As a designer, I'm always on the lookout to do meaningful work. Doing meaningful work for the right client may seem like a luxury many of us can't afford but it's worth taking a step back and consider how our work can leave a positive mark on the world, even in your local community. We all want to make our world a better place to live, don't we?
Here is a story of a design champion named Umebara Makoto, a packaging designer from Japan. It was 2012 when I first saw his work on a documentary film and I was inspired by his unique perspective about design. I recently came across his work again and this time, I was intrigued to learn more about him. I looked everywhere starting from all the videos he was featured in and second-hand bookstores as his books were rather old to be found in a franchise book store. I found that the more I read and learn about him, the more he proves what design is capable of and under-utilised in the modern era.
"I see less trees, fewer people.
Local industry is dying."
He was born and raised in Kochi prefecture, the southern part of Japan surrounded by sea, mountains and many rivers. With such a resource-rich surroundings, Kochi offers a wide variety in fresh produce and food industry. Unfortunately, Kochi has been suffering from economy shrink and outflow of the young, resulting in depopulation. This is common throughout the nation but Kochi saw it happen earlier than other places.
Umebara used to work for a main stream packaging design firm and he had led some successful projects there. But later in his career, he realised that designing a packaging for food containing bad preservatives is not something he would be doing for the rest of his career. In pursuit of doing more meaning work, he made a hard call to leave his stable position and became independent. With a reputation he gained in his career, he got off to a good start working for local primary industries that take pride in their produce but couldn't sustain the business. It wasn't coincidence that those people had never invested in design, a messenger that speaks for their quality produce. Umebara believed in a package design that reflects honesty; A container that tells authentic and genuine stories that resonate with consumers.
Umebara had a sincere hope to revitalise the neighbourhood by helping the local industry.
And his clients were down-to-earth type of people who took pride in producing fresh and healthy food for the good of everyone.
What happens when this two genuine passions meet together?
A chemistry, resulting in:
20 million dollar revenue from Katsuo Warayaki (smoked bonito) in 8 years
Traditionally, Katsuo (bonito) fishing was done with a fishing rod, catching one fish at a time. This is the best way to catch bonito intact, resulting in fresher taste. But this catching method was costly, demanding high-level manpower and resources and there is only so many they can get in each run, sometimes none. To keep the cost down and stay competitive in the market, the industry moved on to a net fishing method, compromising a little on the taste. This wasn't acceptable to some who wanted to bring out the best out of their trade. But it wasn't an easy battle. They needed to price their product triple times higher than those done by the net fishing. It was clear that without some kind of magic there was no way to retain the tradition. That's when Umebara came into play.
"One fresh catch heartily roasted"
It was a simple phrase combined with eye-catching packaging that made people start seeing its unique value. It became 20 million dollar business in 8 years. This was one of the most remarkable achievement of Umebara that he managed to preserve one of Kochi's tradition. And design made this possible.
4 million annual sales of Yuzu Ponzu (citron soy sauce)
Yuzu (citron) was the only thing the Yuzu village people had. Specialised products often have many advantages but because yuzu wasn't the most popular type of fruit, it was perceived negatively by the local people. Growing good yuzu that is rich in flavour and aroma, requires a certain type of climate and geographic condition that only a few villages in the region could afford. They were gifted with such a perfect environment but it seemed under appreciated and evidently, the industry wasn't unleashing its full potential. They lacked confidence to begin with. Umebara reminded them of their precious gift and made them believe in it.
The story was heard by consumers through the packaging and it became one of the most popular Yuzu Ponzu brand throughout the nation.
2 million dollar revenue from a small piece of Hinoki wood (Japanese cypress)
"Packaging shouldn't overpower the content"
I love Hinoki wood. A relaxing scent of Hinoki is simply amazing, even better when it touches water (often used in making bath tub). It's the most popular lumber in Japan known for its longevity, durability and versatility. A perfect choice for house interior as it maintains a comfortable living environment.
84% of Kochi's land is covered with forest and it's been a symbol of Kochi prefecture. But this number started to decline because of a resource demand. Umebara and the local people hated to see their symbol go away and it became a clear mission for them to conserve it. They initiated "84 project" that started with a product of a pocket size hinoki wood piece that can be used in a bath for making it more relaxing from its scent. They included an educational message in the product about Kochi being the highest forest concentrated region in Japan and the importance of conserving the nation's treasure. It was a great idea well executed that made people without Hinoki bath tub enjoy a relaxing bath time with a small contribution. Consumers also felt good about taking part of conservation project.
Umebara's involvement goes far beyond making something pretty.
150,000 annual visits to a local market, yielding 3.5 million dollars
Over the years, Umebara helped many local industries with packaging design and it reached to a point where most of the product packaging involved his effort. The local market was filled with his work and the market itself became a must place to visit in Kochi.
People who bought these products were interviewed and said that the authentic looking packaging appealed and had an impact in their buying decisions.
A plain sand beach turned into an iconic art gallery
While the local authority spent a million dollar of government fund for creating a meaningless golden statue in the hope to bring in more visitors, Umebara showed his creativity and turned a plain sand beach into an open art gallery space featuring thousands of t-shirt art contributed by local artists. It makes one more reason to visit Kochi and this place now attracts hundreds of thousands visitors every year.
His makeover story spread all over the nation and many big corporate organisations reached out to him for his magic. But Umebara's mission was clear. He stands his ground and say NO to help those who really needs him.
That's his calling.
Design adds tremendous value to one's business and it's not as simple as just pushing a pixel. Until now, I had a narrow vision about what design can do and what I can do about design. Umebara proved the world what design is capable of and showed me one other way to tackle it.