I want to provide Japan “much more value for functionality”.


Interviewed by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: info@myeyestokyo.com


Corey Lee (United States)
Creative Director / Designer

When you hear the word “designer,” you probably associate them with very creative people, but when do you interact with them? In many cases, you probably ask them to work on something that you can’t draw or create.

But Corey Lee, a young American creative director/designer, says, “Those days are over.”

Until now, designers have mainly gotten orders for design work from planners and developers. However, the future designer should be “A leader who joins the planning stage and takes the lead in concept creation, design and development”. This is what he calls “Designer 2.0”.

We would like to show you how the Designer 2.0 looks ahead to the future of Japan and how he has developed a deep affection for the country.

*Interview at The Collective (Minato-ku, Tokyo)



Human beings always seek experiences

What is the difference between a convenience store and Tsutaya Bookstore?

A convenience store is a place where you can get all kinds of things, pay utility bills, have packages delivered, and transact money at ATMs. So many people use it. But if convenience store chain “A” is right in front of you and convenience store chain “B” is 1km away, even if you like a certain product offered by “B”, you will probably go to “A”.

On the other hand, if there is a Tsutaya Bookstore in Daikanyama, even if you don’t have anything to do there, you will go there and buy a coffee and a book.

The reason why this difference is made is because there’s the difference in the value they offer you.

People don’t go to a Tsutaya Bookstore just to buy books. They want to be in the stylish atmosphere of the bookstore. They want to buy a cup of coffee, listen to music, read a book to be in a good mood when they go there. It is a kind of “experience” that people want to have at a Tsutaya bookstore. The reason they go there instead of many other bookstores is because there is an experience that you can have there. Many people empathize with the experience, and their empathy attracts even more people to the bookstore.

This phenomenon can also be seen in Apple, Starbucks, Airbnb and WeWork. You get a unique experience that you can’t get from other laptops, cafes, other accommodations, or co-working spaces by purchasing or using them, and many people are attracted to your experience.

Conversely, what you need to create empathy is “to provide an experience that is only possible in that place or with that product,” and its origin must be “your future vision”. So our work always starts from drawing out our clients’ vision from them. For example, we ask them why they want to change it and their future goals even if a company approaches us for a simple reason such as changing the design of their website”.

What I want to achieve here in Japan is to “provide people new value”. I want to implement this by mixing with the values that Japanese people already have in a good way, not by forcing values from the outside to fit into Japan.


Flying out of a “window”

I have loved drawing since I was a child. However I studied graphic design at an art college in California because I thought a graphic designer would have more potential than an illustrator. But actually I worked as a freelance illustrator in the U.S. for about two years during and after my studies. I was a traditional illustrator who drew by hand on paper and my main clients were fashion-related companies and media. At the same time, I enjoyed making a website for my portfolio and drawing pictures with my computer. I didn’t think it would become my job. I did it just because I was interested in technology and enjoyed making websites and computer graphics.

While I was building my career in the U.S. and searching for a future path, I happened to go to Japan.

I used to play bass in a band. The leader of the band said, “Let’s play live concerts in Japan!”. His parents used to live in Japan and he also spent some time there. I had only been to Canada and Mexico, which border on the U.S., so I was attracted to the experience of crossing the ocean to a different country.

Then I came to Japan for the first time in the summer of 2009. We performed in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara, Shimo-kitazawa, and other places in Tokyo for two months. We did about 15 shows in a month’s time.

After returning to the U.S., I thought of going back to Japan because I saw a different world through this experience. If you are in a room without a window, you might be satisfied with just being in the room. But if you put a window there, you can see outside. Then you would want to go beyond the window, wouldn’t you? I went out of the room and went to the garden on my live tour in Japan, so I really wanted to see things lying beyond without going back to my room.


