Design Ah! (デザインあ) · learning the fun of design

Design Ah! (デザインあ) · learning the fun of design

4 min read#Reviews#Video

Why is everything in Japan so well-designed? Is it due to culture, or perhaps, history? On every trip to Japan, I couldn’t find an answer to the question — that is until our last visit to Tokyo.

For the first time, we were in Japan with kids. While my wife and I packed, the two toddlers were getting restless. To entertain them, I turned on the TV.

I switched from channel to channel, most showing variety shows or news. Then, when I switched to NHK E, we were greeted by something altogether different.

Set to catchy music, Japanese Hiragana characters danced across the screen for a few minutes. Then came a line animation wordlessly designing and redesigning a parking lot. Next was stop motion. Electronic devices came apart. As the camera zoomed out, the individual parts lined up into a grid.

We didn’t know what we were watching, but we were transfixed. Everyone from the adults to the one-year-old had their eyes glued to the TV.

What is デザインあ?

I later learned that we were watching Design Ah! (デザインあ). Originally conceived as a children’s program in 2010 on Japan’s NHK E education channel, it quickly gained fans of all ages.

At the heart of Design Ah! is a mission to show viewers the fun of design. It began as a collaboration between graphic designer Takashi Sato, web designer Yugo Nakamura, and musician Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius). What sets Design Ah! apart is its ability to tackle sophisticated design concepts with a playful and accessible approach. Short segments are each carefully crafted to engage and inspire.

The character あ (“A”) appears as a motif throughout. Given it’s the first letter of the Hiragana syllabary, it serves as an icon of the show’s concept, which is 「デザインの面白さを学ぶ最初の入口」(translates to “The first entry to learning the fun of design). The theme song, sung by Chocolat, only uses the sound あ (“A”).

The intro to the show

Over the years, Design Ah! has achieved significant milestones, including its 200th broadcast in February 2021. After a short break, it returned as Design Ah! neo (デザインあ neo) in 2022 with a new lineup of creators.

What drew me to Design Ah! is how it is both entertaining and inspiring, much like a great documentary such as Rams. The five to ten minute duration of each episode makes it just long enough to convey a message, yet short enough to not lose its viewers’ interest.

Some segments rely on music and visuals alone to convey abstract ideas. One of my favorites is about alignment. It shows how whitespace and size affect the relationships between elements in graphic design.


Some segments draw out patterns from the real world, such as how lines appear everywhere.


Other segments are more direct. One series of segments shows a master artisan practicing their craft.

An artisan making a wooden bucket by hand

Another series features interviews with famous designers from Japan.

An interview with a designer

There are the segments I mentioned before in which objects are decomposed to show their constituent parts.

Counting machines being disassembled

A source of great design in Japan

While Design Ah! isn’t the sole originator of great design in Japan, it does point to something important. Japan has a culture of celebrating the hard work of its people. The country designates standout artists and craftspeople as Living Treasures. There is a widespread hobby centered on trainspotting. There is the Good Design Award, which is similar to the Red Dot Design Award and iF Design Award.

These means of recognizing great work serve as a feedback loop. They reward the efforts of creators and inspire new ones. They elevate the status of designers and the field. They show children how they too can affect the world around them.

Go watch some Design Ah!. You’ll both learn something and have fun. Unfortunately, NHK doesn’t have a streaming service on which to watch it outside Japan, so search for either Design Ah! or デザインあ on YouTube.

Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.

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