Research Critique 5 – Design Noir (Maywa Denki)

Popular design is design that is accessible, contemporary and part of popular culture. Typically, it emphasises appearance, user-friendliness and corporate identity. Since its social value is inextricably bound to the marketplace and commercial restrictions, popular design is mostly affirmative design; it reinforces the present state of things and conforms to cultural, social, technical and economic expectations.

This is problematic, especially when at its worst, popular design simply reinforces capitalist values—helping to create and maintain the constant consumerist dissatisfaction and desire for new products, as well as ensuring product obsolescence. An intellectual stance and credibility is often lost in such design.

In contrast, unpopular critical design asks questions, provokes and makes us think. It challenges conventions and preconceptions about technology, consumerism and cultural values—and how they shape our lives. Approaching design with a critical perspective is hence taking on a more responsible and pro-active role within society, and this is important considering the perfect position design occupies for stimulating discussion and debate among designers, industry and the public.

Summarising the differences between popular and unpopular art:

Following, using the concepts introduced by Dunne and  Raby in Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects, I will explore how Maywa Denki’s Pachi-Moku might be evaluated as an unpopular design that adopts a critical perspective.



“Parallel-world electricians”: brothers Masamichi and Novmichi. 

Maywa Denki is an art unit set up by two Japanese brothers, Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa. Fusing art, commercialism and corporate culture, they present and actively promote themselves as an “electric company in a parallel world”, with a whole ecosystem constructed to support this corporate identity:

Maywa Denki website tabs

Besides having the turquoise costume as their uniform, they have a comprehensive company website with a company profile, business model documentation, product promotion (performance) details, as well as an online shop for merchandise including CDs, uniforms and stationery. They even have a fan page that facilitates membership application (which is paid).

Fan club page with admission and membership details
Online shop

They produce mainly 2 kinds of designs: art resources (A) and mass-produced objects (the BCDEF merchandise), and Pachi-Moku falls under A.

Pachi-Moku is a mechanical backpack-type “winged” device operated by electronic finger snappers that control double mallets to hit wooden temple blocks. The device produces two tones: high and low. Its mechanical components consist of analogue leather belts, motors, solenoids, and switches


How is Pachi-Moku unpopular design?

Very clearly, Pachi-Moku is not your typical popular design that prioritises appearance and user-friendliness or conforms to expectations.

It has an eccentric appearance with a seemingly amateurish sheen to the gadgetry and it challenges conventions on multiple levels.

“When creating instruments as art, I only think about the visuals; the sound doesn’t really matter

Designed as an instrument, instead of sound, it prioritises visuals.

A typical electronics manufacturer is making ‘electricity machines’ that are useful for people. However, Maywa Electric is not so

As an electronic device, it is also not useful and functional in the expected sense.

“Pachi-Moku has been continuously upgraded, mainly for improving the visual appearance. The only problem is that it’s getting heavier and heavier.

“Excuse me, but this instrument weighs 13kg, I can’t breathe anymore. Let me take it off. The problem is I can’t take it off myself. It’s design flaw.

It is also not in the least user-friendly and easy to carry or play because of its heavy weight. The artist Tosa acknowledges this as a design flaw in his TED talk introducing Pachi-Moku, but one should note that this design “flaw” is intentional on his part.

People don’t want something that can’t help people

Pachi-Mochu is not produced for actual use in the first place and hence not sold. Quoting the artists, Pachi-Moku is “something that can’t help people”, an “almost useless” electricity machine that “cannot be used as a human being”, hence it is called a “nonsense machine”.

How then, is Pachi-Moku critical design?

What critical perspectives do the unpopular qualities above support and how are they effective in stimulating reflection?

Tsukuba Series

Pachi-Moku is one of the instruments of the Tsukuba Series consisting of musical devices that operate at 100V through motors and electromagnets. This series is inspired by the changes to the nature of music with modern technological advancements. With the spread of IT apparatus like the sampler, synthesizer and internet, music has been dematerialised and become disembodied from the musical instruments that originally produced them, or in Maywa Denki’s words, become “separated from ‘a substance’” and “now considered as information”. Through speakers, what people encounter is not music but digital information and data on music. With the Tsukuba Series, the artists try to revive music from “Information Music” to “Substantial Music” once again with machines that physically create sounds. In their product write-up, they describe the music produced by these musical devices as “music of the 21st century”.


The relatively conservative and analogue technologies used for Pachi-Moku however, contrast this futuristic narrative presented. It is humorous and somewhat absurd that the instrument uses elaborate mechanisms to produce sounds that are otherwise primitive or effortlessly created; machinery and electricity are used to power physical beating or knocking movements that can be created with hands alone, without technology. Through this, the artists emphasise the challenge of reviving live music through the Tsukuba series—requiring the power of machines for the agenda. Engaging through humour and surprise this way, I think the artists successfully challenge technological values and stimulate reflection among users on how the nature of music has been shaped by technology.

