Holism and kansei design, kansei beyond borders

Lévy, P. (2013). Holism and kansei design – kansei beyond borders, presented at the International Colloquium on Kansei and Design 2013, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Japan. August 30th, 2013.

Holism and kansei design – kansei beyond borders

In the field of kansei research, three main disciplines contribute, in different ways, to the creation of artefacts: kansei engineering, kansei science, and kansei design. In this presentation, I will focus specifically on kansei science and kansei design, and on their differences and similarities. Finally, I will show how these two disciplines are actually complementary and that their collaboration can be relevant.

First, I will briefly describe these two disciplines and their approach. More detailed work on these descriptions, together with a comprehensive historical approach on the disciplines of kansei research can be found in (Lévy, 2013).

Kansei science (KS) was first proposed by Akira Harada, and was introduced at the crossing of kansei and cognitive sciences. The research initiated in the eighties by Harada aimed at describing holistically users’ cognitive processes related to preference and choice of products. KS is built upon brain science, mostly cognitive neuroscience and psychophysiology, and relies on related philosophies. The mind/brain identity theory is for example used extensively in KS. Human’s thinking and resulting behaviours can be best understood by using a model involving mental representational structures and mental procedures that operates on these structures. These models and structures can be studied by psychophysiological approaches. In this academic context, KS research aims to characterize and to evaluate emotional experiences and creativity, to contribute to a better understanding of the mind based on physiological and psychological approaches. Moreover, it is important to notice that KS has very often worked with design research to develop conjointly new methods and inspiration means for design and communication.

Kansei design (KD) is, on the other hand, an emergent discipline in the field of kansei research. Currently, there are two approaches in the discipline of KD, which can be differentiated by their focus.

The first approach focuses on the physical materiality of artefacts (i.e., their intrinsic properties), and their evaluation or preference by the user. This approach is very close to KS in terms of domains of application, in term of tools (often based on semantics), but differs by their attitude towards ambiguity and uncertainty. While KS intends to avoid it or to “solve” it by means of logic reasoning, KD deals with it by means of design skills and experience.

The second approach focuses on the interactive materiality of artefacts (i.e., the qualities of the artefact in interaction). This approach is the one adopted and explored by the author. Whereas KE and KS have found their roots in scientific establishment, KD intends to return to (Japanese) philosophical or cultural works related to kansei, and to use them as a source of knowledge and opportunities to be addressed by design. From this perspective, two major stances are taken: the primacy of action (“We see a thing by action, and the thing we see determines us as much as we determine the thing. That is action-intuition.” - Nishida) and the primacy of the body (“Just as the body of an artist is the organ of art, so is the body of a scholar the organ of scholarship; the life of an artist exists in beauty and that of a scholar in truth. Even the activity of thinking does not exist separately from our physical body.” - Nishida). Example of kansei design works can be seen in the aforementioned referenced paper.

What is interesting to notice when overviewing these two disciplines together is the closeness of the focus despites the great difference in the approach. KS is obviously internalist (perception is a process taking place within the human mind), and KD externalist (perception is a process taking place within a system composed of the human and the environment). However, both disciplines focus on the immediate experience, i.e., on the here and the now of the human experience.

In previous research projects, addressed from a kansei science perspective, I have explored the idea that as long as there are two persons in the same space, there is diversity. I call this interX. Most classically studied ones are the intercultural and interdisciplinary aspects. I have focused on the diversity in a broader sense and used a kansei science approach to contribute to the creation of tools that supports this diversity. The output were the Evoked Metaphor (a conceptualising tool facilitating knowledge sharing among members of an interdisciplinary design workgroup to work together upon individual and disciplinary differences) and MATiK (a computer-mediated communication system, inspired by the cocktail party effect using positive filters to provide each member the necessary information according to the consideration of individual qualities). See (Lévy & Yamanaka, 2006) for more details.

Now, I would like to succinctly explore what could be the starting point from a KD perspective on the same topic. As the variety of interX types is immense and can hardly be overviewed (KD aims at considering opportunities from a holistic perspective), I propose to reverse this inquiry and to address a fundamental commonality: we are in the world, and there is a primacy of the body in interaction (as suggested by Nishidian’s action-intuition). Note that he stance is also addressed by various contemporary psychology and philosophy, notably: Gibson’s ecological psychology and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception. Kansei design address is how to design for direct and immediate experience. It addresses it by synthesising concepts coming from Japanese philosophy (notably the school of Kyoto) and relying on Japanese cultural values of aesthetics and craftsmanship. However, as kansei design is a very emerging discipline highly related to direct interaction design, many conceptual and methodological aspects are still borrowed to it. Consequently, kansei design aims at creating ‘irresistible’ artefacts, i.e., that resonate with the user engaged in interaction. Resonance interaction is the “perfect interplay between the product and the person which evokes strong positive emotions” [Kevin Andersen].

To conclude, based on my research experiences within the two disciplines, I strongly believe that we can go beyond the theoretical differences (not to say the contradictions) and mutually contribute to both the understanding of kansei and its application to the creation of kansei-quality artefacts. From this mutual contribution, kansei will be more widely, and therefore better understood, and kansei designs will be more irresistible. Challenges are to be faced, opportunities are to be taken!


Lévy, P. & Yamanaka T. (2006). MATiK – CMC Design by Kansei Information Approach, in Proc. KEIS’06.

Lévy, P. (2013). Beyond kansei engineering: The emancipation of kansei design. International Journal of Design, 7(2).