Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Scoop issue 03/24/2008

Japanese manufacturers hear their clients loud and clear.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

When it came to their cell phones, Japanese consumers used to be all about the technology. Now they want good looks, as well. “There are so many things in a cell phone,” says graphic and interior designer Kashiwa Sato, who designs phones for DoCoMo, Japan’s leading cell phone operator, and oversees the creative direction of fashion company Uniqlo. “I think people want new design.”

Au by Kddi is arguably the most design-oriented cell phone company in Japan, having collaborated with a host of names including Marc Newson, Naoto Fukasawa and Tokujin Yoshioka. Currently, the company is pushing the second edition of its successful Infobar, a smooth candy bar–shaped model with rounded corners and high-definition electroluminescent display. The green model (think Shrek’s complexion) has nearly sold out. Another equally eye-catching version sports periwinkle and red buttons.

Fukasawa, who designed Muji’s wall-hanging CD player and has worked for a series of Italian companies, designed both the original, more angular Infobar and its sleeker sequel. The first Infobar, with its checkerboard of square buttons, was released in 2003 and stood apart from the sea of clamshell models flooding the cell phone market. “Our intention was to create a phone with a fashion sensibility,” says Satoshi Sunahara, assistant manager of Au by Kddi’s design-planning section. “It was quite striking.”

But coming up with a hit is hardly easy. It can take more than a year to develop a prototype into an actual phone and launch it commercially via leading phone manufacturers such as Sony Ericsson, Panasonic and Toshiba. Often the ideas need to be modified to accommodate the size or shape of a critical component. Sometimes designs are scrapped altogether. Still, plenty of the brainstorming actually does result in new features like “electronic paper” screens that can be customized with delicate graphic prints or futuristic LED displays on the phone’s exterior. Au by Kddi also is touting a new waterproof model.

“Japanese people, especially women, like to take baths and they like to take their cell phones with them,” says Yuki Mizuno, head of Au by Kddi’s design-planning section.

Meanwhile, Sato is boosting the design profile of DoCoMo. His N703iD, released last year, is a minimalist take on the handset: a bright, monochromatic brick. Even Japan’s younger consumers are more appreciative of good design, says Sato, who has created a new kids’ phone embracing many of the same aesthetic principles. Playing into the Japanese preoccupation with security, the phone features an emergency alarm system and a GPS technology so parents can track their children. “It used to be that kids were all about having games, but now it’s about having the cell phone itself.”