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Too Much Data Hampers Good Design, Says Muji’s Kenya Hara

Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018
Kenya Hara of Muji addresses the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 7, 2018.Stefen Chow/Fortune

Information is a matter of making things clear, but through a process that he calls “ex-formation,” legendary Japanese designer Kenya Hara wants to obscure them again. Allow him to explain.

In a meditative Wednesday presentation called “Ex-Formation: Make Things Unknown” at the Fortune, Time and Wallpaper* Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore, Japanese graphic designer and curator Kenya Hara explored his philosophy of how design strategy can navigate the digital era’s deluge of never-ending data.

“It sounds a little bit strange,” says Hara, who was named one of Wallpaper*’s Top 20 graphic designers, serves as the President of the Nippon Design Center, and has been art director of minimalist retail powerhouse Muji since 2001 (appropriately for the man who has been dubbed as the “King of Simplicity”).

“I think today’s people are always saying, ‘I know, I know!’ whether it’s sushi or artificial intelligence. But I sometimes wonder, how much do you really know?”

Instead Hara says too much information can hamper creativity. Ex-formation, the name of his eponymous book, is a way of being content with less data and the solutions that can flow from that.

Hara presented research conducted over ten years with his students at the Musashino University Department of Science of Design. Every year, Hara’s seminar dissected a new idea—plants, women, nudity, air—and examined how much they really knew about it. To ‘exform’ nudity, one student put underwear on peppers, forks, and sculptures. To ‘exform’ women, another transposed flowers onto grenades, tomahawks, and rifles.

Hara observes that challenging preconceptions of knowledge confuses people. “I think this kind of confusion is not that so bad,” he says. “It stimulates your interest in the subject.”

It’s this kind of original and quirky approach that Hara has brought to Muji — short for mujirushi ryohin (無印良品), or “non-brand quality goods.” The company now has over 700 stores across 28 countries. The company recently announced its expansion into designing hotels in Shenzhen, Tokyo, and Beijing.

Not that Hara is focused on recognition or growth. “I think being known is a kind of being constricted,” he says Hara. “We should run way from too much consumption.”

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