Clay Bavor

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Good Product Design in Tokyo

While in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I saw all sorts of weird and interesting stuff. The weird stuff included solar-powered robotic grasshoppers; “ramen stalls”, where you order from a machine, pick up your order at a window, and then sit down in a one-person stall where you can slurp your noodles in private; a pink, animatronic, vaguely bird-like stuffed animal that lays plastic eggs; and a vending machine that will print an image of your face onto a keychain-sized character for just a few hundred yen. (I had my face printed on a frog.)

The interesting stuff included a lot of examples of really thoughtful product design. The first of these that I noticed was “sidewalk braille”, these textured strips and dots which visually impaired people can use to get around the city more easily. Raised bars are for walking, and dots indicate an intersection or change of direction. I tried navigating for a bit with my eyes closed and, at least with a pair of soft-soled shoes, it was possible to sort of make my way around. Neat idea.

In the subway stations, staircases are put to good use by putting information about the line you’re walking to onto the front faces of steps. This staircase had the times and fares to stops on the Ginza line. A thoughtful use of space.

The Japanese are obsessed with aesthetics, and also with vending machines. These interests converged in Oeno Park, where someone had the good taste to disguise a bright, unsightly vending machine (but not the blue recycling bin next to it) in bamboo.

By far and away the best product I experienced in Tokyo was my hotel alarm clock. It had three buttons: alarm on / off; alarm time up; alarm time down. All the display shows you is the time in big numbers, and the time the alarm will go off with a bell (where the dashes are in the photo) in small numbers. It was the first hotel alarm clock I’ve ever actually used, because I could figure out how to set it and was sure it would go off! No radio, no multiple alarms, no options on how to be woken up, no way to accidentally change the time, etc.