Design under a magnifying glass

Investigating Design Anatomy

16 DECEMBER 2016,
Design Anatomy Meiji Essel Super Cup © Satoshi Asakawa
Design Anatomy Meiji Essel Super Cup © Satoshi Asakawa

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else
(Leonardo da Vinci)

No other than the magnificent genius Leonardo da Vinci first drew the human spine in accurate curves and proportion through human body dissection. He was utterly obsessed with understanding the connection of human body parts, their function and source of emotions. He was, in a sense, approximately a century ahead of recorded scientific technology that analyzed blood circulation through our veins. Da Vinci was also the first person to draw a fetus in a uterus in impeccable detail, leaving behind roughly 6,500 drawing sheets of the human anatomy.

It would be an underestimate to state that people at that time absorbed a higher level of appreciation for the human physiology because of da Vinci’s anatomy illustrations. An exhibition in Tokyo, “Design Anatomy Exhibition—A method for seeing the world through familiar objects,” running until 22nd January, 2017 at 21_21 Design Sight Museum in Roppongi, has been launched with a similar objective as da Vinci: a dissection of everyday products from a design perspective to understand their physical structure, the miniscule relationship of parts, and the overall design’s conceptual harmony with society, lifestyle and its roles and future possibilities.

Taku Satoh, 21_21 Design Sight Museum Director and graphic designer, initiated the exhibition project to analyze the framework of product processing from its design, logotype, branding, graphic elements, to layout, printing, material production, packaging, and distribution. We consume commercial products daily without a clear awareness of their “skeletal anatomy” that impacts the environment, in relation to waste, global warming, health and safety. When we pick up a box of chocolates from a supermarket counter, one of the most important marketing tools we consider for selection is packaging design. The graphic elements, color appeal and composition, the communication between the design and the product itself, the feel of the box, its weight and size are the initial key points (apart from brand and price) that make a product alluring. However, when selecting the product, we take for granted the backbone of the design, in essence “engineering design,” that came with the product: the choice of paper, the cut and shape of the chocolates, the placement of the logo and the ingredients specifications, the measurement of density and air compression, the sealing process for the inner wrapping, and other factors that make up the total production. Design anatomy brings this awareness forward and adds up to the product value, consequently further increasing the consumer’s knowledge of design development.

“Dissect from outside inward” is the methodology Satoh conceptualized for this project. We literally view the product under a magnifying glass as it is “broken apart” into various relational elements for us to visually comprehend how the product is conceived, formed, studied scientifically and chemically, and assembled. Not only are we able to perceive the “genetic composition” of the product, but also reach a conscious level of design economics that binds it with culture and lifestyle.

Five leading products of Meiji Co. Ltd. are exemplified in this exhibition—Kinoko no Yama Chocolate, Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt, Meiji Milk Chocolate, Meiji Essel Super Cup ice cream, and Meiji Oishii Gyunyu milk. They have been dissected meticulously into large modules, complete with the step-by-step production stage, illustrations, mechanical diagrams, historical account of branding and logotype, and examination of essential factors that contribute to the careful planning of a mass product, such as taste and raw ingredients. The exhibit also utilizes a common methodology for examining the anatomy of all the sample products that starts from product naming, logotype, package contents (color, shape, taste, texture, ingredients), product body to raw materials as they directly influence the product environment (history, market, and so on). Each product is thoroughly physically investigated to provide consumer information about the percentage of sugar content, the process of crushing and melting, the relativity of room temperature, the experimental methods used to determine taste and texture, the nature of compositional elements, the type of packaging material that needs to withstand humidity and cold and prevent toxic content, including the number of printing plates used in the printing production, and others.

For the Meiji Milk Chocolate for instance, we witness a historical trace of the product’s evolution apart from a dot matrix printing mechanism used for the packaging that analyzes manufacturing and distribution. The Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt module explains a comprehensive layout of yogurt production, such as fermentation, together with a visual documentation of how the package is kept airtight and systematized for transportation delivery. The Kinoko no Yama Chocolate comes in different shades of brown chocolate, and each of this color conceptualization is illustrated, plus an experimental analysis of taste and texture, mouth feed and aroma. The Meiji Oishii Gyunyu milk carton illustrates the development of the packaging graphics and the climactic conditions affecting cattle feeding and milking. The Meiji Essel Super Cup ice cream display teaches us the production processes for frozen products and the design selection of the cup size and shape and spoon.

Apart from Meiji products, the exhibition also covers a visual dissection of other consumer products, such as Lotte Xylitol Gum, Fuji Film, Takara Tomy Licca, and more.

After da Vinci’s human anatomy drawings were first released to the general public after his death, its impact to the world was equally explosive as stupefying. Never has one single man, absent of any medical or surgical experience, ever proven such surmountable precision, incomparable intricacy, and forceful thoroughness for illustrating so vividly the complexities of the human body. By the same token, the “Design Anatomy Exhibition” at 21_21 Design Sight Museum, Tokyo has successfully dissected the design of Japanese consumer products in immense detail that is bound to feed one’s curiosity on not only the “anatomical” ingredients of a product, but also the consciousness of hard work, time and intricacy devoted to the design and manufacture of an object. This exhibition undoubtedly changes every consumer’s perception of a product the next time he picks up a carton of milk from the counter.

With special gratitude to 21_21 Design Sight Museum, Tokyo, and Issey Miyake Europe

Edited version, first published in 2nd 0pinion Magazine