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Design Philosophy

On Sun 2015/04/26 16:50 JST In Smart Doll
 151  856366 ja zh

Purpose

If you have not done the “what is the purpose of my existence” exercise then I would recommend that you take time out to discover what it is sooner rather than later. The sooner you find your purpose, the more time you will have left of your life to fulfill your existence.

Some people never find out the answer before they die but just before they do, many of them end up saying "I regret living the life of others instead of living a life for myself" - according to a research by nurses who interviewed people on their deathbeds who spoke about their regrets in life.

It’s not easy trying to find out the purpose in life but one thing is certain - you are not going to discover your purpose if there is no change in your daily life. Change is needed to not only discover new opportunities, interests and ways of thinking, but to also enable to you to see a contrast between your current daily life and what it could be.

Change is easy only if you are not afraid or feel it bothersome - just go somewhere you don't normally go, do something you don't normally do and eventually you will discover something that leads to something - while doing nothing will lead to absolutely nothing.

My first time in Akihabara back in 1993

Location

Thinking about where you want to live as a first step to discovering your purpose is an exercise that I recommend that you spend time on.
Location is the environment that surrounds us and directly affects how we feel, think and perceive concepts in life. People, sounds, language and the surroundings affect our 5 senses which affects us not only physically but mentally too.

For many moons I had no idea what I wanted to do in life - until I discovered Japanese culture and I initially did so through a games machine called the Sega Megadrive back in 1989. I then discovered anime though a title called “Macross” and then discovered more of Japan and its culture through a bookstore in the UK called “The Japan Center.”

I started to self study Japanese and after saving up money by working in a Japanese restaurant in Chelsea London, I visited the Land of the Rising Sun to absorb the culture. It then hit me - I really really wanted to live and work in Japan.
If you are trying to figure out where you are destined to be then take a trip - it can be overseas - it can be domestic. It can even be in the next town. Got no cash to travel? Take up a part time job like I did in a restaurant - unless you are too good to wash dishes.

My creation - Mirai Smart Doll in Akihabara - 21 years after I first visited

A purpose to Create

Now I that I worked out where I wanted to be, next was to figure out what I should be doing there. After arriving in Japan I started working with the Internet as I was hired doing Web Marketing for a scientific journal called Nature. I stayed in the same field working for companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

While living the corporate life, I realized that I wanted to one day work for myself and decided that I should aim to do so by the time I was 35.
I managed to meet this goal and left Microsoft to set up Mirai Inc where I decided to stay in the Internet field and did web consulting/built web solutions for companies like Disney, Columbia, SEGA and Konami.

By 2010, I had grown a fair following of readers and viewers of my blog and TV show worldwide and yet I always felt that I hadn’t achieved anything significant. I did another “what is the purpose of my existence” exercise and finally discovered why.

I took a look back at what humans had been doing at the dawn of their time and saw that they had always been a creative bunch of beings - prehistoric cave paintings have been dated back to 40,000 years ago while prehistoric sculptures date back 28,000 years.
Throughout history, we can observe many forms of creativity by many cultures which can now be seen at museums.
Humans developed hands for a good reason - to either create stuff or consume stuff made by others.
I realized that I was of the “create” variety and that I wanted to go beyond writing a blog or making TV shows - I wanted to create physical real world objects too.

Why fashion dolls?

Back in 2008, I discovered the existence of “Ball Jointed Dolls” (BJD) which in most cases refer to dolls which are about ⅓ scale (60cm-ish). There are many manufacturers of BJD who are predominantly Asian that make their dolls out of resin, bisque or soft vinyl.

Some call dolls creepy - I call them art just like the sculptures you see dotted around Europe.
I felt that a Ball Jointed Doll of this size was the perfect platform for creating a physical presence of my mascot character Mirai Suenaga - bringing her out of the 2 dimensional world into the real world.

By 2010, I had my sights set on making a 60cm tall doll modelled after Mirai but manufacturers were not too keen on working with me - I don't blame them - I didn't have any cash to put down and Mirai wasn't exactly a big name character.
After having the door constantly slammed in my face, I spent about 2 years researching material properties, various molding methods and then doing extensive networking to find vendors who I could work with.

