Happening Studio on flexible remote working and tackling projects as parents and creative partners
Karen and Masato Nakada are the powerhouse duo behind Happening – an international studio specialising in identity, print and digital design for a wide range of cultural clients. Based between Tokyo, Zurich and Los Angeles, the team are no strangers to remote working – having plenty of experience under their belt before the dawn of the pandemic. We caught up with Karen and Masato to speak about balancing work and parenthood, working across several time zones, and the unique insights behind their creative concepts.
PT Hello Karen and Masato! How are you both doing?
HS We are doing good, thanks for asking.
PT What does a day in the studio look like for you both?
HS We usually plan at least a day in advance and figure out how to tackle our day to day tasks. On top of being studio partners, we recently became parents. That’s when we truly learned to improve our time management skills!
In general, there are two modes of workdays for us, ‘urgent’ and ‘not so urgent’ modes. On an urgent workday, one of us will take the child out for most of the day while giving the other person full concentration on a project/task. On the other hand, when time is allowed, we prefer to split our work hours in half. That way, we can both spend time with the baby during the day for a few hours, and work more after the little one is sleeping.
Last year, we practised ‘work-as-we-go!’ mode. In Tokyo, our baby naps best in a baby cart on the go. So whenever he naps, we would find the nearest konbini space to work in. Lawson kobini never seemed to disappoint us, we could always rely on a decent wifi connection, a quality Ricoh laser printer and maybe even a fax machine if needed. We very much appreciate the konbini culture. There are other various unexpected places we would bring our laptops such as an aquarium, a sumo wrestling venue and electronic stores.
Currently, we are in Zurich until mid-summer. It’s a nice day out so we are at a park and one of us is typing answers and the other one is playing with the baby. We will switch roles every now and then.
The concept of working from home was not a new challenge for us.
PT Working between Zurich, Tokyo, and Los Angeles, how do you structure your time across these three time zones?
HS There is quite a bit of late-night and early morning zoom calls to catch up with clients from these three places. However, once a project takes off then it’s less face to face and more thorough communication via Figma or Google slides so time zones are not much of an issue. Sometimes it works really well when it’s organised properly. Clients will brief us at the end of the day, open their emails in the morning and have some updates from us right away as they start the day.
PT As the studio has been remote working since 2019, is there anything that you learned working through the pandemic? Has anything surprised you?
HS Much before the pandemic, we have been practising some degree of remote working. By setting up temporary live workspaces in three different cities and residing there for however many days as possible. We were already flexible and lightweight in terms of our working style. So during the pandemic, the concept of working from home was not a new challenge for us. That’s when we realised how mobile we already were. A few clients saw that quality in us during the pandemic, so we started to work with them again since on-site meetings were no longer a requirement for them.
It was quite surreal to live in Tokyo and not know how much longer we would stay. The country’s border control has been closed for a long time, and we felt a bit trapped and alienated even though Tokyo is still a busy city.
PT As a team, how do you balance each other’s skillsets?
HS Like most studios, we often wear many hats. Luckily, our skillset and background are complementary to each other. Karen is very much composition-based and detail-oriented. Masato is a structural, system-based designer. Depending on what kind of project, one would assist and one would lead the project. It would never be a 50-50 ratio, that would create some serious tension and uproar.
PT What drew you towards working with small to medium-sized cultural institutions and museums, such as MCASD?
HS A year ago, the communications director of MCASD Chris Cloud and Happening Studio got together to speak about the vision of what a contemporary museum can be. Right away, we were excited as many goals were aligned and identified so much potential growth in MCASD. There is something really special about working for small to medium-sized museums and cultural institutions. Oftentimes, they are lean and resourceful, and they provide more intimate in-house collaborations. As a result, we can have more direct, honest conversations with stakeholders and make design decisions efficiently and quickly.
PT What projects have you found particularly rewarding to work on?
HS Projects we loved are the ones where we have our fingerprints from the research, and diagnosis phase. This is the phase where we get to identify what we can do to improve their situation. Many times, clients are good at describing symptoms and issues they are having but their design brief does not reflect the degree of changes needed to properly fix the situation. Often resorting to somewhat of a lipstick fix to their actual problem. By having a candid conversation with a client and their audience and researching more about their place in the market, we can articulate which tools, mediums, and deliverables are most suitable. Initially, the MCASD project started out as a possible website redesign but it was very clear from the discussions that it needed an identity redesign.
So yes, MCASD would be the project that was rewarding.
Loose connections of our life events really help us come up with concepts.
PT How do you like to come up with concepts/ideas? Is there a process that you often go to?
HS Loose connections of our life events really help us come up with concepts. We soak up so many diverse ways of seeing. Appreciating what locals craft to connect with their history and culture in three different cities, seeing how people communicate as a society and as a person have really shaped our work. These influences may or may not be shown as a formal quality but they drive the overall studio output. Perhaps, it’s a lot like how a singer-songwriter should experience life in order to write a decent song. These life experiences are as important as technical skills.
For example, whenever we research museum’s visitor demographics and audience makeup, we deliberately ask ambiguous, open-ended questions so participants are invited to write as much as possible. No multiple-choice, no quantitative score system. Our goal is to hear what museum-goers have to say about their relationship to the museum and understand their stories as a collective. This strategy comes from our interest in language. Particularly, the Japanese language utilises ambiguity on a daily basis. A simple phrase like ‘I am hungry’ translates to ‘stomach is getting empty’ in Japanese. It’s a vague phrase that doesn’t say yours or my stomach. It simply states what it feels to be hungry together, as everyone experiences hunger. It’s not an I-centric phrase but a phrase that shows sympathy and collectiveness. We credit Kohei Sugiura for this kind of linguistic approach to design.
Sometimes it is very formal like the poster series, ‘Off The 405’ for Getty Museum. We were looking for something that was very LA everyone can relate to, for better or for worse. So we combined a really congested traffic jam on the freeway of 405 with dynamic typography as a foundation to announce artists and events. We would’ve not made these posters if we had not lived in LA and been miserably stuck in traffic but still held an appreciation for freeways in LA; moving people on a massive scale.
PT Who would be a dream client for you?
HS It’s more about having a dream brief for us. A brief that is open-ended and makes 2D to 3D design that can be seen from outer space would sound very dreamy. So that would be NASA?!
PT What are you looking forward to this year?
HS Teaching, a growing toddler, and burritos are on the horizon.
Masato will be teaching a summer typography class at Otis MFA GD program and is excited to meet students in real life. In some ways, we miss critical discussions that take place in an academic realm and this will definitely help us grow as educators and as well as makers.
As our toddler grows, we are fascinated by how he sees the world and how he navigates every day with his basic communication skills. He offers many surprising and inspiring moments for us as visual communicators and of course as parents.
On a non-design note, we are really looking forward to eating burritos in LA. It’s been a long time since we had a good one.