Bloggus Eternicus, Day 103: Creativity in the Corners

January 11th, 2011

Why do the Japanese salt away creativity in little corners of life we ignore?  I think it’s because they care more.

The graphic above is a bar code.  The computer reads it just fine.

It’s one of dozens of whimsical, surprising bar codes Japanese manufacturers have put on their products lately. Yes, they pay money to tickle their customers’ fancy on the most functional part of a package.  Here’s one I love.

And another:

There are times I think there is more creativity in everyday Japanese life than there is in most American formal art. Another stroke of packaging genius is the label designed to tell a shopper whether meat is fresh or not.  I mean, how boring is that?

But instead of a faint little “sell-by date” hidden somewhere on the package, forcing shoppers to squint as they paw through a cold meat case, the Japanese have come up with an hourglass.  When the meat is put in the case, the top of the hourglass is black and the bottom is empty.  The longer the package stays in the case, the emptier the top is and the fuller the bottom. As good as this idea is, here’s the genius of it: the bar code is in the bottom half of the hourglass, and when that’s gotten too dark, the checkout scanner can’t read it, so the old meat literally can’t be sold.

Or consider the lowly manhole.  What could be aesthetically drearier?  Well, look here:

Or here:

Look at that metalwork.  Because someone took pride of his or her work in one corner of Japan, manhole covers all over Japan are gradually being reinvented as municipal art.

This is the kind of thing that can defer the arrival of the Age of the Concrete Slab.  We should be encouraging it. Towns and cities (since all good ideas are local) should be holding contests to identify low-cost ways to salt little creative sunbursts in otherwise commonplace places. What could be more commonplace than a bar code or a manhole?  Are these examples “common”?

Let’s finish with a field of rice.  The farmer planted rice plants with different colored leaves, and since rice is a grass, they grew into good, strong solids.  Here you go:

Tell me this isn’t cool.

12 Responses to “Bloggus Eternicus, Day 103: Creativity in the Corners”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    It’s very cool.

    I suspect one reason that art exists in the corners like that is because the Japanese don’t appear to have a phrase for “Get a life.” There’s a respect for making things for creativity’s sake that the US and the UK dismiss as wasting time.

  2. Rachel Brady Says:

    I didn’t know about any of these things, and now I’m thoroughly delighted. Thanks for sharing!

  3. EverettK Says:

    People are shaped by cultures, and cultures are shaped by people. It’s a feedback loop. It’s what makes each culture, and makes each culture different.

    Each culture has its strong points and its weak points. The American culture certainly has its weak points, but it has many strong points as well. The Japanese culture is no different in that respect, nor Chinese, nor Mexican, nor Australian, etc. Its just that each culture has different weak and strong points, and behaves differently to the same stimuli (else they wouldn’t be different, would they? 🙂 )

    And cultures, like people, learn from each other, steal from each other and compete with each other. America has copied and stolen much from other cultures over the past 400 years, and other countries have copied and stolen much from America over the past 100-200 years. And so it goes.

    Excellence, in every thing we do, in every little moment of our lives, is a wonderful goal. When we prepare a meal, it should be the best meal we can make at that moment (of course, any given moment may be a very brief moment, so it may just be the best PB&J you can make…) When we rest, it should be the most excellent rest we can achieve. When we create, we should make our creation as great as possible, in as many dimensions as possible.

    People’s minds are limited, we can only keep so many things “in mind” at once. All too often, in American culture, Profit has been King and foremost in too many minds. Profit is a good thing, but if not balanced properly by other goals, the desire for profit turns it into Greed, and all art is lost.

    Which brings us to Balance, one of my other favorite topics, but this screed has gone on far too long already. Let’s just say that the above examples from Japan are beautiful examples of balance and excellence (which usually DO go hand-in-hand). The functionality is balanced by the art and vice versa, and that results in excellence.

    And I agree: we should encourage this wherever and whenever we can.

    And sorry, I can’t tell you, “this isn’t cool.” 🙂

  4. Suzanna Says:

    I am intrigued by the idea that Japanese ingenuity and love for art comes together in everyday objects like manhole covers and food packaging and that extraordinary effort is made to make even an every day object like a bar code beautiful. The rice field is just amazing.

    This reminds me of Balinese culture which has an astonishing level of creative energy. In Bali there is no word for art. Balinese art is regarded as a religious practice but is not just for religious ceremonies or temples and everyone from every class is taught to be creative. Sacred symbols are used on every day objects as well, such as menus, vehicles, and clothing. The Balinese believe that making beautiful things pleases God.

    There are many other examples throughout the world where every day objects are made with unusual flair and purpose. I have so much to learn!

    Love this topic, Tim, thanks.

  5. Glenn W. Says:

    Hello Tim,

    I’m still back on yesterday’s blog. Just got into my computer after a couple days away. Hope I’m not breaking some rule of blogging.

    Way fun to view some of the work your brother Michael has created. What a great brother you are to acknowledge him with your praise and respect for his own creative pathway.

