The First Time I Went to Japan

Folks, at long last, I made it to Japan. Like just about every designer I know, I’ve felt spiritually drawn to that country for years, but for some reason I just never found the opportunity to go. Then I was asked to take part in “Why Design Tokyo,” a new conference for user experience design organized by Adobe’s UX Dojo team and UX Milk, and hosted by the folks at So two weeks ago I packed a bag and flew there for two days of talks, workshops and getting to know the local community.

It was an incredible visit, but altogether too brief—just three full days. That’s far too little to do anything more than see a fraction of Tokyo’s architectural diversity, experience just a smattering of its otherworldly shopping culture, sample just a few of its amazing restaurants (I did get to eat at a Michelin-starred ramen joint though—a major highlight), and meet just a small number of the amazing designers who call Tokyo home.

What I did see of the design scene there was really wonderful: truly energetic, deeply curious designers who fully immersed themselves in the conference. I was particularly astonished by how thoroughly their uniquely Japanese aesthetic manifested themselves in everything they did. One of the other speakers, Google’s wonderful Travis Neilson, ran a wildly successful workshop in which teams of designers collaborated on product ideas. The worksheets they produced were stunning in and of themselves, but also shockingly consistent with what finished graphic design looks like in Japan. I snapped these pics.

Team Worksheet from Why Design Tokyo
Two Team Worksheet from Why Design Tokyo

I was asked to give a keynote talk that, in the words of one Japanese member of the organizing team, would encourage designers in Japan to “get out of their daily routines and take a new step” in their practice. Delivering the lecture itself was a new kind of experience for me; I’ve never had to give a talk with an interpreter before, right there on stage with me. It forced me out of my usual, rambling style; I had to articulate each idea as succinctly as possible in English, then wait for the real time translation to be delivered to the audience before I could continue to the next point. The result was one of my more streamlined talks, which I’ve annotated and embedded here via Speaker Deck.

My main takeaway: it was really humbling to experience such a rich design culture whose operating fundamentals are so different from my Western-biased assumptions about how “good” design is created. I’ve seen design up close in a lot of countries, but I usually feel like I have some sense of how it works, and can find my bearings in how it’s practiced. By contrast, I feel like a true neophyte when it comes to Japanese design, with little understanding for its dynamics. It just leaves me awed and inspired. I imagine this is how untrained audiences for design feel in the west—and everywhere. It’s actually kind of a marvelous sensation. I can’t wait to go back.