Design from the Countryside Captures the World: Why nottuo Focuses on Local Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

nottuo is launching a new project called Dialocal, where we engage in dialogues with local business owners across Japan. Dialocal is a coined term combining “Dialog” and “Local”. We aim to introduce captivating business leaders who are ‘changing the regions through design,’ focusing on themes of design and management.

For our first installment, we invited Mr. Haneda from Serifu LLC, a fellow creative business in Nishiawakura Village, Okayama Prefecture, where nottuo is based. In this dialogue, he will delve into the story of nottuo.


  • Inspired by the Sendai Mediatheque, aimed to be an architect during high school
  • Formed a unit with his brothers during art school, which later disbanded
  • Countryside, Partnering with Entrepreneurs, and Finding Branding
  • Baking Sweets and Making Pottery to Stay a Business Partner
  • Sixteen Years of Independence and Facing the World’s Challenges in Naoshima
  • Supporting Local SMEs While Staying Local
  • Improving the Countryside with Design Requires Companions
  • Aiming for the Future, Branding Ourselves as a Branding Company
  • Ensuring nottuo Survives Even After I’m Gone

羽田:Mr. Suzuki is not only my neighbor, living just a five-minute walk from my house, but also my senior in business. Being five years older, he’s like an older brother who teaches me many things. We often gather at Mr. Suzuki’s house with the young folks from the village, drinking and talking about business. I’m always truly sorry for that (laughs).

Today, I want to delve deeply into Mr. Suzuki’s experiences and thoughts.

鈴木:Thank you. The reason I started the Dialocal project was that I felt we weren’t properly communicating what nottuo is thinking. I couldn’t clearly explain why we are doing design work in such a rural area and why we focus on branding for small and medium-sized enterprises. I thought it would be more interesting if nottuo’s thought process could be revealed through dialogues, including with you, Hada, rather than me writing essays unilaterally.

Just as our thoughts are not well communicated to the world, the thoughts of small business owners across Japan are often not properly shared. By focusing on them and having casual conversations, I thought we could convey their personalities, thoughts, and charms.

So, as the first person, I decided to let myself be thoroughly questioned (laughs).

Shocked by Sendai Mediatheque
A High School Student Aiming to Be an Architect

羽田:First, please tell us about your design history up to now. I think your journey, crossing fields from architecture, product design, graphic design, to web design, to reach the current nottuo is quite unique for a designer. Could you start with your student days?

鈴木:Sure. Let’s start with my student days. I’m from Sendai, Miyagi, and the youngest of four siblings. Actually, by the time I was in the third year of junior high school, I had decided to go to an art university in Tokyo. One of the reasons was that my second eldest brother went to Tokyo Zokei University and seemed to be having a lot of fun. My love for craft and art also influenced me.

A major event was the completion of the Sendai Mediatheque* in 2001 when I was a second-year high school student. I skipped school to see the building and was deeply moved. Designed by Toyo Ito, it’s a piece of contemporary architecture acclaimed worldwide. Everything was stylish, from the building itself to the interior, signs, and printed materials. Looking back, these designs were probably done by specialists, but I thought that if I became an architect, I could design everything. So, I took the entrance exam for the architecture department at Musashino Art University (commonly known as Musabi) and got in.

*Sendai Mediatheque: A public facility in Sendai consisting of a library, event spaces, galleries, studios, etc. It’s one of the representative works of Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

羽田:You graduated from a public high school in Sendai. I heard that while most of your classmates naturally aimed for Tohoku University or other national universities in Tokyo, you got accepted into Musabi on your first attempt.

鈴木:Coming from a so-called local preparatory school, there were no students taking the art university entrance exams, so I was on the outside. But when I graduated, I donated the entrance exam books for Musabi and Tama Art University to the school library, and the following year, a junior also got into Musabi, so I paved the way (laughs).