Live performances (product demonstrations)

Besides the unpredictable and eccentric design of Pachi-Moku, the performances that Maywa Denki organizes to demonstrate how it is used add to its humour and appeal. In TED talks and Tsukuba performances, the artist cracks jokes about the product and plays the instrument while executing comical dance moves. Design is used as a form of entertainment, engaging viewers in performances that at once recall acts of TV personalities and comedians in popular culture, while being framed also as avant-garde performance art pieces. The importance of this entertainment value attached to Pachi-Moku is clear from how Maywa Denki signs itself under the amusement and entertainment division of a Japanese TV agency (Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. Ltd agency for managing TV personalities and comedians).

Performance description detailed as “courses offered” Source:

Although the futuristic vision of reimagining and resurrecting music has a fictive value, we see that Pachi-Moku also remains grounded in reality and accessible to the everyday and larger public through its promotional performances. As a critical design, Pachi-Moku skillfully fuses fiction with reality to engage people. According to the reading, effective critical designs communicate value fictions by “letting people see them in use, placed in everyday life, but in a way that leaves room for viewer’s imagination”. This is precisely what Maywa Denki does. Without actually using the product themselves, users, or rather viewers, are engaged in the music of Pachi-Moku instead through the experience of performances. Their promotion performances emphasise the experiences offered by Pachi-Moku instead of the object’s formal, technical and structural properties—communicating narratives of consumption, as opposed to narratives of production.

“Matsu (pine) Course”
Full live performance in which large-size musical instruments, robots, President, four workers and sometimes Mr. Wono at the accounting department appear. (Performance time: 90 to 120 minutes)
” Take(bamboo) Course”
Performance in which President and two workers appear. You can enjoy a stage show unique to Maywa Denki. (Performance time: 30 to 60 minutes)
“Ume (plum) course ”
Performance in which only President plays a live show, using the minimum equipment. (Performance time: 15 to 30 minutes)


In evaluating Pachi-Moku as a critical design, it is important to also consider the product as part of a larger ecosystem of a corporate identity that Maywa Denki has constructed. This identity occupies both the grounds of fiction and reality; while their rhetoric of being an electronics company is fictive, they are not a wholly “imaginary” corporation because they do actually produce and sell merchandise and services, albeit unconventional ones, and earn revenue from them. The have a fan base spanning across generations that buys their mass-produced merchandise and attends their concerts wearing the turquoise uniforms. Maywa Denki’s success at making profit as a pseudo electronics company contributes to allowing Pachi-Moku to extend reflection among users, to consider the culture of consumerism and materialism as well, beyond our relationship with technology and music. By appropriating the organizational structures of businesses, Maywa Denki both embraces and challenges the market and its values.

Nonsense machines | Meiwa Denki | TEDxUTokyo

To conclude, I think this statement of theirs sums up how Pachi-Moku and their nonsense machines embody alternative values that present critical perspectives. Pachi-Moku does not conform to popular values or present a realistic design, but neither is it wholly futuristic nor abstract. Instead, it occupies both ends of the spectrum—achieving what I think is a good balance—making it a critical design that is neither absorbed into everyday reality nor dismissed as too elitist.

In the reading, Dunne and Raby distinguish unpopular design as “products for the mind”—engaging users in reflection and imagination as opposed to popular design that is activated by actual usage. I think Pachi-Moku is indeed a product for the mind, and an engaging one at that, but also foremost an eccentric feast for the eyes and ears.




Link to slides:

Micro-Project 4 – Disobedient Objects


Pick up the trash.


1. How does your hacked object behave in a way you least expect it to?

Man Wei: We made a dollar note on the floor that doesn’t allow people to pick it up (and pocket it). The note moves in a way that the inanimate object acquires a sort of naughty character playing tag with/ teasing people like a mouse-and-cat /torchlight-and-cat scenario. It is purposely placed alongside trash and positioned on the ground. The disobedient note is meant to discipline/remind people to pick up trash they see on the floor; it contrasts the apathy and lack of initiative taken to pick up common litter, with the attention given to money when it is the object on the floor instead.

Ayesha: Our hacked object is a 2 dollar note placed among trash, next to a sign that that asks to bin your litter. When you reach to pick the money up, a light sensor in front of it is triggered and the note, attached to a wire and connected to a servo-motor, moves the note out of the way. The movement is very fast and the note returns back to its original position when the participant retracts their hand. It acts a bit like bait to bring attention to the litter around it that we would normally overlook and wouldn’t think to pick up, unlike money on the ground.

