Muji's philosophy - pursuit of better human living

According to Mr Kanai, Muji's design process revolves around engineering solutions that deliver what is needed to solve users' problems.
According to Mr Kanai, Muji's design process revolves around engineering solutions that deliver what is needed to solve users' problems.ST FILE PHOTO

For Japanese lifestyle brand Muji, design is about "arriving at the optimal solution".

"You do this by first defining the objectives and goals of your solution, and then considering all surrounding conditions and constraints," said Mr Masaaki Kanai, chairman of Muji's parent company, Ryohin Keikaku.

He will deliver a keynote address at the Innovation by Design conference on March 15 and 16, sharing Muji's approach to design as a bottom-line investment.

The company's design process starts squarely in the shoes of the user, he explained. Its designers identify the problems users have, come up with the solutions, and then deliver just what is needed.

Innovation and efficiency are innate to its entire product cycle, from the selection of raw materials to manufacturing and packaging.

Muji takes an inclusive approach - top sales executives are involved in product strategy meetings, and there are informal monthly meetings with the company's Advisory Board. At the Muji Laboratory for Living, the company taps consumers for ideas on what can be done better.

Everything about those engagements is designed to be in line with its values. This is how a brand built on simplicity - Mujirushi Ryuhin, the full name of the brand, literally translates to "no brand quality goods" - has managed to remain committed to its original ethos.

"The consistent basis of our design philosophy has always been equality, moderation, and the pursuit of better human living," Mr Kanai explained.

It is no mean feat considering how the brand has grown from its first 40 products in 1980, including stationery and food items, to newer fields like housing, renovation and public works designs.

As Muji grows, remaining true to its design philosophy can be "difficult", he conceded. "Our competitors are constantly catching up with the innovations we make," he said, adding that increasing organisational complexity can also lead to "greater dilution" in ideology.

Nevertheless, Muji has been on a bold path of expansion, including in China and the United States.

Since it re-opened in Singapore in 2003, the company has seen its takings increase by more than tenfold, and grown its presence to 10 stores. It has also introduced new concepts, including Muji To Go at Changi Airport Terminal 2 in 2014, and Cafe & Meal Muji at its Paragon store last year.

Mr Kanai revealed that there are plans for yet another "large flagship store" here that will showcase more lifestyle concepts.

But he assures consumers that Muji will remain committed to delivering "simple, concise, respectful, subtle and harmonious products at reasonable prices".

Arti Mulchand

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Muji's philosophy - pursuit of better human living'. Print Edition | Subscribe