However, even after entering Musabi, I was a poor student for the first two years, barely avoiding repeating a year. I realized I couldn’t continue like this, so I started attending university seriously from my third year, earning 120 credits in one year, and as a result, I realized architecture wasn’t for me! The larger the scale of architecture, the longer the period and the more drawings required. My impatient and lazy nature couldn’t handle it (laughs).

Forming and Dissolving a Sibling Unit in Art School

鈴木:In my fourth year of university, I began exploring directions other than architecture and was approached by my older brother, a freelance product designer. We started working together as a sibling unit. Coinciding with the Japan-Korea World Cup, we created rugs and sofas reproducing soccer balls and exhibited them at TOKYO DESIGNERS WEEK. Luckily, the brand manager from Puma noticed us and offered us a promotional event where we could display our products in a café. Although we had work, our individual creative expressions differed, leading to a falling out. I began working as a product designer on my own, but I couldn’t make a living from it. It was laughable (laughs). Next, I turned to graphic design, which I liked, and started working as a graphic designer. I still remember my first job was creating a logo for 20,000 yen. I made ends meet by doing part-time jobs like making flyers for a prep school, living a poor life where I wasn’t even sure I could call myself a designer.

羽田:Hearing about your active years as a product designer after forming a sibling unit during your Musabi days sounds glamorous, but in reality, it was full of struggles (laughs).

鈴木:It was definitely a period of struggling and drinking muddy water in extreme poverty (laughs). Around that time, I was approached by the manager of a custom furniture manufacturer in a downtown area. They wanted me to help with design to launch their own brand, so I got involved. With no money and not enough manpower, I did everything from graphic design to corporate websites, instruction manuals, exhibition booths, and product development. The experience of working with a small business fighting to survive by developing its brand, amid the double blow of changing times and the Lehman Shock, was a very real and valuable experience. Looking back, it was my starting point as a designer, where I was engaged in “design management.” If I had pursued a career designing for design’s sake at a design office, nottuo and I wouldn’t exist today.

Moving to the Countryside, 
Partnering with Entrepreneurs, and Finding Branding

鈴木:After finishing the custom furniture work around age 26, I was making websites almost exclusively. I was working as a subcontracted web designer, thanks to a friend who started a web production company. However, even after working for months on a promotional site for a listed company, it would be closed within a month of launching. I didn’t even see the client’s face and was doing compartmentalized design work nightly. Although I made money and fed myself from it, I felt lost, wondering why I was designing. That was the most painful time when I lost sight of the significance and value of design. In the midst of these struggles, the Great East Japan Earthquake happened in 2011. Deciding to leave Tokyo, I coincidentally ended up in Nishiawakura Village.

羽田:It’s interesting that you decided to move to a village instead of a regional city when you thought “Tokyo is enough” (laughs).

鈴木:After moving to Nishiawakura Village without any connections or acquaintances, the work gradually increased, starting with tools for individual shops and companies. The first job that could be called branding was for Saholab*. Initially, it was a consultation for renewing their corporate site, but as we talked, we realized everything needed redesigning, from the website, business cards, envelopes, company brochure, to everything else. Working directly with local business owners made me realize that the value of each yen was entirely different. Small businesses that had never invested in design before were spending money with the determination of jumping off the Kiyomizu stage. I wanted to respond properly to their feelings. I faced the business owners and employees in front of me, and their customers beyond them, and poured my soul into the design. Seeing them happy face-to-face because of the results of my design was gratifying. Having struggled across various design fields like architecture, product design, graphic design, and web design, everything came together in my work in the countryside. I could finally affirm that my winding career path wasn’t in vain.

*Saholab: A construction company in Katsuyama Town, Okayama Prefecture, supported by nottuo in branding for the first time.

Baking Sweets and Making Pottery to Stay a Business Partner

羽田:What motivated nottuo, a design company, to engage in its own businesses like Kashiya Mee and drill, in addition to client work?

