ideaboard® Series: Product Development Story #3_Design Development|Collaborating with Design Agency, 'f/p design'

In December 2019, NKC Nakanishi Metal Works Co., Ltd. (referred to as NKC in the following) launched their new whiteboard, “ideaboard®.” Unraveled by the project members themselves, this series records the story of how the ideaboard was brought to life, and into ours.
《Past articles》
ideaboard® Series: Product Development Story #1_ The Idea|On Persistently Nurturing a Seed Idea
ideaboard® Series: Product Development Story #2_Design Development |Prototyping and Updating the Hypothesis

The series continues where we left off with Riku Nagasaki, head of “KAIMEN” (the business design team reporting directly to the president at NKC) as he lets us in on the product’s further development, enabled through their collaboration with the world-leading design agency, f/p design.


Riku Nagasaki
head of KAIMEN

1. The biggest challenge: compatibility between simplicity in design and product realization

ーAfter you decided the prerequisite for the design, what were the expectations and criteria in choosing a design agency to outsource design development?

For a start, we had already expected that this product would face its main challenge during its manufacturing process. On top of that, the design would be super minimalistic. This meant that we would need to think of a new method to mass-manufacture, as well as start from selecting a subcontract factory. From these expectations, through evaluating many design agencies’ achievements, we found f/p design to have performed the strongest output in dealing with issues of manufacturing processes.

Although extremely simple, the agency was skilled in making innate designs. Unexpectedly, there were few people who had been educated about design in regards to their first career. Many of the staff had come from backgrounds surrounding engineering, fields such as astronautics. Having encountered design at some point along their career, they had acquired exceptional design skills. The agency was built on the gathering of these unique, wondrous people.


Issues such as “the hinge won’t fit,” or “the mold won’t come out,” occur in manufacturing, especially when one is attempting to make a “simple” product. In such cases, the staff at f/p design were the kind of people who would propose an alternative way to develop the design. They were a team of designers that could not only propose a simple design but could also figure out how to realize it, following through up to the mechanical design. This expectation, later on, proved to be right.

2. Universal desires found in simplicity

—How did the product change after f/p design’s involvement?

In consideration of my prerequisite, f/p design first proposed “concept A”—a concept that included the essence of “connectivity.”

They then proposed “concept B”, which basically reexamined the need to focus on magnets, and brought the idea of connecting the boards by retaining their positions with external cylinders. To some extent, they discarded our given conditions and made a counter-proposal, without forgetting to mention a concrete way to realize their proposal: in this case, the cylinder structure. This was the first time that the cylinder—the original form of ideaboard’s optional item, the “presentation stand”—made its appearance.

Consequently, we decided to proceed with B on the spot.

Through our conversation, we realized how simple B would be if we just removed the parts. This is when I felt my biased idea—that the ideaboard had to be connectable—collapsed entirely. Using my instincts as a designer, and listening to what my right-brain attributes told me, I made a prompt decision to go with B.

Later on, even during the process of making prototypes, we were greatly supported by f/p design’s connections including the trial manufacturing factories and model makers.

—You made prototypes there as well.

Yes, but seeing the actual prototypes and using them, we were convinced they just weren’t as good as we hoped. At the time, we referred to the joint cylinders attached to the boards as, “topknots.” The cylinders could flawlessly be inserted from the top(“head”) of the two boards which were stood in the shape of an A when seen from the side. However, the cylinders had complex shapes that included many excess elements and moreover, could easily be broken when dropped. They were also costly due to the need to drill holes in them in order to insert the magnets.


We began wondering if it was that necessary to invest in the experience of “connecting” the boards, reminding ourselves that the users at MTRL Kyoto’s trial run hadn’t even used the boards in this particular way. However, there still was a strong need for the ideaboard to stand on its own when placed in open spaces without walls to lean on, so we decided to shift our focus to realizing its feature of “self-standing.”


—We generally imagine functions being added as the “product development” process goes on, but the ideaboard seems to become simpler upon each consideration. 

Through talking to each other, we and f/p design alike, found our biased ideas being broken down. As we scraped off each function, one after the other, we began to realize what people wanted in the end—“a single board that is above all, light, and can be used in any direction,” and “something to hold that board upright so it can stand on its own.” We discovered that the ideaboard didn’t even need to be connected.

After that realization, we moved forward by covering details such as discussing the width/length of the cylinders and the shape of the rim.

3. The marathon with f/p design and team communication

—Incorporating negative remarks can be difficult. How did you communicate with each other?

First of all, I always make sure that our conversations are held with the actual object present—talking about the actual object in front of it, or a drawing of it. When the turnout isn’t that great, we try communicating our thoughts to the object, not the person who made it.


We assume that the object has character, and is asking for our advice to become better. How can we work together to make “it” better? We draw pictures when we’re thinking of this, too. 

This enables us to talk about the details, each as professionals, so even if we disagree, we can acknowledge that we have different opinions as professionals. Therefore, there is no denial of character nor need to worry about the relationship falling apart, and we can work with peace of mind. We really do emphasize this way of communication. It’s almost a rule.

—You ran side-by-side with f/p design for about a whole year. How was that?

Ideaboard’s design was by no means an efficient project for f/p design.

Having worked at a design agency myself, I knew that a good output didn’t come from cutting down on the hours working on the design, or closing in on deadlines. That’s why as clients, we didn’t set a strict deadline for delivery. Rather than aggressively pushing at it and delivering with force, we chose to gradually move forward while we took our time in steadily making improvements. There was also the reason that manufacturing was quite overwhelming and demanded detailed negotiation with the factory engineers.

F/p design is a world-renowned design agency. We were obviously aware of what it would cost us. However, needless to say, there’s that much meaning in there. We couldn’t offer to pay double to prolong the project for another round, so we asked if they could run at length with us, changing the pace of their involvement throughout the course so they would be involved when needed. We would take action to some extent, and so would they. I imagine there was a point when f/p design had become a bit curious about how we were still on their hands, despite it being just one project.


Be that as it may, they came aboard. Perhaps they went easy on me as a first-timer or due to us both coming from the design industry. They probably did go easy on me. Despite the image of their strict design output, the people of f/p design were extremely flexible. I really do owe a lot to them.

To be continued in “ideaboard Series: Product Development Story #4

(Interview by Mone Nishihama, NINI Co., Ltd., translation by Kyoko Yukioka, NINI Co., Ltd., and photos by Yukiya Sonoda)

▼Click below to see the original Japanese version / 原文はこちら