The first thing I needed was a sculptor who could help me sculpt the body. While it was easy finding sculptors, finding one who had knowledge of not only joint mechanisms but also material properties was challenging.

Since mid 2012, many blogs started to talk about 3D printing technologies available for consumers and all of a sudden it just clicked - I didn't need a sculptor anymore - I'll make the body sculpt in 3D and then print it.

Hobbies turn career tool

Many moons ago, for some reason I became very interested in 3D modeling so I started to learn the ropes from Google Sensei as a hobby. I tried Maya, Lightwave but eventually stuck with 3D Max which I used to model this Vic Viper inspired ship.
Little did I know back then that my knowledge of 3D modeling would be so crucial in changing my life 15 years later.
Together with a few 3D guru comrades, we created a 3D sculpt for a 60cm tall doll with an internal frame in the span of 6 weeks.

Looking back at the past, there are a few other examples of how hobbies became a crucial part of my career.

  1. I took Korean at the same time as Japanese when I was at university because I had an interest in the language and culture - today I use Korean with various vendors in Korea who make some of our Smart Doll wigs and apparel.
  2. I started to blog about Japan as a hobby which grew to the user base that we have today.

There are folks out there who will preach that living a passion can't pay the bills - its because they didn't try hard enough and don't want to see you try and achieve something that they couldn't.

3D Rapid Prototyping

Discovering that I could use 3D rapid prototyping to develop products ended up making much more sense than creating a physical sculpt out of clay for many reasons.

Modifications can be made easily and the size of the 3D sculpt can be changed instantaneously with a single click. This is more useful than you can imagine - depending on the final production material and method, shrinkage occurs when creating a mold from a 3D print - 5 to 6% in the case of a Slush Casting mold.
With 3D, we can not only check the actual size of the printed prototype but also increase the 3D model size by 5% before printing again to create the final molds.

By the time I had finished the 3D modeling, we rolled out our first ever Culture Japan sales booth at Anime Festival Asia in December 2012 which was to be the first of many. The sales from the booths and of our Japanese language learning product Moekana that I also launched in 2012 generated enough cash flow for me to continue to bootstrap the Smart Doll project.

You can read more about the production process and how I built up my company in the following posts

Learn more about the Making of Smart Doll >
Learn how I started up my company in Japan >

Similar but one of a kind

Japanese Aesthetic Principles

Wabi-Sabi is a set of 7 zen aesthetic design principles - of which I focus on three of them in the creation of Smart Doll which are:-

FUKINSEI (imbalanced) 不均整
Imperfection, asymmetry.

SHIZEN (natural) 自然
Naturalness. Absence of pretense or artificiality.

DATSUZOKU (unworldly) 脱俗
Unconventional.

The slush casting method naturally introduces imperfection

FUKINSEI (不均整) Imbalanced. Beauty in imperfection, asymmetry.

Wabi-Sabi (no not Wasabi!) states that beauty can only be achieved if there is a correlate amount of imperfection. Mirai is beautiful because she has imperfections which have been factored into the design not only on the 3D modeling level but also because I decided to use a traditional casting method called Slush Casting which by its nature introduces imperfections.

While all Mirai may look the same, each one is uniquely handcrafted and there will never be two that look *exactly* the same - just like humans.

Most folks who design faces in 3D would model one side of the face and then mirror it to the opposite side which in theory should look OK but in reality gives an unnatural alien look - this is because we are accustomed to looking at asymmetrical faces in daily life.
When 3D modeling the face for Mirai we made sure to introduce Fukinsei by molding her face to be asymmetrical.

The outer shell of Smart Doll is created using a combination of modern 3D printing technologies together with traditional molding and casting techniques which have been in use in Japan for over 60 years.
While computers give us refined control over the 3D part of the development process, the traditional part is manual and influenced by many aspects of nature on a micron level.

During the electro-molding process, the surface of the mold wall becomes slightly uneven which means the casted part will also become uneven.
Blemishes like small beauty marks, faint streaks or slight color differences may occur which are all caused by various natural conditions (air pressure, temperature, moisture etc) that affect the soft vinyl in its liquid stage just before or after casting.