鈴木:It’s because we feel a sense of crisis that we must understand and practice business ourselves. Baking sweets at Kashiya Mee, and making furniture and pottery at drill, makes me realize how tough manufacturing is. It’s only by doing it ourselves that we understand that real business isn’t just about making things, but also figuring out how to sell them and get people to buy them. Experiencing all this firsthand rather than just as theoretical discussions really integrates into our work.

To sell goods or services, design plays a significant role, but design alone doesn’t make the sale. By engaging in real business, we can realize such simple truths. Otherwise, working only on client projects as a design company, we risk seeing things solely from a designer’s perspective. This could lead to losing the common language with business-minded clients, ultimately damaging the crucial trust relationship.

I believe that the best design is one that clients love, not necessarily the most beautiful one. We provide design for business, and if it’s not loved, used, and sold proudly by the clients, it won’t produce results. Design is a means, not an end. To be the best design partner for small and medium-sized business owners, we must also continue to face business head-on. We need to understand both the visionary perspective and the tactile struggles of the field to truly support them.

Sixteen Years of Independence and Facing the World’s Challenges in Naoshima

Photo : Kenji Kudo

羽田:In April 2023, nottuo received the iF DESIGN AWARD 2023, one of the world’s top three design awards, for branding design and architectural design of Rokasumi Inn in Naoshima. As a fellow villager, I was surprised, but it was a symbolic event for nottuo, which has always aimed to reach the world from the countryside.

鈴木:I was moved to tears when Rokasumi was completed. Seeing the owner, Mr. Kyashure*, cry with joy made me cry too. I was surprised by my reaction. At the same time, I felt lucky to be able to cry over work. It was a project that took three years with the involvement of many people. For Mr. Kyashure, who inherited the inn business as the fourth generation, Rokasumi is the culmination of his work as the first generation, making it a project that truly carried his life. I’ve worked with him for a decade, and it was such an important job that I was truly happy to be asked to do it. We continuously discussed what kind of inn we wanted to create, handling everything from the concept, naming, logo, space, signs, uniforms, music, scent, to the selection of supplies. Rokasumi embodies all the reasons why we continue to do design work in the countryside. Rokasumi began with the idea of creating a new generation of inns welcoming guests from around the world. After three years, it was completed, and we finally reached the world by winning the Good Design Award, the DFA Asia Design Award, and the iF DESIGN AWARD. The dream of creating an inn we could be proud of globally was realized. When the award announcement came while I was having breakfast, I jumped up and down with joy (laughs).

*Kyashure: Nickname of Shintaro Sasaki, the representative of A&C Co., Ltd., which operates Rokasumi Inn in Naoshima.

Supporting Local SMEs While Staying Local

羽田:You moved from Tokyo to Nishiawakura Village in 2011, and now, with over 12 years, you’re a veteran here. Despite doing design work, which can be done from anywhere, you continue to work in Nishiawakura Village. I feel that reason is connected to nottuo’s essence.

鈴木:I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s definitely more rational to have a company in Tokyo. Everything, including work, is in Tokyo. But we want to help small and medium-sized businesses in the countryside with our design. If you’re involved in a business attracting tens of millions of visitors annually or with billions of yen in scale, you should work with big companies in Tokyo. But we want to work with business owners and staff whose faces we can see and share joys with. We want to be at a distance where we can sit knee to knee with local SMEs. I believe that the value we can provide is enhanced by living in the same countryside as our clients. In fact, we’ve had more work and made more money since moving to Nishiawakura Village than when we were in Tokyo.

羽田:Nishiawakura Village, where nottuo is based, has a population of 1,300 and no convenience stores. Moreover, in our neighborhood of Chishashi, there aren’t even traffic lights or vending machines (laughs). We live surrounded by mountains and rice fields. Does this environment benefit your design work?

