Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for May, 2012

Peak of drunken stupidity

Why after too many drinks, one should just keep drinking (which one most likely will).


Sense of beauty and information density, East v.s. West

Japanese Web Design: Why You So 2003?

I recently caught this article on Twitter and as someone who’s lived in the East and West, I can’t disagree more. To summarize the article, the author makes a point that Japan, despite it’s beautiful design heritage, creates chaotic text-heavy websites circa American web design in the 90s. He lists few major Japanese website examples:

Rakuten – Japan’s largest online retailer

NicoNico Douga – Similar to YouTube but only for the Japanese market

The author goes as far as to question: “Why is Japan, the world’s leader in robotics, hybrid cars, and Gundam models, so far behind when it comes to the web? Where did they go wrong?”

He then provides few theories on why Japanese web design developed to the way it is, namely mobile phone usage, slow personal computer adoption, Internet Explore 6, and Flash. He concludes the article by remarking “It’s Not All Bad, Though” and listing few niche (except Uniqlo) Japanese websites that cater to the Western sensibility of website aesthetics.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the reason why Japanese web design developed to be this way, but I vehemently disagree with the fact that Japan is behind and still caught in 2003. To think that there is only one way of developing is blasphemous. Social scientists often argue against the use of the terms “developed country” and “developing country” because it carries an underlying assumption of one-dimensional development with the latter countries following the earlier.

Has it not occurred to the author that Japanese web design is this way because this is how Japanese people want it?

For example, Japan is one of the few places in the world where Yahoo still beats Google.

Yahoo! Japan

Google Japan

When Yahoo first came to Japan, they formed a joint venture with the local internet company Softbank to offer products suited for the Japanese market. While Yahoo in the U.S. floundered, Yahoo Japan (which Yahoo is no longer the majority owner) have stayed strong.

When Google came to Japan, while they localized the search algorithms for the language, they kept their simplistic start page designed in the U.S.

We have this notion of Japanese beauty driven by minimalistic design, often exemplified by images of zen gardens:

Tea rooms:

Or iconic objects:

While I don’t argue against the beauty of these, it paints an incomplete and one-sided picture of Japan.

The reality is that Japan can also be a chaotic place with information everywhere, especially in the cities. Take for example the following comparisons of cityscapes:

Shinjuku entertainment district in Tokyo

Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo

New York Cityscape

Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter of Paris

The comparison doesn’t end just outside but inside as well:

Yamada Denki, electronics store in Japan

Best Buy, electronics store in the U.S.

And beyond spaces:

Elle Magazine in Japan

Elle Magazine in the U.S.

Sony iPod music player

Philips iPod music player

Menu from Watami, a Japanese chain restaurant

Applebee’s menu in the U.S.

Now can you see why a Japanese person might be used to and prefer information dense websites? How can Japanese people deal with such information overload?

Japanese is a very visual language with thousands of kanjis, pictographic letters, used everyday. The benefit of having to learn few thousand kanjis is that one or two kanjis can easily express an idea. As a result, Japanese is a very scannable language. A Japanese person can look at the chaotic cityscape and both quickly read the text and get a feel for the information being provided. The drawback is that you have to learn thousands of characters…

Getting back to the original point, Japanese web design aesthetics isn’t 2003, isn’t the past, isn’t the future. Japanese web design aesthetics is just the present, and it developed for its audience: Japanese people.

Recently Japan has started calling itself, in a very humble Japanese way, Galapagos, to signify how differently and uniquely the country has developed. Japan has come to accept that they are an island in the Pacific with distinct culture and sensibility that won’t necessarily be accepted or replicated in other parts of the world. The West needs to realize that because they drove much of the change in the last few centuries doesn’t mean the world will keep changing in their image.


Steppers v.s. Leapers

How happy are you with small and big accomplishments?

Some people are happy with small accomplishments but do not derive too much more joy from bigger accomplishments. For this post, I will call these people steppers.

Then there are others who don’t really care about small accomplishments but are smitten with big accomplishments. I will call these people leapers.

Steppers are happy completing small tasks and making a small difference everyday. Leapers get frustrated with the slowness of change and keep wishing to make drastic changes.

Steppers can get caught in a never-ending cycle of meaningless work that goes nowhere but provides a small sense of completion. Imagine an employee who is happy cleaning his desk everyday, clearing his inbox, and dealing with paperwork but doesn’t really get anything done. The infinite stepper loop.

Leapers can get caught in big dreams without ever getting there, because big accomplishments are a compilation of small steps. I’m sure we’ve all had friends who talked big but couldn’t get anything done to get closer to the goal.

The challenge isn’t to be one or the other, or to be somewhere in the middle, but to recognize your own characteristic and find the right people to work with. Leapers and steppers need each other to get things done. Having too much of one or the other in a company could be detrimental. The more famous entrepreneurs are probably leapers, but they all needed their stepper sidekicks to be where they are today. The true measure of a visionary isn’t necessarily the vision itself, but his or her ability to get the right people working on the vision. Steve Jobs was an amazing leaper who had thousands of steppers believing in him. Does Tim Cook feel more like a stepper to anyone else?

Certain jobs are better suited for leapers vs steppers. Leapers need to be working on something new so that they can feel that they are creating big changes in the world. Steppers can be happy working in situations where the job can feel repetitive at times. Running a restaurant, working in a hospital, and being a teacher are all jobs better suited for steppers. In a company, steppers are more likely to be accountants or HR while leapers are more likely to be in R&D, strategy, or design.

Do you believe in this view of the world? And if so, are you more of a leaper or a stepper?


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