Some blemishes may only visible under strong lighting (when viewing a few cm away from a fluorescent light) or when you start to scrutinise them but none of these blemishes are a result of poor quality control and are result of the effects of employing a traditional casting method that I have chosen to make Smart Doll.

If I feel that a blemish looks natural enough to not degrade the overall aesthetic looks of Smart Doll then I will approve them to be shipped - If I knowingly let out poor quality products then that would reflect on the brand and my future - it is not in my interest to let that happen.

Folks who prefer perfect super smooth surfaces all round should seek other machine molded products instead.

The Frame inside Smart Doll is assembled by hand and because of this, the torque of the joints are going to differ between each and every doll unless we introduce robots to do this work. I have decided that I would prefer the slight difference rather than having my dolls look and feel like machines - each and everyone being the same.

Smart Doll knees are designed not to bend more than 90° - could be a dealbreaker for some

Shizen (自然) Naturalness. Absence of pretense or artificiality.

Setting expectations is very important. The last thing I want to do is to give an artificial impression that Smart Doll is something that its not and have customers disappointed when they open the package.

I’m not in this for the money - if I was then remaining as a salaryman at Amazon or Microsoft would have been a better choice earning 30,000,000 yen a year - it would also mean that I would have more time on my hands - now I need to decide how to divide time between family, running the business or looking after my health.
I would also have had a steady paycheck instead of worrying whether I can keep the business afloat so that I could write paychecks for my staff.

If I was in it for the money then I wouldnt give a list of cons of my own product but I feel its important to provide as much information for the consumer regardless of whether the information could deter them from making a purchase.

Cons

  1. Being a new kid on the block, Smart Doll has bodily proportions which are different from other dolls meaning that choice of apparel could be limited. I have already started up an apparel line just for Smart Doll but its still small at this stage. Check our online store to see what's available.
  2. As mentioned under “Fukinsei”, the traditional method of slush casting naturally introduces blemishes here and there which some customers may not be fond of. Folks who prefer mega ultra super smooth shiny surfaces all round should seek other products instead.
  3. Knees bend enough to kneel on a table but not more than 90° - this is because the knee joint will split open and look...terrible as observed on other products which I wasn't a fan of.
  4. Smart Doll has the Smart Support Socket located in the back of the torso which is the first for any BJD - some folks may not be used to this concept.
  5. The outer shell is generally harder than other soft vinyl dolls. While the hardness of the vinyl does slow down the color transfer process, some may want softer limbs. The bust however is much softer than other products.
  6. Smart Doll ships in a double corrugated box with the logo “SMART DOLL” printed on the outside. Traditionally, dolls have been marketed towards folks who prefer to keep their hobby a secret so if they ordered a Smart Doll then they could have a hard time explaining what's inside the box if a family member intercepts it ^^
  7. While Smart Doll is priced less than many other soft vinyl dolls, it still costs more than a Playstation 4! As a startup, eating high unit costs is unavoidable but we aim to reduce the cost over time - it could be a few years though.
Smart Doll - the only doll in this class that breaks away from the norm with the Smart Support Socket

DATSUZOKU (脱俗) Unworldly. Unconventional.

Smart Doll is designed with a few concepts that have not been seen before on a soft vinyl doll.
The Smart Support Socket enables the use of the Telescopic and Air Stand that allows an unhindered view of Smart Doll and can also be posed in mid air.

Conventional dolls are designed with a joint in the middle of the waist which looks unsightly.
The bust line of Smart Doll however uses a new joint that is concealed using the bustline which provides a more natural form.

Smart Doll includes Triple Axis Joints on the ankles and wrists which enable a wider range of expression - this feature is not available in other dolls.

Our marketing ideals also embrace Datsuzoku. Up until now, BJD’s have predominantly been targeted at a niche market of doll owners or anime fans. Doll event organizers forbid taking photos of the event hall if humans are in it. Doll manufacturers have tried their best to create a market of consumers by hiding them away so that they are not exposed as a “potential target” for trolling - this keeps their consumers happy so that they can continue to spend their cash on more and more dolls.

I however, am aiming to create a new market beyond what exists - a market of consumers who have not seen this type of product before.

