Interview with Roy Husada

This month we interview a creative professional from Canada, Roy Husada.
Roy shared with us some interesting insights about life in Tokyo as design consultant.

To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Roy Husada and I’m the founder of a design studio called Rival Schools. Rival Schools in Canada was founded in 2007 and recently Rival Schools Japan just last year.

Before that I worked at a couple of multimedia/web design companies right after graduation. My career began right at the beginning of the dotcom boom (1997). The web design was just starting to become a thing, and everyone was trying to figure it out. So, sometimes I like to say I was there when it all started (haha).

I studied traditional graphic design and illustration when I was in school. We did everything manually without any digital. All our typographical layouts were done in Letraset which we would just pick up at our local art store. I haven’t seen it since software like PageMaker and CorelDraw entered the scene.

I moved to Tokyo near at the beginning of 2015 so at this point I’ve been living here for about a year. Before that I have probably been to Japan around 7 times to visit the in-laws.

What inspired you to move to Tokyo?

To put things in perspective, I was born and lived in Vancouver, Canada my whole life. And prior to moving to Tokyo, I had pretty much settled on the thought that I would live the rest of my days there. I got married. We had kids. Life in Vancouver, one of the best cities to live in the world (or at least many people believed).

And now, here we are. We packed up our stuff and headed to Japan. And we haven’t looked back ever since. Well, it has only been about a year. And I feel like a common reason people have stayed in Japan all these years is that the lifestyle here is great. Safe, clean and full of creative inspiration.

What did you think working in Tokyo would be like before moving here? Could you tell us about how it has been different to your expectations?

Before moving here, I got a ton of opinions and advice from people who used to and currently live in Japan. The advice was all different, and it was easy to see that a big reason for that is that everyone has different perspectives and reasons for being there. I knew I had to make living in Japan work since as a family we decided to move here after living in Canada for so many years. And so I feel like to a certain degree, my situation is quite a bit different than most as well.

Although I can’t speak Japanese that well, I really wanted to work with Japanese clients (not necessarily from the community of foreigners). I wanted to know how to conduct business and projects here, so I just jumped right in there.

Here are some things that ended up being very different from what I thought:

Preconception Actual ‘Opposite’ Experience
You always have to wear a suit. So I wore a suit to every meeting I had. Better safe than sorry, right? No one wears suits, if you’re in the creative field. Infact, I’ve been told more than once that if you do, people might view that as compensation for lack of ability.

You need to speak super formal Japanese all the time to everyone. Specifically in business and work situations.

While I found that it is helpful to know how to speak formal Japanese, people get that you’re still learning the ropes. People know that Japanese is a tough language, and most appreciate any effort to go out of your way to speak it.

Communication is slow and bureaucratic. It takes forever to move forward in projects.

This is true with some projects, but it can be the exact opposite in others. And from what I can tell, it doesn’t matter what the company size is. In fact, I don’t really think there is a big difference when comparing it to working with North American clients.

Japanese people are reserved and you need to read between the lines.

I would say what is true is that there is a general opinion that Japanese people lack outward confidence that is more apparent with other nationalities. However, in terms of understanding what someone’s true intentions are, all I have ever had to do was ask if I wasn’t sure.

This is just a small list of preconceptions that were wrong. However, there are other things that were right! But that would need to be for another interview! LOL.

Nowadays ux design is a well known job, you can even study it at university. But you came from a different background, can you tell us about your journey to becoming a UX designer?

UX to me marks the maturity of design industry in where there is a vocabulary we can now use to specify certain processes towards what the goal of design has always been … to solve problems.

I was educated in traditional graphic design and illustration. My career began with interactive design using html. When Flash came out, I was part of that revolution where it was discovering new, never before seen ways of communicating. I was a producer and art director for most of my 20s. When I started Rival Schools, I was at the helm and directly convincing clients why they needed to pay for us to make stuff where it always seemed like it was an uphill battle to justify our fees. Design being an afterthought. Design being a coat of paint you throw on once the difficult stuff is done. Always seemingly being the underdog compared to marketing/sales and development.

There isn’t a lot of schools out there that teach you the business of design. And being a freelancer or agency forces you to address the bottom line. Your ability to do ‘business’ directly affects whether or not you get to design or make a living. So yeah, there’s a lot of motivation to learn more than how to do design.

I saw a headline recently that said “Designers don’t need to learn how to code, they need to learn about business”. For me, that statement makes a lot of sense based on my experience of always being in the front of the client or interacting directly with users. A good product is a balance of the needs of the user and business.

Recently with Rival School you have been consulting for a Japanese startup, helping with the UX design of their app, can you tell us what are the challenges?

I’ve currently had experience working with a few Japanese startups now. This one in particular, I’ve been working with for over 8 months. They were successful in securing a fairly sizeable round of venture funding last year. When I first started my involvement with them, there were handful of people. Very startup. And it was like this for a number of years. Then they quickly expanded to over 20 within 1-2 months with the mandate to ship a product in the app store in 3 months.

