Public design to enrich people's lives

The 2022 Seoul Design International Forum has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Public design to enrich people's lives

Presented by: Kato Kanji

(Vice President of the GK Design Group, Japan, GK Sekkei Incorporated)

The design for human life requires insights into intrinsic values. To fulfill this mission, the GK Design Group, which consists of companies specialized in 12 diverse fields, has operated as a comprehensive design creative group celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. With six offices in Japan and six overseas, a diverse and devoted group of 200+ designers with creativity and expertise are teaming up in a total of 12 bases and cross-functioning on different projects with their corresponding design capabilities to provide comprehensive design. Since urban environment design involves many more elements to consider than other areas, we carry out urban environment or public space design projects by collaborating on six areas: product, transportation, environment, communication, design strategy, and engineering to create integrated values and design.  


Public design to make people’s lives more comfortable 

In this presentation with the GK Design Group's projects, we will discuss a public design to make people's lives more comfortable from four perspectives: civic pride, urban legibility, urban resilience, and new spaces.

1. Public design to promote civic pride 

The GK Design Group adopts "Total Design" as a comprehensive approach where landscape, public design, and public transportation by urban policy come together in projects. The first use case is the Tokyo Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) design project. Tokyo BRT is a new bus transit system linking central Tokyo and its waterfront area, including the athletes' villages, launched ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games. It has a short bus route that currently operates with only four stops and can transport as much as trams do with two bus bodies connected. 



Expected to be a new mode of transportation for residents of surrounding areas, including the International Exhibition Center, Tokyo BRT connects central Tokyo and the coastal part and brings vibrancy and renewed changes to the street. With this inspiration, we designed a symbol mark of the route that connects these two points using color variations. Illustrating the new bus route as intelligibly as possible, we created this symbol mark intending to make it the "icon" of the city with different shades of vivid colors, adding vitality to the ever-evolving city. 


In addition to the design, stop, and signage of the bus fleet, we adopted a consistent total design for various touchpoints related to operations and services, such as the website, internal information boards, and mobile app. The overarching goal of this unique graphic that bases the symbol mark to develop different elements was to make it easy to understand so that even first-time bus users could get on without confusion in a busy city with multiple bus routes. 

Moreover, we invited residents to submit their ideas for the name of the bus route and vote for the symbol mark in the process of the total design review, which provides us with immense value in promoting future bus operations and raising expectations. 

Another use case of the total design is the Toyama Light Rail Transit (LRT) project. Toyama City has embodied the idea of an LTR-oriented compact city by integrating the functions of the city in the areas along the railroad line. This is the first-ever LRT project in Japan. Governed by the total design approach, we applied integrated methods in designing all elements going beyond vehicles and stops to cover maintenance areas and facilities around the route. Take the Toyama City Tram and its overhead catenary systems for transmission lines, for example. With the Shinkansen station on the ground level, our design was to let the tram pass beneath it and give the overhead systems a symbolic significance as a gate representing the city rather than merely having them as a pillar. 


Our efforts to ensure consistency in designs also involved a wide range of facilities, such as information centers, benches, and signs installed at the stops, and the horizontal design across the LRT route to make the overall landscape around the tram more orderly. Thanks to integrating lighting and traffic lights as fully as possible to prevent the area's landscape from being affected by the overhead systems and lighting poles and creating more pedestrian-friendly streets, the urban streets have become more vibrant and livelier. 


All this shows that we commit to providing reliable information and experience to users by ensuring consistency in our design. What we do is determine a design concept based on transport operators' business and route policy and work to cross-design a range of operation-related elements with the selected symbols and colors representing the respective route. It allows users' experience to be consistent with public transport and gets passengers to feel the value of the business. The goal of the GK Design Group's total design is to make the renewed value of streets with transport at the center more relevant to citizens and further promote "civic pride" as the indicator of the emotional attachment that citizens feel towards their city. 


2. Public design to enhance urban legibility


The group has extensive experience with city signage projects to provide guides on the streets of Japan and help organize traffic flow. A case in point is the signage project we conducted to enhance the respective city with complex and difficult-to-understand structures. The terminal at Shibuya station, one of Tokyo's three key subcenters, is a scrambling intersection with nine train lines and is where the highest number of passengers visit. Redevelopment sites and high-rise buildings surrounding the terminal added more complexity to the area. The basement of Shibuya station intersected several floors and complex underground passages extending from north and east to south and west. Sitting in the area surrounded by terrain like a large valley, the station had underground exits connected to the nearby buildings, making it difficult for citizens to see where they are and which direction to take. Even with the diverse sign systems implemented by different businesses, Shibuya station needed a design improvement across the board to make the structure and direction of the streets easier to understand. 

To address this, we made the small square on the ground path function as a base for guiding flows. Utilizing the square, open public space available for those who wait and spend time near the station, we optimized the path that connects the station and the streets, helping users identify the overall structure of the streets step-by-step. There were also numerous exits scattered across the underground. We divided the below-ground area into five zones based on the above-ground structure to be more accurate with the distance between basement and ground levels and bring greater clarity to the relationship and dependency between what is above and below the ground. Shibuya station has changed all exit numbers according to these five zones. 