I have released two fashion dolls so far - 001 Mirai Suenaga and 002 Kizuna Yumeno with a few more to follow. To be honest, I don't want my customer base to spend their cash on every single doll I release - while I wouldn't mind that they pick up a few of my apparel items and accessories that are designed to compliment their Smart Doll experience, I would prefer that they actually spend their money to travel with our products as companions instead - travel to new lands, experience, learn and meet. Smart Doll is great for connecting to complete strangers. Smart Doll was designed for the outdoors.

Another reason why I don't want my customer base to buy all my doll releases is because if they do, then I will have less to go round to sell to new customers. Ultimately I want as many people as possible to enjoy our products.

Group photo of staff members and visitors to our office in Gotanda Tokyo

Company Culture

I was having dinner with the boss of a game company in Akihabara one day. I asked him what the vision for his company would be in 5 years time. He answered immediately that his goal is to become a company that could make 5 billion yen a year. Fair enough I thought.

There is nothing wrong with his answer - many companies are setup for the purpose of making money and many of them have to because they have investors or shareholders.
What I observe however is that companies with a mission to make money put high priority on reducing costs to increase margin. Once this happens however, you will not only notice a significant drop in the quality of the product, but also a stern attitude in how the company treats its own customers in terms of support for the product.

Companies like these are not able to set consumer expectations correctly and often would sell products based on prototype photos which are then touched up in photoshop to create a false image of their products. What then happens is that customers get a shock when what arrives in the post is not actually what they thought they were buying.

For this reason I never take orders until my product is actually ready for market - the photos I take are of the actual product and never of touched up prototypes.

Cutting costs on the materials I use would only make my product look cheap - it is not in my interests to be remembered as the person who made cheap looking products.

I would be lying however if I told you that my current costs wasn't an issue - our vendors charge high unit costs for the quality that I demand which reflects on the retail price of Smart Doll. However, I believe that cost cutting can also be done in other areas rather than reduce costs through reducing quality.

As a startup, our costs are high because we are still new to the game. But as time progresses, we will generate relationships with more vendors and have more hands on deck to find time to streamline workflows and embrace various technologies that all amount to saving costs which we can then pass on to the consumer.

Our company culture is that we focus on the consumer and product - not the money because once we have a great product, customers will appreciate the quality and money will come afterwards. Follow your passion and the rest will just follow.

If I don't do it for money, why don't I do everything for free?

Interesting question! But unfortunately maybe not such an intelligent question that I often get asked.

There are 3 construction workers who are building a playground. We ask them what they are doing.

Construction worker 1 says “I’m working for money.”
Construction worker 2 says “I’m building a playground.”
Construction worker 3 says “I’m making a place where children can gather together and play.”
Construction worker 3 is being paid for his work but his perception on what he is doing is more holistic.

Yes money is important to help us not only cover our basic human needs but also to help us cover some of the other stuff that we want that helps compliment our lives. In my case, money is the cash flow that helps our company stay up and running and grow.

Money is not a motivating factor for me because if it was I’d be continuing my corporate life printing money and not caring about what goes on in the world - meaning that you would not be reading this, there would be no Culture Japan, there would be no Mirai and there would be no Smart Doll.

Being focused on money would prevent me from having a holistic view to achieve the big world changing goals that I have in mind - changes which would hopefully stand the sands of time.
Money on the other hand only lasts until one dies - no matter how much of it one has.

My Vision

Before Dyson there was Hoover. Before Google search there was Altavista search. Before Apple iPhone there was Galakei.
Smart Doll is not a new product as explained before - BJD’s have been around for a while. Smart Doll however does introduce new concepts which improve upon existing ones - just like how the aforementioned companies came up with improvements in their products.

While I think that the anime dolls on the current market are great, I wanted to create my own product which reflected my vision of design for an entirely new market - a market that has not seen or experienced this level of quality in a fashion doll before.

Some may call Smart Doll a useless luxury product. A person in the third world however may call a mobile phone a useless luxury product.

Then some may argue that a mobile phone is “useful” as it helps one communicate and gather information and that a doll just sits there and provides no value to human lives.
I would argue that a person living in the third world would find food much more useful than a mobile phone as phones don't taste that great.

