Listening, Uncertainty and Play: A Conversation with Akira Morita

Akira & Kush

I first met Akira Morita in person in Durham, North Carolina, but this conversation took place over Skype, with him in Gangtok, India, after he had departed to join his family in Asia. I had been following Orangutan Swing, a joint effort with his wife Dipika Kohli, for some time and had a chance to talk with him a bit more over their community art project Stitch, which explored the question “Can artists and citizens collaborate to help a city find it’s voice?” I knew then that when I was ready to move forward with this interview series, I wanted include his perspective. I’m so grateful to have his voice here.  – Mel 

Melinda Hunt: Akira Morita and his wife Dipika Kohli are the masterminds behind their design firm called Design Kompany and the project that I’m most interested in that they do is called Orangutan Swing. Akira, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your projects?

Akira Morita: Sure. It’s ironic that as I talk about myself that the first thing that comes to my mind is that it’s very undefined and not very clear. At Design Kompany, what we do is to help people clarify their brand messaging. And so already, there’s a big contradiction. As we worked with many clients who are mostly small businesses, who were trying to define themselves better in the hopes of making their businesses better, more efficient, more effective; there’s this thing that we came to time and time again. The conversations we had with the clients were the meaty part that both the client and we enjoyed the most about our working together. We realized that’s basically what we are doing, talking to a client. We wanted to see that scale in terms of how far we are reaching with our method, but that was sort of the starting point for Orangutan Swing. We started to have events where we invited people to come and talk about random topics from how the media was changing, to parents talking about how they raise their kids, to topics around being of minority. That was the starting point. Then we did a year of speaking events in places where we were and in places like New York, DC and Boston trying to see what happened if we took our idea on the road in a small scale. This year, we decided to take a leap and do a longer term tour where we stay in different places in Asia and try this sort of event making and also tangential projects where we get involved; again, this is very vague and undefined. It’s driven by the connections that we make in the places that we go and what we see and hear there.

Sikkim, IndiaRight now, we are in a place in India called Sikkim. It’s on the northeast corner of India by the Himalayas. It’s a very small state and we’re in a community called Gangtok which is the capital city which really isn’t a city, it’s a town of I don’t know how many people, but it doesn’t feel very big. We have been here for a month and when we got here, we saw a lot of up-and-comingness. We got hooked up with a local design firm and started talking about modernization and having a lot of change happening around us and how do we define ourselves as things change. We called the project Modern Sikkim and we just finished a conversation event around that over the weekend.

M: I love this concept of conversation events and some of your writings and thoughts on listening. Talk to me a little bit more about listening as a practice and the importance of that in your projects.

A: Listening is one of the integral parts of what we do, of course we started with the design process of listening to our clients and that quickly became one of the most important parts of what we do. Once we realized that had a huge place in our career, we combined that with the thinking part. That’s what Design Kompany is, thinking about who we are, what we are doing and why that’s important. That’s the part we define as thinking, and knowing. And that’s the drive of Design Kompany, that combined with us listening to the drive of your brand.

What we’re trying to do at Orangutan Swing is listening combined with the playfulness of drifting, where we are basically forgetting about what we know and trying things, the doing part. Listening as a practice, it starts with listening to yourself and to the extent that you aren’t listening. And I’m sure you’re familiar with this.

M: (Laughing) I’m familiar with this phenomenon.

A: (Laughs) The more you pay attention to what you’re doing, the more you realize what you’re not doing, right? It’s about being mindful. A huge part of it is being mindful of yourself not listening and not being open, not being vulnerable enough to be open. That’s a huge part of this practice. And one of the things we’re trying to do is promoting listening, but at the same time it isn’t about us as listening experts. We’re far from being that sort of authority. This is about practicing together. We totally got this through joining a yoga practice and starting mindful practice when we got to Durham [North Carolina]. We lived in Seattle for six years and were surrounded by yoga studios in all directions and never picked it up, never were interested. We didn’t think it was for us.

