Design with Personality
By Steve Portigal
July 9, 2002 - Earlier this year, while on a research trip to Tokyo, I was shopping in Tokyu Hands. I was gazing in awe at fantastic examples of products in every basic household category, from sponges to backpacks. Then I came across something called Meary.
As a physical product, Meary is extraordinarily simple. It is a strip of identical stickers that resemble cartoon-esque eyeballs, cello-wrapped, with a printed paper hang tab. The back of the package begins to explain just what exactly this is - with step-by-step photographs of how to apply these stickers to ordinary objects (in their example, a plain coffee mug) to give them a cute face, and in fact, by adjusting the angle of the pupil, creating a variety of emotions.
Meary comes in three different sizes - 2.5" diameter eyes (package of 3), 1" (package of 5) and 1/4" eyes (package of 30). The different sizes can be used to anthropomorphize anything from mobile phones to bulldozers. See examples of how people from around the world have rehumanized their world using Meary:
It's important to understand that Japan is the country where "cute" is a crucial concept in product design - toothpaste comes in tooth-shaped dispensers, dust pans and massagers and aromatherapy devices have little eyes and faces built into them - and Meary is a product to further enable that behavior, to customize your environment. And look at how simple it is, technically.
The story of Meary is that it has a personality - the text on the hang tab reads (in part) "Meary can not live alone. She feels lonely everytime. ...She is the mirror which projects your feeling...Meary has a dream..in which she makes a friend all over the world. If someone points at your Meary and ask you what it is, please tell him that it is a name of 'Meary,' and divide a little of your Meary into the man." So, the product that lets you express emotions through ordinary objects itself has emotions, and those emotions exhort you (the customer) to use Meary, to promote Meary, and to share Meary. Isn't that what anyone would want their customers to do? But the designers (Furo) have created a frame to do that comfortably - because they begin by projecting an identity onto the product (and by extension, the identities you will create by using the product), involving you in the relationship, and thus allowing you to ease "her" loneliness without feeling like a huckster.
People often cite Coca-Cola as a product where the meanings it creates (America, history, celebration, red, etc.) are completely disconnected from the product itself (sugar and fizzy water) - something that you need a lot of marketing to do. Meary is similar in that the product itself is relatively simple, but different in that the marketing, the storytelling resides in the product itself, not in some disconnected adjunct advertising. And that's a juicy example of the power of design.
Steve Portigal is a consultant who uses ethnographic research to help his clients discover and act on new insights about how their customers work, play, shop, entertain, eat, and live their lives around products and services. He writes FreshMeat, a semi-regular email column about the relationships between business, culture, technology, products, and consumers. Check out his collection of Foreign Grocery Products. Drop him a line at steve * portigal.com, or read more at http://www.portigal.com