8.5 Postcards from People-watcher’s Paradise


Numerous occupational hazards beset the professional observer of people, their contexts and behaviours.

Absorbing everything in a city as stimulating as Tokyo results in visual and mental overload. Without horses’ blinkers to turn down my senses from default ‘sponge’ setting, it’s taken me several days to process, but here goes…

On day two I met with a design anthropologist well-versed with Tokyo’s back-street charm and a man also unable to switch off the investigative mindset and his need to filter and pattern-spot in such a visually rich environment.

Yep, I was doomed to notice, notice and notice some more.

Here are eight and-a-half of my favourite themes from this wonderful city:

Kerbside clawback.

In a spectacularly vertical city, gutters become fair game for a few inches of horizontal gain where it’s needed, at street level.

Gutters made more user friendly by those who interact with them most.

Honouring the craftsman.

Absolute respect for the makers of everyday things. Mastery of a trade celebrated at an individual level.

Tweezer geezer (top) is a third generation craftsman.

Display perfection.

The art of retail merchandising taken seriously. Objects more beautifully composed and presented, and with far more consideration than I’m used to.

Artfully presented edibles, neatly stacked paper and all labels to the front.

Service culture.

This takes some getting used to. A minute seems like two or three at the complete attention of staff-members as they meticulously wrap and present your purchase. Working in silence and harmony, each knows their role. Every detail executed to perfection.

A bomb could go off while your items are being wrapped and the staff wouldn't flinch.

A bomb could go off while your items are wrapped and the staff wouldn’t flinch.

Visual calm.

The zen of traditional Japanese design. Rhythm, space, balance, warmth, grids, geometry, symmetry.

The Okura. Steve Jobs’ favourite hotel. Mmm.

Visual chaos.

Enough graphic stimulation to make your retinas bleed. Onslaught of type, characters, colour, contrast and a near-zero tolerance policy on negative space.

Half a step into a 100 Yen shop and the information ambush hits you.

Stationery supermarket.

I met my match in the Japanese love of expression through the hand-drawn and written. Pen, paper and ink. Every colour, weight, grade. Acres of it.

Stripes seem to be in fashion for those who like their pen and paper porn.

Greening the fringes.

What little space for green in this city is revered. Where planting doesn’t occur through civic planning, it’s created and nurtured by residents, usually in pot plants.

A far cry from mowing the verge.

Pride and care of doorstep plantings – a far cry from ‘mowing the verge’.

And something nobody tells you about Tokyo, and no photographs can convey…

The calm. A truly human level of politeness and respect.

I now understand Paris syndrome but for me, Tokyo syndrome appears to offer the opposite symptoms – Expectations exceeded.

Whilst in town I presented at Tokyo UX Talk, building on one of my favourite topics… visualising UX research. Thanks to Tom and the crew there for hosting.

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