M: I didn’t think it was for me either.

A: (Laughs) You know, it just came with this air of being trendy, being fitness driven. I was never a fitness person. I was terrible at sports and had a very sedentary sort of lifestyle and it just – the idea of changing into tight pants and going into some sweat box, it wasn’t appealing at all.

M: (Laughing) Mmm hmm! I hear you.

A: One of the reasons we came back to Durham was because we had a small being with us. He was turning one and we were in the throes of new parenthood, not really knowing what we were doing and feeling very isolated. We wanted to find our footing and reconnect with old friends and family. And we joined the Y and we found a wonderful support there. There was a really handy day care facility there where we could stick our kid in for up to 2 hours a day and we would be free (laughs) and that was amazing. And we were like, what are we gonna do with these two hours? We can’t go off and have a coffee somewhere. So we had to find something to do inside and all the training machines looked really alien and we weren’t really in shape and… Dipika’s a good swimmer so she had that, but for me, there just wasn’t anything. Yoga seemed the least threatening and that’s a long introduction to how I got into yoga. That’s where we first heard people being really open about it being a practice. That resonated very much with me, where there is no expert in the room and everyone is there to practice together. If there was any sort of teaching it was strictly, “Here’s what I know, here’s what works for me, you might try this.” but it wasn’t “this is how it’s gonna be.” That’s directly what we are creating from when we talk about listening to other people. When we are having these events we try to present it as a place where we practice together rather than there being any sort of teachings.

M: I appreciate that. As a teacher, I appreciate that an awful lot.

A: That’s also the most tricky part of this, is that people could go in with a desire to get something out of it, or find some sort of outcome at the end and I understand this very much, but at the same time it is trying to set up a space where that doesn’t get in the way of listening to each other. Because it will. If you have a goal in or some sort of outcome in mind, it definitely gets in the way of you being open.

M: Yes.

A: What’s interesting to me, these listening events are a mirror of the product we are trying to create in Orangutan Swing and that is also a mirror of the process, of designing life that we are going through. It’s like the Russian matryoshka dolls where everything is a copy of the outer layer down to the core, and you get lost on which layer you are on now and it starts to look very similar.

M: I want to bring us back to the concept of dissonance. We talked about this contradiction between what you do being unclear and with Design Kompany being about clarifying brand messaging. Dissonance plays such a huge role in any sort of learning, and even in your conversation events, when you have hopefully new perspectives, new ideas coming out of not looking for that certain outcome. Can you talk a bit about the role that dissonance plays in your work?

A: Sure, you know I called it a contradiction but the truth is that you can’t get to the clear place until you muck through the unknown and the chaos. You can’t arrive at the clarity, without admitting the fact that you’re not clear in the process of it. You know?

M: (Laughing) Yes, I do know, although I find it very difficult sometimes!

A: It is, it is. A lot of the work that we used to do and still do from time to time with Design Kompany is talking to people about branding, and they come to us looking for an answer. And I’d say, 70-80% of the work is to get them to a place where they start to admit that they need to define who they are before they come to us, we can’t give that to them. In order to do that, they have to admit first that they don’t know who they are. And if we can’t make that happen, then there’s no project. Usually, it takes us a little time to decide whether that is going to happen or not. Even when we know we’re going to get there, it takes a good amount of time to go through the process of unpacking what you think you know to get to a place where you are open. And then start to refine what it is that you can know. That’s sort of the process of branding. It’s a thing that we know very well and that we take for granted now.

Now, we’re really wanting to delve more into the playfulness of trying things and the holding of listening skills. So we’re kind of leaving the branding process to the side. I have these really nerdy three circle Venn Diagrams that I use to describe to Dipika and to myself what we are doing. One that I drew about two years ago has the word ‘play’ in one circle, ‘drive’ in another and ‘listen’ in the third circle and the intersection of those three is what we care about. In the overlap of ‘drive’ and ‘listen’ is Design Kompany; ‘play’ and ‘listen’ is Orangutan Swing and what Dipika is working on, her writing project, is where ‘play’ and ‘drive’ intersect. And I thought ‘Oh this is perfect, I know exactly what we are doing,’ in this esoteric, nerdy sort of unclear way.

