Designer Ōtomo × TRINUS CEO Satō Interview
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We invited Mr Ōtomo, the designer of TRINUS’ flagship product [Flower Pencil HANA], to talk about [the power of design]. From the point of view of a designer and manager, we discussed how he views ‘design’, what ‘designs’ are valued these days, and the struggles of product development.

The duo who met via the power of design

Please tell me about how the two of you met.

ŌtomoIn late 2014, I came across TRINUS’ open design competition and submitted my design for the [Flower Pencil HANA]. The idea was successfully adopted and that is where it all started.

SatōAt the time, TRINUS was hosting design competitions for 3 different themes, and one of those themes was to make use of a material derived from recycled paper called MAPKA. In this competition, Mr Ōtomo’s design stood out as a fantastic use of this material, so his idea was adopted. This was the first time we had held an open design competition on such a wide scale, with submissions open to so many people I didn’t know. His idea and design were wonderful so I wondered what sort of person he would be… I was pleasantly surprised as Mr Ōtomo seemed like a very nice person (laughter).

ŌtomoI’m not sure if you remember but, when we met for the first time, we talked about how we were the same age. I remember being relieved at the time, thinking that I don’t have to be so courteous (laughter).

Mr Ōtomo, what was the motivation behind you submitting your design, and Mr Satō, on what grounds did you choose his design?

ŌtomoAmongst a sea of design competitions, TRINUS’ stood out to me because they were interested in product plans and designs that would lead to actually producing a product and commercialising it. There are lots of design competitions which take a step back from reality, which is fun in its own way however, it’s unusual to see competitions which take product commercialisation so seriously.

SatōLooking through the design submissions, I looked at Mr Ōtomo’s and thought “This is the one!”. It was a product concept overflowing with surprises: it makes the most of the properties of this new material, the pencils have cute flower-shaped cross-sections, and sharpening the pencils makes pencil shavings in the shapes of flower petals bloom from the sharpener. This design also would not be possible if it weren’t for the unique properties of MAPKA, and so this also makes it difficult for the idea to be copied. I thought it was a great concept as it both makes the most of the properties of the material and is also a fun, wonderful product.

ŌtomoIt might have just been the perfect concept for TRINUS’ first product commercialisation open design project.

SatōMr Ōtomo, you’re really good at coming up with designs which appeal to women. Why is it that you find it easy to come up with ideas which target women?

ŌtomoWhen it comes to people giving their opinions on design, the most honest reactions come from women. As a result, saying something is targeted towards women makes it easier to find out how the design is perceived but, that does not necessarily mean that the [Flower Pencil HANA] is targeted towards women. If you say something is target towards men, people think of qualities such as simplicity and functionality. However, there are plenty of men who like fun and quirky things, so I think it’s easier to say that my ideas are created with women in mind, but not necessarily designed for women. Hopefully, this makes it easier for my products to be accepted by a wide range of people.


The power of design from the perspective of a designer and a businessman

What sort of potential or power do you two think there is to be had from design?

SatōAt my previous job, I was involved as a consultant in a project to improve the sales of products made at facilities with disabled people. The disabled people worked really hard to manufacture goods however, there was a problem that those goods weren’t selling very well. I thought that the root of the problem might have been in the product plans or designs. As a result, I got several designers involved in product development from the planning phase and held a competition to receive product designs and ideas.
The products that resulted from this had great design sense and as a result, we were able to have our products sold at speciality stores. At the time, we couldn’t imagine that these products would be sold through such distribution channels. This is where I got hooked on the power of design. It made me think “design is what binds technology, ideas, and the world together”. In addition, this made me appreciate the perspective that designers have on things. They come up with opinions and ideas from a completely different perspective to us.

ŌtomoI as a designer also think a lot about how much value good design can bring to things. I not only consider things such as looks and how cool designs are, but also how to deliver “experiences” through design. As a result, I completely understand Satō is talking about. Before designing, I think “wouldn’t it be great if I could deliver a fun experience”, and then start thinking from there. My perspective on things might be a little different from that of people from other industries as a result. I guess that’s my way of thinking for better or for worse (laughs).
For example, the [Flower Pencil HANA] were designed around the idea of “wouldn’t it be fun if sharpening the pencil was a fun experience?”. Even with the [WORLD SOUP SNACK], I thought it would be an interesting “experience” if you could easily try out lots of flavours of soup from around the world.

SatōI feel that people’s purchasing behaviour is changing and evolving into two streams. One is that people are spending money on “experiences” rather than “things”. The other is that people become “fans” of their role models, and they like the experience of buying something because their role model buys it too. I think these two patterns will account for a lot of sales.

I see that you two think about design to a great extent but I’d like to ask, how far do you think the field of design extends?

ŌtomoIt’s difficult to draw the line. I think about design in a really broad way. I have to think about my products reaching the hands of the customers or else I can’t come up with a design. I think about everything from the customer’s actions, clothing, food housing, and their daily lives as I think that these things all have an impact on design. I think it’s important to consider these details, connect the dots and mix them into ideas to come up with ideas.

SatōWhich aspects of technology should I focus on? What sort of value can I provide to what target audience? What sort of form should the product take, and what means of distribution and PR can I use to spread this product around the world? I think of design as a broad concept, connecting these elements and connecting the seeds of technology to the world. I think what TRINUS is doing is this sort of thing.