The challenge here was something that I think any business is scaling immediately like that layered with a number of challenges both internally and externally. Having been involved in and cofounding a few of startups myself, this was very familiar territory for me.

They are a good client and the people there are great. But UX is only one component for the success of a company and only experience and luck can make influence how successful you can be in most cases.

Recently we met at “UX Startup for Growth Event” and discussed how compared with a few years ago, the startup scene is causing rapid changes in Tokyo. What do you think about the Tokyo startup scene?

The Tokyo Startup scene is one that I’ve really felt at home with since coming to Japan. As you know, this is a culture that oozes of intense creativity and passionate craftsmanship that the world recognizes. There is a new generation of passion that is finding a new way to reinvigorate creativity in the business world. It is a great place to be, right now because I feel like this moment is something we will look back several years from now as the beginning of something great.

Do you think that English is still an insurmountable barrier for Japanese people to learn lean UX processes? How relevant is the difference of culture when trying to teach UX strategies to a Japanese team? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

In my experience, UX is in fact something that can be understood easily because it is utilizes a lot of logic and common sense. What we need to do is talk about it more and draw parallels from existing Japanese case studies with what are already familiar concepts of UX.

Practicing lean UX can be a challenge, however, I don’t feel like English fluency has anything to do with it. The challenge has to do with culture and environment. It has to do with how well it is supported. And I think you have to hire with those who are a good fit with that kind of thinking as well. And so from what I can tell, it is the same concept if you were in North America.

My feeling about it is cultural difference has less to do with learning and understanding UX. The culture of following the leader has been by default ingrained into common social thinking. While there are expressions such as ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered’, I think that there are certainly situations where people will avoid practicing certain UX processes such as questioning the hypothesis because the idea comes from someone in a higher position. However, this is evident in North America as well.

Tell us about your company “Rival School” and opening an office in Tokyo. How have you found the process to be different to that in Canada?

Opening up a company in Japan was actually easier than I thought. Japan has a bunch of things you need to check off if you plan to start a company and as long as you check these things off, you’re good! As for the long term running of one, I have yet to form an opinion. Also, I’m still fairly new so the advantages and disadvantages as compared to Canada is something I’m still figuring out. I guess I’ll learn more when I’ve actually done taxes here!

But in Tokyo, there is an abundance of share offices and there are a lot of cool people in the startup community that I’m sure you can find a share office situation if you just ask around a bit. All in all, it hasn’t cost very much to start a company (disclaimer: as a resident).

From your observations what are some of your favourite aspects of the Japanese design industry? Are there any things you think should change.

I think my favorite part of the Japanese design industry is that it has so many depths and practices that are intertwined with art that has existed as part of Japan’s history. Something like that doesn’t really exist in Canada. At least not as wide-spread. The great thing about Japanese design is that there is the innovation to make thing

I also love Japanese typography. The glyphs in the Japanese language with various weights and density make for a wonderfully complex visual form that is unlike any other language I know. While some have found learning Kanji frustrating, I’ve felt like it has been this incredible awakening to another dimension of life.

What should change? Things are going to change on it’s own anyways. But what I would like to see is a wider understanding of how UX isn’t some scary, mysterious mojo that some people have and some people don’t. That’s why I’m trying to involve myself in activities to help teach and spread UX knowledge.

Can you share some lessons you’ve learnt with our readers who are keen to work in Tokyo?

I’ve only ever had experience working in Canada though involved in many projects aimed for overseas. There is a common opinion that Japan is special. It isn’t quite like any other market in the world, which can make it both extremely inspiring and very frustrating at the same time. However, I feel like the people I’ve met who have been open minded to adapting are the ones who are happiest here.

For me, I feel like I’ve discovered new experiences that have ultimately added a wonderful depth to my life. And I don’t think I’ll be changing my situation anytime soon. And everyone should find their own reasons for being out here.

What do you do when you are not working?

Currently: Hanging out with the kids. Getting lost in Tokyo. Ramen. Table tennis. Ramen. Fallout 4. Ramen. Promodel making. Ramen.

Please add anything else you would like to share.

My attitude coming to Japan was very open minded. I had anticipated that the longer I am here, the more I would discover things that annoyed me. I guess I wanted to see beyond the honeymoon phase of this whole experience. But like anything else, you take the good and the bad of any situation and you have to decide whether it is something you enjoy being in overall. And I can say that so far, Japan is pretty awesome.

Thank you Roy for sharing your experience with Tokyo Designers community!

Riccardo Parenti

Italian. Art Director, interaction design enthusiast, occasionally photographer. Riccardo is the founder the TGD community, starting the LinkedIn group when he first moved to Japan in 2010. He is also a volunteer for Behance Tokyo. He loves to spend his free time seeking and exploring abandoned buildings in the Japanese countryside.


  • Reply March 1, 2016

    Mark M.

    Great article and thank you. I’m in the planning stages of moving over to Japan and it’s nice to know that some things that I had learned are not necessarily true.

    • Riccardo Parenti
      Reply June 6, 2016

      Riccardo Parenti

      Thank you MArk!
      We do our best to only report real life facts!


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