M: I love it, I love it.

A: Recently it just came to me that each of these three things can be broken down into three things and that was exciting to me too and I’m looking at them as we talk.

M: Is that something you feel like you can share?

A: Yeah, they are really silly, but I have no problem sharing that for anyone who is open enough to be curious.

M: I would love that.

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M: There’s so much here in terms of integrity. When you talked about leading Design Kompany clients through that process of understanding that they really don’t know and they need to get that clarity, you aren’t just building them a logo. You could just throw something together with them, but it might not be in integrity with what they are really about and it might not be in integrity with what you’re there to do for them. And I just find that so interesting. I don’t think we often think about integrity and unknowing in the same sentence, but I do think there is a really strong integrity in this.

A: The thing that is interesting to me, and it’s the dirty secret of Design Kompany, is that we are no longer interested in building logos for anyone. The whole idea that you can get to a clarity and then you have a clear logo and message, and then you end the process and switch to marketing and then you are ready to go, that’s a sham. At least today, it doesn’t work, that’s not how it’s done. There is a lot more than that. Throwing something together is valuable as a trial, if you don’t get attached to it, and that’s where the play thing comes in. That’s why we’re more interested in playing these days than in getting to the clarity. The goal becomes something that we’re not interested in, in and of itself, the ‘knowing’ part, because the knowledge in and of itself isn’t enough. You have to be doing it. You have to be. It starts with being somebody and that’s where listening as the embodiment of being, and doing as play, comes in.

As Design Kompany, I would love to work with a client that is willing to go there and play with us these days. It’s more about let’s try something and see where it goes. The latest discovery, for me, is realizing that’s what we want is to just keep playing and keep practicing. The ultimate goal is to make connections happen. It’s kind of like when you’re little, you play with other kids and the ultimate goal is to keep playing. Once you play with someone long enough you become friends and that’s really what it’s about. Our whole professional, and beyond, the whole existence period, is making friends and connections. If we can focus on that, I think we will be happier.

M: Is it specifically about connecting the dots between people or are there other parts too?

A: It does come down to individuals, when we are having conversations events. But in this instance, in Sikkim, what we realized was that it isn’t about having an event where everybody gathers and the more people who show up, the better. In the process of preparing for this talk we had multiple chats with people who might show up. We go to the newspaper office and they buy into the idea and then they say, you should go and meet the mayor. And then we go and we meet the mayor with a few reporters and his friends, and the mayor comes with a deputy mayor automatically wherever he goes, so with five or so people, we had a mini chat. And then we had another prep chat at a bar. In the process we’re dropping in to people’s offices and proceeding to have conversations with them over chai. That’s the culture here and in the process of doing that I started to realize these are, too, conversations. The dialogues are happening all along. If we go in and chat with them for half an hour and then they end up being busy the day of the actual event and can’t come, it doesn’t matter because we already talked to them, we already made that connection. Ultimately what we’re going after isn’t just us becoming friends with these individuals, but having introduced people around us to each other so that they can then build their connections and relationships with each other. If we can scale that over time with multiple places and multiple events and multiple conversations then what we’re building is essentially a virtual village. That’s really what we’re after. The challenge then becomes how do we sustain it, how do we build that sort of virtual village and sustain the connections that are found within this network? How can we do that efficiently and effectively so that the currency of relationship that’s held inside this network can keep circulating? That’s the million dollar question that a lot of people are asking right now and it goes into the tech and social media technology sphere where people are looking for the post-Facebook social media, where we build the superficial network into a deeper one-to-one relationship holder and what we could add to amplify that.