鈴木: I think it does. Nowadays, you can work anywhere in the world with a computer. But commuting back and forth between home and work in a packed train is stressful. In contrast, the countryside has less mental damage from such a busy environment, giving you peace of mind. Just two days ago, I dug up bamboo shoots in the mountains for dinner, enjoying a rich life that allows you to feel the seasons. This is a significant advantage of living in the countryside. However, the countryside lacks choices, which is a disadvantage. To compensate, we make business trips to Tokyo once a month for knowledge and experience input. We’ve even introduced an input trip* system at nottuo.

*Input Trip: A unique nottuo system for business trips aimed at knowledge and experience input. The company covers the expenses, allowing staff to go on trips once every two months.

Improving the Countryside with Design Requires Companions

羽田:I’d like to know about the thoughts behind Mr. Suzuki, who has the skills to survive alone, considering team formation at nottuo. It’s a choice to make the countryside more interesting through design. Currently, you’re recruiting staff. What kind of people do you want to work with?

鈴木:Without fearing misunderstanding, I think those who want to live a relaxed slow life in the countryside while doing design work wouldn’t fit in with us. Because we do quite a bit of hard work (laughs). This is true for all the local ventures in Nishiawakura Village. So, who is suitable? I think it’s people who enjoy working with small and medium-sized businesses and their owners. In Tokyo, I could only engage in compartmentalized design work at the industry’s periphery. But now in the countryside, I can talk deeply with business owners through branding and design everything necessary for them and their companies. I create graphics, websites, products, and spaces and even think about what we should make. I can now do the work of designing everything, which I aspired to do as a high school student. Although nottuo is still a small company, it’s an excellent environment for those who want to design everything like I did.

羽田:The environment to design freely across genres in the countryside seems perfect for a training ground. People trained at nottuo might gain skills and go independent (laughs).

鈴木:Honestly, I used to dislike that (laughs). I didn’t want nottuo to be like an apprenticeship where people worked for low wages intending to leave. But now, my thinking has changed, and I think it’s okay for those who want to go independent to come to nottuo. They can work here for a long time, or after training, they can return to their hometowns and start branding work. nottuo wants to change society from the countryside through design. We aim to increase the options for the countryside, making society richer by increasing small businesses that offer attractive products and services through design. It would be better if like-minded companions were working across Japan. Since nottuo alone cannot support all SMEs in the 47 prefectures or handle global work, having more partners is crucial.

Aiming for the Future,
Branding Ourselves as a Branding Company

羽田:Increasing companions helps achieve the future faster. Is it the same feeling as branding ROKU* in Toyama? Branding a branding company is an interesting initiative.

*ROKU: A branding company established in Takaoka, Toyama, as a joint venture between an entrepreneur and an architect.

鈴木:Exactly. That was an interesting job. It was the first time someone asked us to brand their branding company. Technically, they are a competitor providing the same branding services, but our future goals are the same. So, instead of keeping our accumulated know-how to ourselves, I thought it would be better to share it openly. We shared everything we had with ROKU. If you ask if nottuo can handle 100 jobs in Toyama, we can’t. It’s better if ROKU, sharing our vision, does it. The world being improved by design is much more important than the individual profit of nottuo.

Ensuring nottuo Survives Even After I’m Gone

羽田:Finally, nottuo is currently a team of four. What future do you envision as team formation progresses?

鈴木:In my personal life plan, I aimed to complete nottuo’s team formation in my 30s and start another business in my 40s (laughs). But my drive as a manager wasn’t strong enough, so the team formation isn’t finished yet. That’s why I’m now fully accelerating the team formation. I don’t want nottuo to be a personal office that disbands if I die, but a company that continues to create design in the countryside, with lasting value. I want to pass on the management baton to someone else eventually. nottuo 1.0 was born as a freelance label. The current stage of aiming for growth as a company is nottuo 2.0. Beyond that is nottuo 3.0, a business company that establishes business through design management. I want to create a business company that proves the effectiveness of design management as a means to enhance corporate value. If we can’t do that, we lack credibility. Enhancing corporate value through design is the essence of nottuo’s existence. (End)

Photo : ミー( @mee__lifestyle
Edit : 羽田知広( SERIF