ŌtomoWow, that’s grand (laughter)


Can design really commit to sales?

If a product doesn’t sell well, does that mean all of your efforts go to waste? I think design is one of the key aspects of product design which affects the end-user, what do the two of you think constitutes to a design that sells well?

SatōTRINUS’ business model is a little different to existing design offices or advertising agencies, and we earn money from sales royalties. As a result, sales performance is very important to us and we work hard to ensure our products sell well. We work closely with our partner companies and share the same level of commitment to product development. This business model is deliberately designed to “make products that sell”. Mr Ōtomo, when you are designing, are you also conscious about sales performance?

ŌtomoIt’s not as if I think about “sales performance” directly as such… It’s also not the case that I just try and submit a design something cool without reason. I look at current trends, research the underlying motivations, and then from that perspective think “what sort of a stance should I take on design this time around.”. I reckon that this sort of thinking is similar to TRINUS and so I think we have good compatibility. I think about the 5W1H to validate my designs too. Who, where… etc. If any of these aspects are lacking, it won’t sell and won’t satisfy anyone’s needs. Even if the 5W1H is an afterthought, I won’t submit a design without having considered them.

It’s very difficult to excel both technology and meeting market needs during the product development / commercialisation process isn’t it?

SatōIt took a really long time to develop the [Flower Pencil HANA] into a commercial product (laughter), I wondered it Mr Ōtomo became anxious.

ŌtomoI was at a position where I thought it would be easy at first however, it took an unexpectedly long time…

SatōWe proposed for the pencils to be produced using a manufacturing process called extrusion. However at the time, MAPKA had yet to be processed using extrusion. The product plan was superb and we didn’t want it to go to waste so we decided to take on the challenge of using this manufacturing process though, it proved to be difficult in reality. We tried changing the formula of the MAPKA material mixture and ended up in a loop of loss and failure for about a year… We couldn’t see an end to it all. We produced a bunch of nasty looking charcoal stick looking things (laughter). We worked with the people at the manufacturing facility, looking for solutions and when they said “this is your last chance!” we produced a miraculous success.


ŌtomoOh, there was such an arduous story! I didn’t realise you went to so much effort. During the prototyping stage, I remember seeing what looked like a charcoal stick and thinking “this is completely different to what I imagined…” I had completely lost all hope (laughter).

SatōAfter that, production costs were quite expensive and it was a few tens of thousands of yen to produce the moulds for five different pencils. As a result, we created our crowdfunding platform to collect these funds and to promote the product. It was a product that we had worked very hard to make a reality, so I wanted to gather as many supporters on our website. I wanted to maintain consistency and have everything from technology, design and sales on our website, and it made me think that we should have made this platform in advance. I had confidence, but I was also anxious.
I was happy when we started our crowdfunding campaign as I was getting an endless stream of emails for orders (laughter).

ŌtomoCrowdfunding wasn’t initially a part of your business plan, was it? At first I was excited, wondering if was okay to just create a crowdfunding system. To be honest, I was worried thinking that the whole thing might just fall flat on its face (laughter).

SatōThere was quite a feeling of suddenness to it all (laughter). I went ahead with building my platform thinking, “so these are the struggles of manufacturing”, clearing every obstacle in our way.

Designs that large corporations desire from TRINUS

In this age where new things are created daily, the needs of the companies that you work with are changing. As of now, what sorts of designs do large corporations want to see from yourselves?

SatōAt any rate, I think they desire “new things”. Especially with large corporations, there are all sorts of constraints which make it difficult for them to come up with new ideas alone. That’s why they want ideas and momentum from venture companies like ours, to give them the push they need. The standard of what they expect from the likes us continues to rise.

ŌtomoI thought of it as our job as designers to have a unique way of thinking. Not in the sense of having far fetched ideas, but about having a completely different perspective on things.

SatōMaking use of dormant technologies which the world has yet to see, whilst keeping in touch with reality. As we are making use of existing technologies, we have a strong starting point, making these concepts realisable. This also makes it easier to work with large corporations.

ŌtomoIsn’t it sometimes difficult to write about certain technologies in detail, considering that this information is made publically available?

SatōIf it’s a patented technology there’s a certain degree of information which is already made public, and so long as we can explain the technology enough to the point where a creator can come up with an idea, that’s ample. There’s no need to go into great detail into the exact workings of the technology. After that, we’ll try our best to answer the individual questions that the creators ask us. Otherwise, the designs that the creators have gone to the effort of creating will go to waste.


I want to continue to jump into new areas as a partner

Do you have an outlook as to where you’d like to go from here as partners?

ŌtomoI feel that I’ll be able to come up with fun ideas for any sort of theme. I sense that lots of excitement awaits us!

SatōI’m not expecting anything unreasonable but, I wonder what answers you’ll come up with. Starting from sundry goods and expanding into the food industry, I hope we can keep growing and continue to develop products for a wide range of industries. For example, home electronics…

ŌtomoI’d like to have a go at home electronics too! I need to make sure that I can answer to TRINUS’ needs. I think it’d be great to work together in a wide variety of industries too.

SatōI’m thinking of going into lots of different areas, and if I need a new partner in business I’ll be sure to let you know (laughter).