M: Are there any correlations here with practicing and relationships and the unknown?

A: As far as my relationship with Dipika goes, this has always been a joint thing, from the get go. We are the biggest stakeholder, the worst clients to each other, the one that keeps you up at night and really drives you up the wall. We’ve been friends for 18 years and the whole timespan has been a journey of learning to listen to each other and how to clarify our purpose together and separately. Spontaneously doing things with each other and enjoying each other’s company while we try new things, it very much mirrors everything that we do. Even now, we have a third person that we try to incorporate in everything that we do. It’s a great reminder to keep the focus on the things that we care about. In our work and play, both spheres, to the extent we can make sure that they mirror each other, the better we are in both of those places and that’s the biggest challenge. For us culturally and from our upbringings, the tendency is exactly the opposite, you are supposed to leave your personal relationships and personal aspirations apart from the professional, or the public, or the workplace aspirations and ideals. They are two completely different things and if you start commingling the two then you’re not being serious, you’re frivolous in your career aspirations, or that you are bringing work into home. We have to constantly fight this. The things that matter to us are in fact our work. We’re not just tripping around Asia, enjoying a vacation. This is what we are called to do and we believe in it so much that we are dedicating everything to it, all of our life to it. And the flip side is that it doesn’t feel like sacrifice, this is fun, we are enjoying ourselves and that makes us better at what we are doing.

I’m about to go into a big rant about the culture. Work and money and the last 100 years of history being all about power and hierarchy and order has driven this fragmentation of everything. Us from each other, work from life, our life from the rest of the ecosystem, everything is about divide and conquer. I think we are starting to shift toward integrating, and the key concepts to that are network and relationships and openness and process and creativity and all these things that we are talking about. That’s what’s really exciting to me and that’s what makes me want to stay up all night working and writing. That’s what drives me, to have a sense that we are riding this gradual shift toward something other than the whole mass culture of somebody telling us what’s hip and what we should desire. I think we’re shifting to more one-to-one relationship-based consumption and knowing your action in the context of the wider environment. And what drives that is the one-to-one conversations that we have with each other and the relationships that we have in our particular surroundings. That gives me hope, you know?

To follow Akira’s projects, please check out Orangutan Swing and Design Kompany, and be inspired. 

What does this conversation bring up for you? What are your experiences of conscious listening, or of being fully heard? Can you imagine ‘play’ as a practice? What might that look like? How do you work with uncertainty in your life? 

7 comments on “Listening, Uncertainty and Play: A Conversation with Akira Morita

  1. I love this: “We’ve been friends for 18 years and the whole timespan has been a journey of learning to listen to each other and how to clarify our purpose together and separately.” Thank you for talking with Akira and unearthing the story for him, and us. A spot-on portrait.

  2. Akira’s comments about the separation between work and play toward the end really resonated with me. I especially connected with these bits: “the things that matter to us are in fact our work” and “it doesn’t feel like sacrifice, this is fun, we are enjoying ourselves and that makes us better at what we are doing.” I find that to be true every day in my hand lettering work. I am not a business, I am a person, and my “business” is really all about making connections and reaching out to my customer/friends through the words I write and the art I make.

    So glad you’re compiling all of your interviews here, Mel — they have been incredibly inspiring and insightful so far and I can’t wait for more.

    1. It’s evident to me from both the quality of your work and the words that you choose that it is something you put your whole self into. Does it matter if we see it though? Would it be worthwhile (although maybe not as fun) without the connection? I’m wondering if there are aspects of practice that are intrinsically tied to connection. Or not. Maybe it’s individual?

      I am so glad to have you here, Emily, and I look forward to more of your thoughts and insights!

      1. Good question about audience, Mel! I do usually find myself wanting to share work I’ve done just for me (that isn’t being sold, made into a print, etc.), so maybe there is some truth to the community’s role in individual practice. I’ll have to keep mulling that one over.

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