Can Plastic Be Sustainable? Manabu Tago’s Strategic Design Management Says Yes

July 7, 2020 Yumi Kobayashi

In the United States and Europe, major companies such as Apple, Dyson, and Audi have adopted “strategic design management,” a blanket term for an approach that places product design at the core of a business to define and shape its products.

The practice is less common in Japan, but Manabu Tago is an exception. After he got his start developing IT devices and home appliances for manufacturers Toshiba and Realfleet (now Amadana), Tago established his own design studio, MTDO, where he serves as president and art director. Here, Tago shares his experiences and views on product design culled from years of expertise across industrial fields.

What is your first priority when working on a product design?
The coexistence of novelty and beauty. To bring both these traits out, I hold in-depth discussions with everyone involved with the product, including the management. My products should not evoke nostalgia or the feeling of, “Haven’t I seen this before somewhere?” Knowing what is already out there—and what isn’t—is paramount to design management.

strategic design management manabu tago nagori cups
One of the products Manabu Tago designed for Mitsui Chemicals using the NAGORI material. Courtesy of Mitsui Chemicals, Inc.

What role do you think technologies such as generative design and artificial intelligence (AI) should play in the design process?
By using established templates and effects, anyone can make a reasonably good design. With design tools becoming more accessible, I expect it will become a hobby of sorts. However, designers who solely rely on such tools are not actively engaging in the process. When you put out a “reasonably good” design, the average person will know something is off—it doesn’t ring true to them.

A designer should always rely on their creativity as the foundation of their output, with AI available as another tool to use. I think that when a designer chooses from among the myriad designs generated by AI, it must be with purpose and they must be able to adequately provide the rationale behind their choice.

You created the Osoro line of tableware, for bone-china porcelain manufacturer Narumi, using design-management principles. Narumi had been facing a market slump, but these products revived the company and received prestigious design awards. How did you come up with this design?
First and foremost, tableware must serve a role in the act of eating. As a luxury grade of porcelain, bone china is rare these days in Japanese households. One reason is, bone china cannot be used in microwaves or dishwashers, limiting its appeal. Knowing this, I began work with Narumi by asking the question, “What kind of design will be able to revive your company while preserving the essence of bone china?”

strategic design management manabu tago osoro line of tableware
Examples of bowls with lids from the Osoro line of tableware. Courtesy of Narumi Corporation.

They answered this question by holding several internal workshops examining market needs, brainstorming, and experimenting. They realized they could apply accumulated centuries of bone-china production know-how to create new designs with a very different sensibility from their typical product line. The design realized in Osoro meets the practical needs of modern family life but also seamlessly becomes part of a home’s interior design and encourages an eco-friendly lifestyle.

Mitsui Chemicals has made headlines for NAGORI, a new material made primarily from ocean minerals and developed in partnership with your firm. What challenges did you face developing this material?
When working with Mitsui Chemicals, they asked themselves, “How can we make our mark while staying true to the company’s vision?” For example, growth in electric vehicles has driven the replacement of metal parts for plastic ones. This increased demand for plastics has meant good business for materials manufacturers. However, chemical manufacturers traditionally operate on an order-made basis, and this puts them at the mercy of market trends. Mitsui Chemicals came to me, saying they wanted to anticipate the future market so they could meet customers’ needs.

We began by debating how the inherent qualities of plastics should be applied toward improving society. The scientists at Mitsui Chemicals are used to thinking of things in terms of formulas and numbers. However, people interact with various materials, including plastics, using all their senses: seeing; touching; smelling; and, in some cases, tasting. We cataloged and quantified these sensations over the course of our intense discussions.

strategic design management manabu tago nagori cups
Cups designed using the NAGORI material. Courtesy of Mitsui Chemicals, Inc.

When the topic of plastic tableware came up, someone from Mitsui Chemicals mentioned that “for some reason, eating off of plastic makes things taste dull.” Humans are incredibly perceptive. They decide something is delicious not just from the sensation of taste but by using all their senses. For example, plastic tableware is often used at homes for the elderly and daycare centers because they are easy to handle and durable. However, you cannot say that such plastic tableware necessarily contributes to a richer life or a child’s appreciation of food.

If a plastics manufacturer set aside its own plastics and their benefits and offered a product that contributed more positively to peoples’ lives, it would be a groundbreaking development. This realization led to the development of NAGORI. By blending minerals with plastic, its heat conductivity and weight become very similar to those of porcelain, resulting in a plastic that does not assault one’s taste buds.

startegic design management manabu tago nagori plates
Concept art for NAGORI. Courtesy of Mitsui Chemicals, Inc.

Concentrated water resulting from water filtration at a seawater desalination facility cannot be completely absorbed by the oceanic ecosystem, damaging coral by affecting mineral balance or temperature of the adjacent seas. The idea of NAGORI using concentrated water came about by keeping those issues in consideration.

These traits set NAGORI on target to clear several of the United Nation’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), namely numbers 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and 14 (Life Below Water), contributing to raise awareness of Mitsui Chemical’s SDG advancement initiatives.

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