The Design Philosophies of Toshiyuki Kita and Naoto Fukasawa

Our resident contributor py, inspired by “Theories behind Japanese Designs” writes about the time spent working in Japan with Naoto and Kita, and how they have applied such Japanese design theories into their work.

After reading through the previous article on “Theories behind Japanese Design”, I felt the urge to share what I have learnt about Japanese design philosophies mentioned in the article through the work of two of Japan’s more famous Industrial Designers. I had stayed in Japan to study design a few years ago (during one of my globe-trotting adventures), I remembered how I had the opportunity to visit Axis Building, the office of Naoto Fukasawa, surfed through the streets of Omotesando (the Japanese design haven), and attending the Good Design Awards (with Toshiyuki Kita as the Chairman).

So with such exposure I had the great opportunity to work with and find out more about the design philosophies of the two famous design icons in Japan – Naoto Fukasawa and Toshiyuki Kita. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to unravel the mysteries behind their personal design philosophies, styles and their success!


Naoto Fukasawa was born in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1956. He graduated from Tama Art University in 1980. After working 8 years for Seiko-Epson, he left Japan for US – joining ID Two, which then became part of IDEO which he was part of for another 8 years. Returning back to Japan then, he helped set up IDEO’s Tokyo office which he ran for 5 years. He established Naoto Fukasawa Design in 2002 and later was creative director and responsible of the launch of ±0 in Dec 2003. His other famous works include MUJI’S CD player, the mobile phones “Infobar” and “neon” and the ±0 brand of household electrical appliances and sundries.

Yugen Design Philosophy – “Design without Thought”

naoto collage

“My ideal of design is of something powerful that cannot be seen, but only felt .” – Naoto Fukasawa

This is very similar to the meaning of YUGEN (subtle profound) which means “Suggest and not reveal layers of meaning hidden within. Invisible to the casual eye and avoiding the obvious.”

His design works are usually identified by the simplicity of its appearance, evident nature and joyous modesty. Though his works speak of simplicity and terseness, it never equates to emptiness or dryness, this is due to the hidden meaning behind all his design concepts sculptured with economic and refined design forms.

If you look closely, he rarely uses right angles in his designs; his preferred angle is R2.5. The beauty of his designs lies in the way he expresses himself via the details, which are designed through thinking through how a person can use a product simply. His designs also take into account the human element by favoring the emotional over the intellectual.

In fact, Naoto has become the hero of a behaviorist philosophy known as “Design without Thought”:

There is no such thing as a design that is good forever. What lasts is what is in harmony with the body. Things that are in harmony with our thoughts rapidly lose interest. Design means observing objectively. It means being aware of our living nature, being animalistic, and a simple element in the larger environment. Like a jigsaw, finding these gaps means looking not at people or objects themselves, but rather at the space around them or their outlines. It is not a question of logic but of things that fit each other, a perfect fit. – Natoto Fukasawa, Interview with Intramuros magazine.

He believes in designs that generates a “later wow”, in other words designs that corresponds to our unconscious and the environment that surrounds us. In fact, it is this design philosophy that gave birth to the ±0 brand, which is a symbol that expresses the idea of pliability. ±0 speaks about the beauty of the invisible yet existent shapes and follows the ideas of YUGEN philosophy very closely.

Other Japanese design theories that are applied in his design: FUKINSEI (imbalanced), KANSO (simple).


Born in 1942, Japanese designer Toshiyuki Kita has been the chairman of Good Design since 2004. Other than Japan, he has had great success in Italy where Kita started in 1975, by selling luminaries and tableware, and then producing and selling furniture. His entire effort was motivated by his desire to eventually bring the craftsmen’s labor and skill back to Japan.

Through his influence and effort there has been worldwide recognition of Japanese traditional and modern art and design. Some of his famous works include Sharp Aquos Plasma TV, Wink Chair and Hana lacquer ware.

Kita believes in the Shizen Design Philosophy or the “Soul of Design”.


SHIZEN, means “Raw, natural and unforced creativity without pretence. True naturalness is to negate the naive and accidental.”

Kita describes his work by:

“Form expresses feeling. When I design I try to put feelings into the products. I don’t like cold products. I like friendly, human products.” ~ Toshiyuki Kita

Toshiyuki Kita’s designs are organic and faunal-looking. His product design forms are very expressive in character and have metaphors that relate to birds and to the different body parts of animals.

He personally believes that designs should be well balanced to achieve “harmony” (or chowa) between people and things. This harmony equates to the balance of nature. A strong supporter to recycling, Kita uses only the raw materials (for example washi paper) which can either return to nature by a natural process of decay or by solar energy. Maintaining the equilibrium of the design in terms of the materials, production costs, safety, ecological factors are important aspects of his design.

“Always, when I design, I think in the product as a friend and I try to put this feeling into it, very subtly. Function is very important, but this function doesn’t have to be cold. Function can be friendly. This is where form is very impotent. Form expresses feelings. And color is also very powerful. Form and color transmit a message and this message affects our feelings.” – Toshiyuki Kita, Interview with LADF ( Latin American Design Foundation )

Because of his great interest and study towards habitats, lifestyles and traditional artwork, it tends to inspires and influences the way he shapes his designs. This is similar to SHIZEN philosophy, where the aesthetics of products is expressed through balance with harmony, raw and without pretence. His designs emanate an appealing and lighthearted feeling at first glance, reminding people of the “humanness” in design.

Other Japanese design theories reflected in his designs include DATSUZOKU (unworldly), KANSO (simple).

It is interesting to note how different both their design styles are. While Naoto focuses on YUGEN design philosophy that bears a hidden meaning that generates a “later wow” factor, Kita’s design speaks of an obvious aesthetic styling that links people back to nature – SHIZEN design philosophy. Both their designs in fact draw upon very different market tastes. I have asked my designer and non-designer friends about how they feel towards both their design styles; and find it interesting that I got an almost equal number of votes for preference of both their design styles, which appeal to different characters.

I found while writing this article, my own design philosophies lean towards YUGEN (subtle, profound) and KANSO (simple). Understanding and applying our own design philosophies in our work, would hopefully make all of us better designers.

  • PY

    April 7, 2007 at 10:23 am Reply

    Hi Aen,
    Glad you liked the article. Reading your first article on the different Japanese philosophies spurred me to read back on the old notes I had when I was working there in Japan, and think through about their signature design philosophies. In my quest of reading up about them, then I also self-discovered more about their and my own personal design philosophies. I enjoyed writing this article.
    I went to read on your link on your breakdown on Fukinsei. It’s good that you are doing a break-down of the different philosophies. Already, I enjoyed what you wrote on Fukinsei.I look forward to your other design philosophy chapters coming up.

  • Aen

    April 7, 2007 at 5:50 am Reply

    Nice article DT. I learned something from it. I have always been a fan of plusminuszero’s simplistic and zen approach in design since i read about it in Now I learn more about the designer.
    I too have expanded on my Zen Design Principles article. I will be discussing each principle in-depth in separate chapters. You can catch it at
    I will be posting a chapter every week.

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