“I want to work with Japanese people”

I didn’t have a job or a place to work in Japan, I couldn’t speak Japanese, I didn’t know anyone in Japan… I really didn’t have anything, but I made up my mind that I was going to go to Japan in a year, and I pushed myself by telling everyone around me about it. I sold, threw away, and gave away everything I had in my house in the U.S., leaving me with no belongings and no choice but to move forward.

I came to Japan again in the summer of 2010 with some clothes, a laptop, and a bass guitar. Then I started looking for a job during the 90-day visa-free stay. Before I came to Japan, I had already decided to work for a Japanese company and with Japanese people there, so I did my best to look for a job for three months to make that dream come true.

At the end of that time, I joined a small graphic production company that had a TV station as one of their clients. I was actually assigned to a subsidiary of that company that was developing apps, but I was excited because I thought I could apply my knowledge of graphics and experience as an illustrator to the development and production of iPhone apps, which were gaining momentum at the time.

Since then, I have worked for several Japanese companies, ranging from start-ups to large corporations, in order to gain knowledge and experiences. At the same time, I studied the Japanese language from scratch in my spare time in order to gain stronger stimulation.


Pursuing the further growth

I got involved in several branding projects while working at various startups, then I started to explore brand strategy. My work shifted from creating visual designs to planning strategic and comprehensive designs of entire services.

In the meantime, as a designer, I wanted to try out my branding ideas for other companies, so I resigned from the company I was working for at the time and became a freelancer. It gave me the opportunity to experience working on multiple projects, but I thought that I would be able to get involved with more opportunities if I worked together with someone else.

Then I remembered the Japanese woman who I had worked with in my previous job. We discussed and consulted with each other so I contacted her. I knew that the only way to realize what I wanted to do was to launch my own company, and I thought the time had finally come. I was used to living in Japan, so starting my own business was a chance to challenge myself that I hadn’t had in a long time. I’m a man who likes making things and wants to be involved in everything from the beginning to the end. In order to create something that I am satisfied with, I wanted to do the planning, development, and design by myself.

For these reasons, I founded the design consulting firm called “The Collective” with her in March 2018. We started working together to design not only tangible websites and graphics, but also intangible things such as services.


I want to create things that fascinate people all over the world

I said at the beginning of this article that what I want to achieve here in Japan is to “provide this country new value”. To be more specific, I want to provide value beyond functionality.

Up until now, Japanese companies have mainly created products and services with superior functionality. This is why Japan has become one of the economic powers, but times have changed and people are now looking for “experiences that can only be obtained through the products” rather than functionality. Tsutaya Bookstore, Apple, Starbucks, Airbnb, and WeWork have all grown by providing people with unique experiences.

Most of our clients are startups. Compared to big companies, they are smaller in size and lack resources. So even if they develop products or services with great features, if a big company steps in their market, they will be easily crushed. However, if you can provide an experience that can only be obtained by using your products or services, you will be able to create empathy among people. If you can do this, you can increase the number of users and compete with the big companies that focus on functionality. In layman’s terms, it’s all about creating fans. It is important to increase the number of “sticky users” who will not easily drift away to other services or products. In the future, it will be necessary not only for startups but also for major companies to increase the number of “sticky users.”

I believe that the strength of Japan is “People work together to create things”. On the other hand, in other countries, individual ideas are more valued. So I believe that if people from overseas collaborate with people from Japan, they can create wonderful products. As a person from overseas, I would like to create such structure. I would like to contribute to the creation of services and products that can provide value that attracts people around the world.


What is Japan to you?

I think it’s just another city.

I came to Japan with almost no knowledge of the country, but as I’ve lived and worked here, I’ve come to realize that “People are the same no matter where they are”. Due to differences in appearance, language, and culture, it seems that Japanese people act, think, and feel differently, but I realized that they are actually the same as us. In other words, inevitably, I came to believe that Tokyo and Japan are no different from any other place in the world.

Tokyo is the city that made me realize this.


Lee’s link

The Collective: collective.tokyo


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