Mind the strap

The Without Thought workshop asked top Japanese designers to redesign the humble Tube strap. Kanae Hasegawa gets to grips with the results

Have you ever stopped for a moment to think about the Tube or the train strap, which you cling on to every morning on the rush-hour train? I don’t believe that many people do.

I use the Tube in Tokyo nearly every day and if I am standing, I hold on to the strap. My hand knows the feel of it intuitively, its smooth plastic surface and where it is, but I don’t pay any attention to the overall form of this object. The reason? Because all the straps have a uniform, insipid design.

Here in Tokyo, whichever line you take, Tube straps come in a triangular shape that has not changed since the late 1960s. It seems that there are some things which just don’t require the badge of design.

So what if the strap was designed to imitate the handcuff, or with an adjustable length, or to show news on the electronic billboard. Maybe it could have advertising on it now that would certainly catch your eye.

Ideo Japan and Diamond Design Management Network, a cross-organisation network for design management, consisting of leading companies from various industries such as home appliances, communications, automotive, material and chemical, have proposed 23 amusing designs for a futuristic train strap, with the aim of adding a bit of enchantment to the commuting environment. The straps were exhibited for visitors to actually hang on to at Park Tower in Tokyo.

The prototypes were part of the Without Thought workshop, which has been held every year by Ideo Japan and DDMN since 1997. The idea underlying the workshop is to nurture and enrich the creativity of participating designers by asking them to work with designers from different industries.

This year’s design director for the workshop, Naoki Fukasawa of Ideo Japan, called for a design for the train strap. Every participating designer then completed their version within a limited amount of time.

Noriaki Baba of Toshiba presented a ring strap which lights up when someone grips the ring. I thought it very personal. For those who want to grab two straps with both hands, Masateru Kohno of Ricoh provided the solution with a smaller one. If you can’t find a place to put your newspaper away, Kiyohiko Ikeda of Fujitsu created a strap with a clip to hold the paper.

Fukasawa’s intention was to redirect the power of design not towards a particular company, but towards our society. Although yet to be implemented – there are still costs and technical problems that need to be cleared – these Tube straps represent an example of how innovative talent can be used for public service.

We all know that products by companies such as Sony, Matsushita or Epson are not just competitive in terms of their quality, but also aesthetically appealing. Then why can’t such creative forces be applied to public objects such as train straps, for everyone to use? You can only enjoy the state-of-the-art Panasonic digital TV if you can afford it. But you don’t have to pay extra for getting on the train.

Every day we see and touch Tube or train straps probably more than once, but without thought. Admittedly, they don’t need to have a fancy or elaborate design so long as they serve their purpose. But unnecessary design can give you a necessary moment to smile in a cramped morning train or after a long exhausting day at work.

Think about it.

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