Smart Doll is art which connects people and inspires the owner to be creative - I’ve seen people draw smart doll, take creative photos and even make clothes for her.

I've seen kids in the third world play with belt buckles and pretend they are tanks while kids in the first world play with star wars toys pretending that they are firing lasers making “pew pew” sounds. Regardless of whether we are kids or adults, regardless of what part of the world we are located - we all need inspiration whether it be in the form of belt buckles, movies, games or even fashion dolls.

Its been less than a year since we launched Smart Doll into the world and she is currently in thousands of homes worldwide. My vision is for Smart Doll is to be the worlds standard fashion doll and have her in millions of homes worldwide - this will only be a matter of time.

I used to beat myself up over not being able to create supply to meet the demand - there are so many issues that money just can't solve. I began to realized that Rome truly wasn't built in a day and that scaling to be a global business from my house was going to take time.
Having said that, I don't plan on taking the estimated 1,009,491 days that Rome took to make either!

Learnings to Share

Through the production of Smart Doll, I've learned a lot - not just about manufacturing but also a way of thinking which is crucial to not only bringing the product to market but to also grow the business.

Never give in

One of the hurdles that I experienced is the constant disappointments of poor quality or just plain not-to-spec samples or product parts that come back from vendors. This can be very very depressing at times!
While I work with talented vendors, some of them have difficulty in working with the quality standards that I expect.

One has to grow very thick skin (thick enough to make siew yoke) by believing in what you are doing and not giving in when folks around you try to convince you otherwise - your goal is to make a quality product that encapsulates your vision - your goal here is not to make friends.

Telling talented vendors that their work is unacceptable is not an easy task and you will be hated "for being picky" but remember that once you give in, your product and vision dies there and then. Everybody else wins - you lose.

Then there are times when folks who are close to you will tell you otherwise - that "its good as it is" - that you are being too picky about nothing. If you give in and listen to them and find out that they are wrong afterwards you will end up blaming them.
The person you should blame in this case is yourself because it was you who listened to them in the first place.

Worrying

Many of us worry as it makes us feel like we are doing something about a problem when in fact we are wasting time being anxious about nothing. Making a judgement call on an aspect of design (could be the frame, outer shell etc) that has an unknown outcome is a decision that affects time and money and we humans naturally don't want to waste either of these precious resources and worry whether we are making the correct decision or not.
But if you start to think about any decision you make as being essential to progress, then its easier to make quicker decisions even though the outcome turns out not as expected.
The reason is that now you have that unexpected outcome, you have something to work on to make a judgement call so that you can at least progress towards your goal instead of standing still.

If you find yourself worrying about a decision to make then just make any decision as it will at least set you off towards your goal instead of leaving yourself standing still worrying about nothing.

Another thing about worrying is that 95% of the things we worry about don't happen anyway which goes to show how we waste time worrying over nothing.
To prove this - think about 10 things which you remember worrying about in the past - you will find that most of it didn't happen and that you was worrying to see if you could come up with a scenario to remedy the outcome of a worry.
But there are things which you have absolutely no control over (weather, London busses etc) in which case just go with the flow! If you already knew the flow from the beginning then life would be boring without any surprise or learning.

There is only one form of worry that is productive - the worry which leads to an action that fixes or improve something. "I'm worried and concerned about the boxes we are using for the shipping of Smart Doll - so lets change the boxes to a double corrugated type."

A Better Way

Whatever you do - you must always question the workflows you put in place - you must always tell yourself "there just *has* to be a better way to do this."
Without this mentality, you will end up working with old clumsy workflows that will eventually start to tie you down and prevent you from reaching your goals.

Don't leave stuff as it is just because everything just works - always strive to make it better.

Timing

Many of us wait for "the right timing" because we think it will be "easier" - disappointed you may be when I tell you there is no right timing. There is no right timing especially when it comes to things like moving house, changing a job, having a baby, getting married or starting your life project.

If you have something you really want to do in life then that time is now - not next week, not next month and definitely not in the new year when you make that "new years resolution." A new years resolution is an excuse to put something off for another year - if you convinced yourself to wait until the new year to make that resolution then your goal is either not important or you will convince yourself to put it off again.