    Particularly fun to remember the last time I saw Michael was in high school and him sitting on the upper bunk of your bedroom and I was flipping him some s**t about how in the world could he survive amidst so much crap. I don’t think any of my adolescent distain for messiness compelled him to pick up up one single dirty sock. But, what the hell, he went on to greater things!!

    Nice to hear about him and thanks for sharing a part of your family with us.

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Maybe as a group, we’ve lost our sense of humor. For me, these are wonderful examples of whimsy, just as yesterday’s post was filled with beauty. Thank you, Tim.

  7. Bonnie Says:

    This reminds me of a chapter in Jeffrey Steingarten’s book The Man Who Ate Everything. After being served his meals in exquisite and artful little packages on a trip to Japan, he found the chicken or whatever it was served on the plane to be gross and without refinement.

    I cannot recommend his books enough (the second is It Must Have Been Something I Ate.) The books are funny and interesting, even if you’re not a great “foodie,” and their rather self-deprecating voice is completely different from that of the curmudgeonly and arrogant judge on Iron Chef America.

  8. Munyin Says:

    Hi Tim: I love this blog about creativity in the corners. It inspires me to simplify and to imbue the things I love and take for granted with ever more awareness and care to the extent that I, too, find ways to embellish upon my daily life & experience. Too often I trance out and treat everyone and every task with the sameness of routine instead of connecting on a more meaningful level. Thnx ever so much!

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    So happy you all like this. And it seems to have opened up a lot of creative responses.

    Sylvia, creativity for its own sake seems very much what this is about. The idea seems to be, “If we can, why not?” rather than the Western “Why bother? It’s not functional.” I personally think that exposing children to creativity everywhere is an “investment in the future” I haven’t heard any of our national blowhards — sorry, leaders — talk about.

    Rachel, I was delighted, too especially at the bar codes and the “fresh meat” graphic (which I couldn’t find a photo of). When you visit Japan, it’s interesting to see whimsy and extra thought everywhere, especially given that so much of the architecture is resolutely, almost intentionally, ugly.

    Everett, I agree. It’s especially easy to overestimate a culture when you’re only seeing a skim of the best stuff. It’s like foreign movies: I frequently think they wouldn’t seem so good if we understood the dialogue rather than reading its meaning distilled into subtitles. And I share your sense that it seems to get back to Mindfulness — doing whatever you’re doing the absolute best you can.

    Suzanna, Bali is different from everywhere else in the world, as far as I’m concerned. Life there is effortlessly creative, although I’m sure there’s all sorts of misery and rivalry we don’t see. We should just be grateful Bali isn’t part of China, where it would be “improved,” like Tibet.

    Will come back and answer more a little later.

  10. fairyhedgehog Says:

    These are wonderful.

    It seems like a similar kind of urge that causes some manufacturers to provide fun reading on their packaging. I’m thinking especially of Innocent fruit drinks, which have quirky or whimsical remarks on their cartons.

    The visuals are great, though. I love that koala manhole cover. Think how many people see that and get a lift to their day.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Glenn — Michael was always an interesting guy. He’s one of those people who was born an individual and just got more that way, without compromising who he was. He’s got a kind of single-mindedness I admire; if it doesn’t appeal to him or if it’ll pull him off his projected track, he just won’t do it. But I have to correct you on one aspect of your story — if that room had a bunk bed in it, it was their room, not mine. Mine was never that awful.

    Hi Lil — Whimsy is one kind of beauty, right? Especially when it’s expressed as a creative impulse with the goal of lifting someone’s spirits. The Japanese really seem to care more about this (in some aspects of life) than we do.

    Hi, Bonnie — Haven’t read Steingarten but will. Bento boxes are so civilized; make the meal container beautiful to enhance the gift of having something to eat.

    Mun — We talk about this all the time, but not usually in public. I think that every day could begin with a resolution to live it more consciously. Otherwise, we miss opportunity after opportunity to appreciate it, and it becomes no more memorable than a page torn off a calendar and wadded up for the trash.

    Thanks, FHH — we have great packaging in the West, but much of it is aimed at communicating something about the product. What I like about these is that they’re essentially function-free.

  12. Larissa Says:

    Living life more consciously should be everyone’s goal–especially the people I see driving to work everyday! How do we get people to pay attention? (and yes, I’m back to meaning it in the Cosmic way and not just in the Stay In Your Lane way) Hidden beauty in bright corners sounds like as good of an idea as any! If something is aesthetic it gets attention. Hollywood and Runway TV shows are built on that principal alone (practically)–why can’t we extend it to the construction industry? I think it’s brilliant.

    There is an artist I found the other day who makes mud paintings on the sides of buildings. They are random, very interesting little pictures drawn out of mud. The next time it rains or the sprinklers turn on , or it snows the “artwork” is washed away. But for that one day, or moment or whatever, that building has a different aesthetic impact. Neat.

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