design by web

(Rachaporn Choochuey, Stefano Mirti, first published on Domus 835, March 2001)

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Elephant Design, a Tokyo based consultancy, is using the web to ask the Japanese to think up products that they would like to be designed for them, and then to take orders for manufacturers to make the results.

While the dot com bubble has well and truly burst, one Tokyo based entrepreneur, Kohei Nishiyama of Elephant Design has come up with an innovative new approach to e-businness; using the Internet to allow consumers to commission tailor made designs directly from his website: www.cuusoo.com. What makes the project really stand out is the way in which it tries to bridge the gap between consumer, designer and the smaller Japanese manufacturers looking to diversify.

With Japan rapidly moving production offshore to the lower wage cost economies of China, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan’s huge army of specialist subcontractors is in crisis, loosing a large part of their traditional market. Many have gone bankrupt, and there is worse to come.

Elephant Design’s research suggests that some 40 per cent of Japan’s subcontractors will be cut out of the supply chain this year.

Those who have managed to survive and even prosper have been able to switch from supplying components to Toyota or Sony and have started to make and market original products on their own account.

And that is where Nishiyama saw an opportunity. There are about 420.000 small factories that have the potential to produce limited runs of high quality goods. “But even if theyou acknowledge the importance of developing an original product, most of these companies lack strategic abilities, ideas and designers. They are mostly small family businesses, with just a few outside workers”, he says.

It’s a paradox: they have the traditional Japanese skills to make perfect products but without knowing what to do”. Elephant Design defines such companies as potential manufacturers for new products. With financial support from the Ministry of Trade’s new economy investment program, Elephant Design is trying to build a bridge between this army of small manufacturers and freelance designers in Japan.

In terms of new economy, this is the niche that interests our company the most, to fill the needs of the small manufacturers, and at the same time providing clients for the freelance designers. Good design is one important factor that makes the difference for the product in the market. The point is how to inject good design into the traditional product system of the family business” says Nishiyama.

In Japanese the word ‘cusooo’ means ‘ideal’ or ‘daydream’. Nishiyama’s key concept for www.cuusoo.com is rather than the build to order principle which underlies much modern large scale manufacturing, the idea of design to order.

After registration the consumer can order from a catalogue of existing products on show on the home page. But if they can’t find exactly what they are looking for, they can post their own ideas for an ‘ideal’ product on the site. For examplet, ‘I would like to buy a cellular phone, made out of transparent plastic, coloured, and soft’. If other visitors like the posted idea, and if we at Elephant Design finds the idea suitable then the design process can begin.


Elephant Design acts as a go between; providing a designer to realize the original visitor’s idea, contacting the appropriate manufacturer, estimating the cost and feasibility of the product.
After financial analysis, the new product is posted on the website in a three dimensional rendering, with the price and the minimun order required to make production feasible. Then, if there are sufficient orders, the product will be made and delivered to the on-line customers
”.

In the long term Elephant Design would like to turn the site into something close to a convenience store that allows customers to order their ideal products and get them delivered to their homes.

The site was launched in December 1999, and at the end of its first year of operation, the number of signed up members had reached 12.000. According to Nishiyama each of them has ordered at least one product. From January 2001, a new section has been added, a bulletin board through which visitors can communicate and give their reaction to each product directly.
So far three products have reached the market through this process: a mobile phone case, a cd case and a computer. Nishiyama concedes that it hasn’t been as rapid as he had hoped. “People had trouble in understanding the process at first, but it is working successfully now. Later this year three more products will be available: a telephone, a rice cooker and a mobile phone.
Currently 67 products have already been designed and are on-line waiting for enough orders to start manufacturing. There are also other 7.000 ideas posted by our website visitors waiting to be designed”.

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Link to an interesting article featuring Elephant Design on pingmag

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Image on top: Klein Dytham Architecture, Washing Machine, 2000.

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