Naoki Sakai, 60, is a designer whose revolutionary ideas have made him an industry powerhouse. After designing Nissan’s Be-1, the vehicle that in the late 1980s started the round-and-cute car boom, Sakai came up with concepts for three more popular cars from Nissan — the PAO, Figaro and Rasheen — as well as the SW-1 motorbike for Suzuki and the model for Toyota’s Will concept car. Not only does he work with the auto industry, he’s helped develop Olympus’ O-Product, the camera that made the aluminium body a world standard; mobile phones for au by KDDI; and sofas for Cassina. As CEO of the design studio Water Group, he regularly nurtures great designers and is happiest when they are ready to leave the nest.
Success is not a one-person achievement. If a project succeeds, it means the team is great even if, as the face or symbol for the whole group, I am the one taking credit.
Subcultures make new standards. The flower children and the gay movement created new identities while mainstream cultures vanished. Japan produces so many creative and peaceful subcultures — from mobile phones, manga, Nintendo, anime to much more — that spread around the world.
Improvement sounds good, but actually it is not. Often it simply maintains the status quo and never produces anything new.
The news has to be fresh. With computer and mobile phone technology, news is updated every second. Already professional and amateur journalists are fighting it out, and those who are updating their information as it is happening are clearly winning. Newspapers can not survive with yesterday’s news.
Design is ideology. Through it we can change society. My goal is to improve society via happy design. Although Hitler understood the importance of using architecture and movies to create a national identity, his idea was tragically flawed in every other sense. Hollywood is right on the mark because it portrays Americans as funny, brave, smart people who are also great dancers and singers — through movies, it achieved world dominance: most people like the United States and its people, even if they do not agree with its government’s foreign policy.
What is good for the manufacturer is bad for the consumer. Before I came up with the design concept for the O-Product camera for Olympus, cameras were made of black plastic. It was efficient and easy on the makers but didn’t provide any aesthetic value.
A company is a temporary system. Working is like going on a boat trip, with people cruising or speeding to their destinations.They come and go, just like the river, and the water supply never dries up. Of course, I try to make my company charming, so good people stop by, but I do not expect them to stay too long.
Japanese don’t take enough personal responsibility. Our government is like a sweet parent, taking care of the populace too much. We design and produce super cars, yet we are not even allowed to drive them fast, not because it is fuel efficient to go slower but because it is dangerous to speed up. I think we should have the equivalent of the autobahn and drive as fast as we can.
No matter how great a company is, the most talented people all end up quitting anyhow. I have 30 employees in my design office. They are all great, but the best ones all leave sooner or later, regardless of how much they get paid or how well appreciated they are. They want to be independent because they know they can make it.
Marriage is a platform for self-development. The more I did it, the better I got. This is my fifth and I hope, final one. At every age I have different opinions, and I change a lot and often, even now. But I don’t want to change my spouse anymore.
If you want many girlfriends, you don’t have enough confidence yet. Once you have had many lovers, you can imagine what others desire and you can fulfill their cravings and your own. That is the time to stop jumping from bed to bed. Now I have a little confidence and I know that variety is not necessarily quality.
Lucky streaks always end. I was 19, married and living in San Francisco, making $300,000 a month selling T-shirts with Japanese tattoo designs. The more I made, the more I sold, for two-and-a-half years straight. I spent it all, of course, and I have never made that much money since.
Product design is repeated incest. Basically, things are copied and copied and copied until somehow they become originals again. I love being copied. Copies are better than the originals.
If it’s on the market, it is successful. One only knows the success stories, so it’s easy to forget how many failed attempts are made for one successful product.
In my next life I will never marry or marry only once. Women are great, but loving them causes too many problems.
Where we meet is as important as that we meet. Meetings must be conducted in appropriate spaces that inspire us. I spend lots of time and money on taking young designers to beautiful restaurants and showing them objects that are worth seeing over and over again. This is employee education that most companies either do not have the means for or do not think is important enough.
It’s hard to design luxury when one cannot afford it. Having lots of money allows one to have more beauty in life. Since rich people have many luxurious experiences, some turn into great artists. But unfortunately, most big company’s employees don’t have enough income to enjoy such pleasures, for example, as buying a fantastic car. Yet they are trying to make the No. 1 sports car in the world, all from their imagination. That is sad, too, as they can never drive what they make.
Menopause effects men, too. I exercise and feel young, but sometimes my body doesn’t agree. I get hot flashes, mood swings, the whole works, just like my wife. Men and women are the same, after all.
Humans can develop forever. At any age, if one works out, and breaks some muscles in the process, the body miraculously renews itself. Same with the mind: the more stimuli, the better condition we will be in.
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