mui Lab is a startup business working to redefine the relationship between humans and technology. Taking inspiration from the Taoist philosophy of “mui shizen” – which we interpret as “letting it be, or being oneself, as meant by nature” – we create products, designs and services that not only feel like they are natural parts of human life, but also enable us to enjoy our lives more as natural beings.
mui Lab has its main office in Kyoto’s 400-year-old furniture district, Ebisugawa Dori. Which is located just south of the circa-1331 Emperor’s Palace. As “technology artisans” (engineers and designers who are modern craftsmen), we enjoy soaking in the tradition and learning from it every day.
Our office is a converted “Unagi no Nedoko (Eels’ nest),” Kyoto’s typical townhouse architecture, featuring deep and narrow spaces. Many of the defining features of traditional Japanese houses still exist in homes across Kyoto, including the shoji doors (paper-screen sliding doors) that are used to divide open indoor spaces into smaller rooms, the latticework on the exterior of the house, the tearoom for entertainment, and the “Tokono-ma,” or the alcove for art display, which helps direct one’s attention to the roominess around it. And these design features embody the concept of “tatazumai,” which is central to mui Lab’s design philosophy.
The “tatazumai,” or the appearance or atmosphere of someone or something, isn’t simply about the subject; we can consider a “tatazumai” as a reflection of a larger context comprised of various factors, including other people and items inhabiting the same space, the aura exuded by those people and items and their relationships with one another, as well as the outside environment.
Humans spend most of their time inside architectural spaces. In creating homes, Japanese often take into account factors related to nature and the outdoor environment. For example, many people factor in the local climate and compass directions in designing the layout, and some others arrange windows and their furniture in such a way that enables them to sense outside activities in their peripheral vision. Japanese always view themselves as part of the outside nature, and that may explain why features that enable them to “sense” one's outside environs are an integral part of Japanese architectural designs.
The shoji screen doors are good examples of such Japanese architectural features. These screens separate indoors from the outdoors, and obscure the view of what’s behind them to protect the privacy of the inhabitants, allowing them to focus on their activities. At the same time, the paper screens enable people to notice subtle changes in sunlight and to sense the breeze wafting from the shadows of swaying tree branches. The shoji screens are a prime example of the architectural features that satisfy all of the eight “Calm Technology Basic Principles.”
“Tomeishis,” the round rocks used in traditional Japanese gardens as a "boundary-guard stone" to keep people from entering an area, is another great example of calm design. Because “tomeishis” are as small as the human fist in size, wrapped with beautiful palm ropes, they blend naturally with the vista of a garden, serving as a visually more pleasing alternative to standing signboards. They can effectively, but calmly, communicate information to pedestrians. The rocks also prompt people to walk around them, instead of walking over them, out of respect for the natural materials’ rigid “tatazumai,” nudging them to act peacefully.
As things around us are increasingly being digitalized, human interactions with technology are becoming a larger part of our daily lives. We believe this makes it all the more important for us to take into consideration our environment and surrounding devices as a whole (including the spaces in which devices are placed, the ways people use devices and act in that space, etc.) in designing digital interfaces and systems. This, rather than simply focusing on the direct interaction between users and smart screens, voice agents, etc. Paying attention to atmosphere in the context of the whole is a design approach that is not only authentically Japanese, but also the key to fulfilling all of the principles of calm technology.
Today, every person in society is said to own three or more digital devices. Despite the prevalence of digital devices, user experience designs have much room for improvement, especially in the context of the users’ total well-being. We believe “Calm Technology” sets us on the right path toward making computing something that gives us that sense of fulfillment and happiness that all humans desire.
* Some of the sentences and expressions in this story were taken from “The Design of Tatazumai,” a section that mui Lab wrote for the Japanese edition of “Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design.” mui Lab provided editorial supervision for the Japanese edition of the book.