2. What are some reactions you observed from your participants when they interacted with the object?

Man Wei: Intuitively they bent down to reach for the note. Movements were hesitant at first when they did not know what to expect but as the note swept across the floor from side to side, it looked like some of them got taunted/challenged to grab the note (completely possible to do). They found it fun to interact with; some said it was almost like a toy and some approached to play with it after our presentation was over. It made me happy that the game-like set-up of our installation was able to attract and sustain our participants’ interest—necessary for any reflection on their actions and our underlying commentary to take place, whether on hindsight or during the interactions.

As expected, all of them kept at trying to catch the note, without regard for the other trash strewn around it (eye on the prize). Their persistence might have been prompted by the taunting movements of the note but their interactions with our installation are nonetheless reflective of the precise behaviour we were critiquing; it could have been entirely possible for the trash to have been programmed to react to users as well and move away from them like the note, but no one attempted to engage with the trash (it is unlikely that the thought to do so crossed their minds either).

Ayesha: Many participants took it as a challenge to catch the money. Some words that they used to describe the project were “naughty” and “cheeky”. I think that object behaved kind of like a game or like a practical joke. Since the photocell was placed in front of the note, the participant’s hand had to reach from that direction. However, some participants naturally reached from the side, which did not trigger the light sensor.

3. What are the challenges involved and how did you overcome them? What problems still exist? How might you overcome them eventually?

Man Wei: We faced problems making the motor produce movements that we wanted for the note. We wanted it to move away from the participant when approached and then move back to its original position after. However our original design which used thread/fishing line to attach the note to the motor only produced the first movement, with the note remaining at its new displaced position when the motor turned back. To resolve this we considered other designs that involved multiple threads instead of one and explored materials that were more hardy and taut. Our final solution involves using wire instead, bent also to prevent over forceful movements that flipped the note around. (Refer to design process documentation below)

In terms of coding, we drew from concepts learnt in class and adapted those in the presentation slides. We did not encounter many problems with it besides having to adjust the servomotor angle to create movements we wanted. We had to do some trial and error as well to adjust the angle in relation to the length of the strip attaching the note to the motor, as well as the flexibility/hardiness of the strip material. With different angles, strip lengths and materials, our note could daintily sweep from side to side or violently swerve from one side to another (overturning sometimes even). Eventually we managed to decide on a suitable angle that produced movements of a suitable force and speed while being confined to the width of our constructed platform. Besides motor issues, the only other thing that required more calibration and constant adjustment was the threshold value of the LDR which affected the light sensitivity of our object in different lighting conditions we placed it in.

A room for improvement might be making the attachment between the object and motor less conspicuous/hidden to improve the engagement and element of surprise. Participants might also then receive less prompt to interact with the note (versus the trash) if the presence of the wire had given them this. We could have tried attaching the wire to the bottom of the note and have it concealed below the platform.

Ayesha: We faced challenges in trying to arrange our set up so that the object would be used in a natural and intuitive way. 

We tried to conceal the electrical components so as not to distract or confuse participants, and to make the object’s disobedience more surprising for them. We did this by building a cardboard box that covered up the breadbox and Arduino, with holes cut into the cardboard for the photocell and the servo-motor. Since the servo-motor was sticking out, we concealed it with trash.

We also had to orientate the set up in a way that participants would naturally reach for the note from the front, but it seems that we didn’t test this out on enough people as some of our participants reached from different directions and missed the light sensor. If we were to rework this object, perhaps we could add more photocells to read interaction from other directions too.



“Keep the change”

Our initial idea was to have the object move along a vertical axis, retracting backwards. But after trying things out with the servomotor we decided a swaying action (due to the way the motor turns) was better. The side-to-side motion also made the movement seem like the object’s own, and gave it more “life”—recalls scenario of a mouse/torchlight avoiding a cat. Whereas the retracting motion along a vertical axis had a greater suggestion of another agent pulling the note back and forth (like at a ticketing counter). Giving the object a sense of a “life of its own” was more suitable for our concept of the money lying on the floor and avoiding pickers by itself (“pick up the trash” narrative). The retracting motion suited the original “keep the change” narrative more.

“Pick up the trash”

1st design: thread/fishing line

The original plan was to use a coin (for change) but we changed it to a dollar note instead because the coin was too heavy.

2nd design: two threads each to different arm of motor

Return motion still not achieved because threads not taut enough

Considered changing up set-up, retaining use of threads:

Wasn’t quite the kind of motion we were going for

3rd design: harder material (cardboard, wire, transparency strips)

Using hard card

The intention for using fishing line/thread at first was with the inconspicuousness of the attachment in consideration. Using wire/harder materials meant that we might have to compromise the visuals/surprise element for performance.


The Arduino code
Final design sketch
Servomotor fixed in place under cave of trash