t understand. Had it included some simple symbols alongside the text it would have been much clearer.

Humans have been using symbols to communicate for over 17,000 years because they are the one language everyone can understand. Symbols can transcend cultural and language barriers and deliver concise information effortlessly and instantaneously. They allow people to communicate quickly, effectively, and intuitively.
The Noun Project

However, when Google last redesigned Gmail they recieved a lot of criticism for replacing the text on buttons with symbols/icons which some people claimed were hard to interpret.

Toilet Remote Control UI!

It seems to me that each situation requires a balance where mission-critical information is conveyed in both symbols and text with less important functions left for text only – a bit like this scary toilet control panel I found in a hotel in Shanghai a few years ago!

Former Wan Chai Police Station

The end of last year was rather busy and chaotic so I’m a bit behind on posting but I thought I’d share a few photos from DETOUR 2012: Design Renegade which was held in the Former Wan Chai Police Station (灣仔警署署) late November – continuing last years theme of opening up decommissioned buildings to the public for the duration of the festival.

Prison Cells

The No. 2 Police Station (二號差館), as it was known, was built in 1932 and originally faced directly onto Victoria Harbour before land reclamation left it inland. The station closed in 2011 and is awaiting redevelopment.

No. 2 Cell

Inside the building retains many of the signs of its former purpose – including the prisoner cells which look as unwelcoming as you might expect.

Police Station Cell

Ignoring the unfathomable ‘art’ installation, it’s not hard to imagine the prisoners locked up in here, with nothing but four concrete walls to stare at and toilet facilities which consisted of a hole in the floor.

Prisoner Drinking Water

A bilingual sign reminds prisoners of their rights to drinking water.

Language Identifier

For those who couldn’t understand Cantonese or English there was a helpful chart that foreign prisoners could use to point out their language so that an interpreter could be called.

Red Guard

One cell had former police officers accoutrements painted in bright red.

2012 Hong Kong Design Year

2012 was Hong Kong Design Year.

Block Chart

This block chart represented the recorded soundscapes of the local Wan Chai neighbourhood which is home to some of the cities richest and poorest people.

Cardboard Contours

A cool wooden contour map.


When asked the question of how Hong Kong’s urban development could be improved it’s nice to see someone had a sense of humour!

Hanging Plants

Random hanging plants.

Team 4

District Crime Investigation Team 4 and their good luck deities.

Faux Patriotism

My favourite installation was a room with horn, which when blown into activated a fan to raise the Chinese national flag!

Report Room

Some of the signs in the station had stickers on them which I think was an indicator that they should be preserved.

We Serve with Pride and Care

“We Serve with Pride and Care”.

Where was the last place you freaked out?

“Where was the last place you freaked out?” – probably trying to walk home through the ever-crowded streets of Mong Kok!

deTour 2012

A watchtower outside the police station compound. Were they expecting invaders?


Outside there were a few weird and wonderful sculptures.

Glowing Water

A sign next to this read “100% pure unfiltered Hong Kong Tap Water – Drink at own risk”. As with last year the building and the surrounding neighbourhood was somewhat more interesting than the exhibition but perhaps that was part of the idea.