A life goal has to mean everything to you otherwise it means nothing to you and you will never ever reach it.

Revenge

The bigger your life project becomes, the more likely you are to come across people who get involved in your project and eventually stab your back.

Through the Smart Doll project I've had a few jabs to my back but the important thing was to move forward instead of spending time and resources to take a jab back - while very tempting, if you devote time to stabbing somebody back, it means that taking revenge has become more important and you will loose focus on your goal. It also means that the person who stabbed you has won because they got to stab you and also got you to give up on your goal.

Instead, use your anger and channel that into wanting to do everything to complete your goal sooner because the likelihood is that the person who you once worked with who stabbed your back will be watching your progress all the way and when you reach your goal then you have delivered the fatal blow - the humiliation of your backstabber watching you succeed.

This also applies to trolls on and offline. These days, I get trolled for anything and everything - does not really matter until the trolls start to tell malicious lies to gather recognition from their peers.

One of the reasons why trolls do what they do is because they do not have the ability to accomplish much in real life but gaining your attention gives them a sense of achievement.

Never ever react against a troll - instead of using your anger to counterattack with small clumsy uncalculated blows that will leave you feeling embarrassed afterwards, use your energy to aggressively continue to achieve your goals and live well.

I want my trolls to know that whenever I achieve my goals - this is what my face looks like when thinking of you. Please keep up the trolling - it really does me wonders.

The Comfort Zone

The definition of "hard work" varies from person to person but my definition would be something like:-

Something that requires a level of effort that exceeds what the human body is designed for. Humans by nature are designed to save energy and by default do not carry out tasks that are difficult and requires effort and energy.

Energy can be physical or mental. Mental hard work is things like dealing with difficult people or trolls, working under pressure of dealing with bosses or deadlines, working with ambiguity and making decisions that put the security of our basic human needs (food and shelter) at risk. All of these things listed is not normally something one would want to do due to the effort involved.

Then there is physical energy which are things like working long hours (with illness) without rest sleep or food or doing something which puts a strain on the body - could be something like strenuous physical tasks, doing monotonous work or constantly traveling through time zones.

However, humans avoid hard work not through a conscious decision but because they are biologically programmed to be efficient - in the eyes of these humans, hard work uses way too much energy and is thus inefficient. A humans efficiency is enhanced by us unconsciously working ourselves into a comfort zone. Our comfort zone could be a comfortable job that we may not necessarily like but it enables us to pay for our basic human needs and keeps our bodies efficient by not having the need to do anything that puts a strain on our body.

There is however a silver lining - once we start to doubt our programming we can then make a decision to change and believe that hard work pays off - the first thing to do is take the leap out of that comfort zone.

What Mirai Smart Doll means to me

Mirai Smart Doll is a symbol of not only my vision and beliefs but also of my biggest life goal so far. After 40 years on this planet I can tell you that the bigger your goals are, the bigger the hurdles are going to be and the harder you will fall.

Having not made anything like this before, there was a steep learning curve which in many cases involved trying things that often had me tripping on one of those hurdles and falling flat on my face. Some would call this "failure" but I call this "learning" - nothing will always lead to nothing while something will always lead to something even though that something may seem like a failure.
Without failure, there is no learning and without learning, there would be no progress meaning that goals would never be reached. Don't be afraid of failure - be afraid of never ever reaching your goals.

I also see Mirai Smart Doll as a symbol of Japan in the way that she was created right here in Tokyo using Japanese aesthetic principles and traditional manufacturing methods - she just also happens to be an official mascot for Japan Tourism too ^^
Japan is the land where I live and also home to the culture that changed my life - I've encapsulated everything that I feel about Japan within Mirai Smart Doll.

When I take time out to think (as one does), I often look at Mirai (and Kizuna!) and reflect on all the work that has gone into her which tracks back to when I began learning Japanese - without the ability to speak the lingo, there is no way I would have been able to realize my vision of what I wanted her to be.

“Mirai” means “future” and while looking at Mirai, I see an exciting future. The future is bright. Mirai is future.


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