Yuri Suzuki: Sonic Playground
Sound, experience and installation designer Yuri Suzuki is set to join Pentagram’s London office as a new partner. The announcement today comes just weeks after it was revealed that Astrid Stavro, the founder of design studio Atlas, was to become the third designer this year to join the partnership. Clearly, Pentagram is in a hurry to bring new blood on-board in order to help shape the future of the world’s largest independently-owned design studio.
Yet, even against that backdrop, Yuri’s appointment somehow feels special. So much so that even he was taken aback when Pentagram’s Daniel Weil first suggested he make the move around two years ago. “My practice is super difficult to categorise. Compared to product designers and graphic designers, what I’m doing is really abstract and experimental,” Yuri tells It’s Nice That. “My understanding of Pentagram, in the beginning, was that it was a really solid, traditional branding and graphics agency. So I was quite confused by why they were asking me to join.”
He quickly understood why they were asking him, though. “Normally a traditional company gets more conservative and just sticks to one direction, but they’re happy to do something risky and open up new fields within design,” he says. With characteristic humility, “risky” is a word Yuri uses relatively often to describe Pentagram’s move to approach him. For him, that comes down to the relative youth of the field: “There’s no straight way to do business in this way, because there’s no format to do an experience-based or sound-design project. It’s such a new field. So in terms of how quickly I can come in and bring in business, I’m a bit risky – but at the same time, I’m investigating a new kind of field, which is always good.”
And there’s the rub. Pentagram has no doubt spotted the enormous potential for the emerging fields of sound and experience design. Speaking about Yuri’s appointment, Daniel Weil – whom Yuri himself describes as a “mentor” – says, “His work points to a future where design connects to all aspects of how we experience the world around us.”
For Yuri, the potential, particularly for sound design – a field he’s been advocating since he delivered his Nicer Tuesdays talk back in 2016 – is becoming clearer by the day. He points to new industries such as electric cars: “An electric car has no sound – no engine noise, no indicator sounds. So basically an internal team or a sound designer has to work out what the new sound identity of the car will be.” He then mentions connected devices, or Internet of Things devices, which are slowly populating sideboards and kitchen work surfaces around the world. “If you look at Google Home and [Amazon’s] Alexa, these are purely focused on communication through voice rather than text,” he says. “The audible-communication field is going to be really expanding now and I think slowly most companies will realise the importance of communicating through sound.”
The other thing to note is that although he calls the move “risky”, Yuri has produced some breath-taking and ground-breaking work in the short ten years since he graduated from the Design Products course at the Royal College of Art. Earlier this year, for instance, he unveiled an interactive installation in Atlanta that he named Sonic Playground, which consisted of six colourful sculptures that swallow, warp and echo sounds. In 2014 he worked with musician will.i.am to produce a series of pyramid-shaped mechanical instruments called Pyramidi. For the 2016 edition of Design Miami, he created an installation of mechanical bells that were controlled by gesture, called Sharevari. And he has also worked with Google to create a music-based augmented-reality android app that turns simple pieces of card into musical instruments.
So perhaps “risky” is a tiny bit harsh. In spite of his tendency towards self-deprecation, even Yuri acknowledges his contribution to modern art and design: “I’m really confident with what I’ve done over the past ten years and slowly many companies are being convinced that they want to do my kind of design.”
What’s interesting looking back is that the path of his career could have been very different. He graduated in 2008, right as the global financial crisis unravelled. As he approached graduation, he had three open job offers, but by the time he’d received his certificate all three had disappeared. So he decided to strike out on his own with his solo studio. “These jobs were as ‘design manager’ or as ‘creative technologist’ at big companies,” he explains. “Extremely narrow jobs – they can be really rewarding but I can’t imagine I’d have been able to do as many things as I’ve been able to do on my own. Maybe I was lucky that those three job offers disappeared!”
What Yuri has managed to create since then is a studio and a body of work that span fields and disciplines, and that push at the boundaries between art and science and design. “I get asked a lot, even by the other partners, ‘How can I categorise you as a designer?’ I guess you can say sound designer but sound design often comes down to a piano composition and [my work] is not about that. And I do installation design as well. So maybe experience designer, rather than sound designer is better.” It’s this difficult-to-pin-down approach that makes him such an intriguing and tantalising proposition as a Pentagram partner.
And despite the huge potential of the emerging field of sound design, Yuri’s first brief as a Pentagram partner is perhaps one of the smallest he’s been asked to fulfil for quite some years. “They have asked me to design a new waiting tone sound for their phones,” he says, with an amused smile, “which is actually quite a good first brief.”