Last week’s flight from Toronto to Tokyo was a long one. Upon arriving in Japan, the first goal was to get our Japan Rail Pass. (By the way, the JR Pass is a great idea. You should consider getting it if you are planning on travelling in Japan. See After getting the pass, a brief restroom stop was the second goal. Entering the men’s room, I noticed that beside each urinal there is a hook for the user’s umbrella.

There is nothing particularly special about the design of those umbrella hooks. What is special is that a need was identified and a solution was implemented. This kind of thoughtful design can come from many sources, but it is the designer’s responsibility to design them and the project manager’s duty to make sure they happen. A lot space in design magazines is spent on “star” designs and “mega” projects, but it is often ordinary work, done well, that makes a profound impact on the daily lives of people everywhere.

Tokyo provided more examples of thoughtful design, but it was something very minor that convinced me that the best designs are both thoughtful and selfless. Above the hotel room bathtub was a retractable clothesline. Some people like to do their own laundry, even while staying in a hotel, so this little feature would be a benefit to them. For others, the retracted clothesline is barely noticeable. (Interestingly, this hotel also provided coin-operated washers and dryers.)

This got me thinking about what some hotel owners may have chosen to do about their guests desire to clean their own clothes. Since putting retractable clotheslines in each room costs the hotel money, the first step would be to not install them. Then, since guests could still try to hang their wet socks on the shower curtain rods, signs would be added everywhere warning them that they are violating hotel regulations. The cleaning staff would have to be enlisted to “police” the rooms to catch any guests trying to save some money. Finally, an expensive laundry service would be offered as the only alternative. It sounds kind of extreme, but greed does get people to do extreme things.

Of course, being greedy is the opposite of being selfless. With a selfless attitude towards design, the needs of the end user are paramount – not the winning of awards, boosting portfolios or even the desire to get contracts. If the best option for the user is something that the designer cannot or should not provide, that option should still be proposed. Without selflessness, an attempt to be thoughtful can turn into “gimmicky” design. That is, a designer can get carried away adding features and options. Originally, it is for the sake of trying to come up with a great design, but in the end it is out of touch with the user’s needs.

Japan provided me with a large amount of design inspirations, both modern and ancient. But, for me, the best inspirations came from seeing the many thoughtful and selfless designs in the everyday life of the Japanese people.

(The photo below is a covering for a temple under construction. On the grey tarp is a painting of a dragon – not as beautiful as the finished temple, but better than ordinary tarp.)

Tokyo Temple Construction Cover