Field Notes:
Instant Ramen in Tokyo

Date: 04 Sept 2020
Location: Tokyo, Japan
By: Felix Ng (Anonymous)
Everyone has a story of how they formed a philosophy for their work and life. It could be a mentor in their formative years, or something they saw in a book, film, or quote. Here is our story. It involves a bowl of instant ramen.

In 2005, the year Anonymous started, we visited Tokyo, Japan for the first time. With the little money we had back then, we got really cheap flights, a small but clean accommodation, and a budget of US$60 daily for food, transport, and some small souvenirs.

One late evening, we stopped by a Japanese convenience store (combini) for a snack. Visiting a combini is a highlight for many travellers to Japan, and an adventure in itself. Everything looks cool and interesting, with an endless spread of everything you could ever want or need. From rows of snacks, bento boxes, magazines, toiletries, cold and hot drinks. It feels like an amusement park!

I got a bowl of dry instant ramen that you just needed to add hot water into and drain out when it’s cooked, without the need for a pot or a stove. Super convenient (but not great for the environment).

Back at the hotel, I removed the packaging wrap, and tried to figure out the instructions which were all in Japanese. It’s a good thing that there were roman numerals to indicate steps and time needed.

1. Lift corner A, add condiments, pour hot water, seal and wait for 3 minutes.

2. Peel off corner C and drain hot water through perforated holes.

You can find similar bowls of instant noodles in Singapore and most parts of the world, but the packaging and instructions are usually:

Step 1. Lift corner A, add condiments, pour hot water, seal and wait for 3 minutes.

Step 2. Peel off corner B and drain water.

At this point of the story, you might be thinking “so what?”

The answer is, by adding the perforated holes, the makers of the instant noodles designed a feature that makes it easier to drain away the hot water. Without it, you would have to balance the bowl over the sink while draining the water, without spilling the noodles or scalding your hands, which is a human feat in itself.

This was the moment I realised what good design is. Not the graphics on the packaging, the brand’s logo, or their advertisements. But the act of adding perforated holes so you could easily drain the water from the bowl. Without it, everything else was superfluous.

This became our philosophy. To design useful things that feels natural for the person using it, even if it is invisible and unobvious as being designed.

But It hasn’t been easy, or always possible to apply this to our work in communications design for clients, and especially difficult in the past few years, where it feels like ‘more design is good design’.

So between 2014 - 2015, I started thinking about a new way to be useful, and realised that strategy and planning is a form of design. Designing a plan or system to make things better and to make better things is an invisible but highly influential form of design. The main difference is that it is presented in words, diagrams, and data, rather than objects and things.

So we started moving in a new direction. From a design company to a planning and creative direction company. The shift was quite natural because unknowingly we were already doing it for our studio projects like A Design Film Festival and, and subsequently as the lead agency for the Uniqlo Global Flagship Stores in Singapore and Manila. It also connected with our purpose — to find the right problem to solve and to help others do their best work possible.

The world we live in today is moving at warp speed. Value is shifting constantly, and we will have to adapt to it, in order to be useful to our community and the world. Whatever work it is that you do today, you will have to evolve very soon and very quickly, and it will be uncomfortable and difficult in the beginning. But if you have a philosophy that guides your work and life, I think it will make the ride a little easier.

Fun fact: Most instant noodle bowls outside of Japan today still do not have perforated holes.