Furthermore, we allocated signs nicely based on the circumstances of each base to make it easier for users to find information in the underground area. Efforts were also in place to develop an intuitive map to enable an easier understanding of cross-section views of both the inside of the station and the structure of the connected streets. By displaying the map with floor plans, we helped users perceive the space holistically and confirm their current locations. It all means that when it comes to city signage, it is critical to consider how to structure the streets with varying conditions, display them effectively and set the information that fits the characteristics of a city. 


3. Public design to boost urban resilience

Two projects are good cases to demonstrate how cities are ready to support both everyday life and emergency or disaster. The first case is a portable booth that offers flexibility in addressing different places and user needs. It is an idea to use unit facilities, such as restroom booths and toilet bowls, and arrange them as module furniture in a way users prefer by combining the necessary number of pieces anytime, anywhere, providing comfort, convenience, and usability to public spaces. It is easy to install and dismantle this portable and convenient booth and therefore enables flexible responses to changes in public spaces and a wide range of applications that include facilities for wheelchair users, infants and toddlers, users with caregivers, and those with developmental disabilities. This type of booth can also address areas related to "gender diversity," "considerations for those with disabilities," and "disaster or emergency.” In the development of booths, we had experiments and assessments for users with different disabilities through prototyping to review the size and function and continuous verification processes for user convenience. The focus of the design was to create booths that do their job not only as restrooms but also serve various places with medical and disaster-related facilities installed. There was a real-life example in Japan where the Red Cross Medical Center officials installed and used these booths at the makeshift shelters at school gyms to respond to the country's heavy rain disasters. In the future, we plan to install them in hospitals in ordinary times and transfer them to support the areas hit by natural disasters, such as heavy rain or earthquakes. 



Next is "Nige-Tore," a smartphone app for improving tsunami evacuation drills. It is a system that allows users to experience drills through simulation for effective evacuation from tsunamis caused by earthquakes. Before development, we visited the areas where the residents get training to observe people's behaviors during an evacuation and repeated demonstrations. This app enables users to display their location information with GPS and track movement on the map, which offers visibility over both popular routes or places and those who have failed to evacuate. With this data, administrative authorities can repair the routes and places where people have passed to evacuate and provide the support necessary for areas with many people who were not successful in escaping from disaster. The collection of this data is impossible without civic engagement. For greater engagement, we are promoting evacuation drills and design development in parallel, including creating a service webpage that provides guides on training and how to use the app.


4. Public design to create places for new activities

In Japan, there have been more and more attempts to convert urban roads into spaces dedicated to pedestrians. One social environment project is a fine example of turning roads that used to be only for traffic into where people find cozy and lively. 

"Shinjuku Share Lounge" is a project led by the private sector that aims to transform roads, public sites, and parks in the Shinjuku subcenter area of Tokyo for various purposes. It included placing wooden facilities in walkway areas to add a sense of openness to pedestrian spaces near skyscrapers; creating a space where citizens can interact and enjoy themselves with their families and; installing information and service centers for foreigners and marketing booths for universities and businesses around the roads. 


The GK Design Group was responsible for designing an array of facilities on the road. We placed sturdy benches and tables made out of wood on the sidewalks that used to be less friendly to pedestrians in general to create a comforting space where business people and parents can stop by to relax and eat as if they are in a lounge. Because the sidewalks near high-rise buildings were wide enough to use partitions to separate the spaces between those who passed by and stayed around, it was possible to give a sense of comfort to the area by removing the potential for disturbance. 


A similar case to note is a project called "Kamihachi Kiteru.” This project was also a public space pilot project driven by the private sector in the heart of Hiroshima. As a new attempt and a social experiment, it converted existing roads for cars and trams into ones that bring more comfort to pedestrians and spark new interactions by using roads, vacant spaces in private areas, and idle land subject to redevelopment. We believe that future projects to create a place for people in public spaces should go beyond the provision of open spaces and further focus on comfortable and pleasant new lifestyles to meet the evolving needs of citizens. 


The roles of public-friendly design

How can we enrich the urban environment with the power of design?

The answer lies in ensuring high-quality "publicness" in public places. The concept of publicness mainly consists of state-related affairs (Official), common things (Common), and things open to everyone (Open). Considering the role of design by linking the theme of this forum, the keyword "open" carries more significance. Age or disability could stop people from accessing the facilities and services provided in the urban environment and public spaces. In this case, design can be a solution to have those services more accessible and ensure a higher level of publicness. 

In the future, two more meanings will be crucial for forming publicness that embraces everyone. They involve all members being together as a renewed sense of publicness (Collab) and sharing things to maintain the public places or services created (Share). Designing public spaces that are open to everyone requires engaging residents in the design process and implementing and expanding the system that allows people to share the results. 


Finally, the last part of the presentation comes with guidelines for public-friendly design. 

The first is "usefulness." It refers to providing systematic functionality, information, and service with the system to support. Second, "user-friendliness" represents the dimension of creating intuitive, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-use interactions. Third, "likeability" is related to creating things that harmonize with the environment. Lastly, we need to "identify" unique local identities. Fostering balance between these four perspectives requires setting up design goals and plans in greater detail. Moving forward, I hope that design will be a powerful driver to further enrich public spaces in Seoul. 

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