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Japanese Graphic Design: Not In Production

Japanese Graphic Design: Not In Production

A week-long, seven part series about contemporary Japanese Graphic Design. Today’s initial post offers a critique of the current international graphic design retrospective exhibition traveling across the United States and its disavowal of graphic design culture outside of America and Western Europe. This will be followed by a series of posts highlighting contemporary Japan-based graphic design activity of interest, introducing assorted designers, design studios, and other, more wide-ranging practices.

2011 saw the opening of Graphic Design: Now in Production, a massive, sprawling exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the exhibition set to later travel to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina.

Accompanying the exhibition is the release of a catalog with the same title. Andrew Blauvelt of the Walker Art Center and Ellen Lupton of the Cooper-Hewitt curated both, with Ian Albinson of, Jeremy Leslie of, and Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio of BrandNew/Under Consideration in additional curatorial roles.

The catalog’s introduction reads that the book is “Gently inspired by The Last Whole Earth Catalog,” mixing “short chunks of text with images from contemporary practice, anchored by a series of longer essays.” The introduction speaks about the pitfalls of attempting to shore up a recent history, in particular the past decade, of graphic design as a sphere of activity and production, and in this respect, the catalog falls far short of its attempt at documenting graphic design on a truly global scale.

Methodologically, putting together a paragraph about assorted practices, projects, methodologies, and visual trends is a fairly easy task. As a practicing graphic designer, I was aware of an easy ninety percent of the projects covered within the book. Sure, it takes time to write 500 short paragraphs about 500 subjects, but all within are easy targets.

As usual, Experimental Jetset get a disproportionate amount of coverage and fills it with a cocky, one-trick pony, having distilled a “punk rock” reaction to design practice and history and then slathering it with an easy quote from a dead theorist.1 Åbäke get their usual turn, as well — their poor form and “exploratory” practice2 backed up with the somehow still “cool” “parasite magazine” hogging up a handful of pages. I do not disagree that Experimental Jetset and Åbäke should be mentioned and get their fair due — I mean, where would we be in this contemporary age overwrought with Helvetica without EJ?3 — but are they so important as to trot out visual and semantic equivalents of a wet fart as “premium” content for this catalog and have it go unmentioned? And wouldn’t the Åbäke parasite magazine reduced to a photo with a blurb jutting from the gutter of one page be enough?

Then, there are the glaring omissions. Where is the wild and exciting form-making of Universal Everything/Matt Pyke? Where are Craig Mod‘s lovely paeans about electronic publishing and design? Where are Nieves and the current trend of content-lite chapbooks masquerading as zines? Where is the @font-face/webfont revolution? Where are Northern Mexico’s amazing DJ logos? I mean, the church-burning black metal cult get their moment via Christophe Szpajdel‘s Bic pen acrobatics, but what about the blissed-out folks surrounded by terror, yet exercising none themselves? And why the hell is the Linux logo in there? No graphic designer gives a shiiiiiit about that thing. In short, the state of graphic design is on fire (or at the very least is being subjected to an overwhelming amount of shortsightedness), but everyone’s too busy Tweeting and “starting up” and mimicking old Archis layouts to get down to business.

What is truly lacking in the book and exhibition is a sense of scope: Graphic Design: Now in Production represents a North American/Western European worldview toward graphic design that eschews the labors of much of the world. Notably absent is much mention of recent graphic design activity in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. With short-format writing the dominant trend at the present moment, solid strategic thinking should be present in initiatives to represent any holistic approach to an area of cultural production. Sure, the writing can be short and pithy, but it should be far-reaching in the material covered.

If observed on a macro-level, certain countries get the short end of the stick. Korea, for one, is wholly unrepresented in the catalog. The most influential graphic designer in that country Ahn Sang-Soo receives no mention despite the fact that his work has revolutionized and energized graphic design as an area of intensified interest. Younger, well-known Korean graphic designers whom have studied abroad such as Sulki and Min Choi also do not appear in the book, even though they have instigated a very defined and widely-published aesthetic and methodological approach4. Less well-known, but equally influential and highly participatory projects such as Ondol/A Few Warm Stones5 are also ignored. In essence, the message from America being sent is, “Thanks, Korea. We’ll gladly take your study abroad students, but we’ll be damned if we’ll acknowledge any contributions from your country.”

Also lacking are contributions from so many other countries — the effect of easily available software and computing on Ethiopian and Eritrean music packaging, the Thai signage landscape, branding in Singapore, and innumerable others. New Zealand gets a random single hit through the work of David Bennewith‘s monograph on Joseph Churchward, but nowhere is Kris Sowersby, New Zealand’s immensely popular leading type designer.

Japan, the country in which I reside, gets a mention in the catalog, though one that is fleeting and not wholly correct. The activity of the Morisawa Corporation gets a brief writeup by curator Andrew Blauveldt:

The Japanese language employs three different language systems: kanji, hiragana and katakana, representing thousands of characters. This reality, coupled with the complex nature of character strokes, makes font design for the Japanese language especially difficult and demanding. Japan’s leading maker of fonts is Morisawa, a company whose roots reach back to 1924. Morisawa typically spends up to four years to meticulously render its typefaces, which can be found throughout the country in use on everything from signs to screens.

A more accurate description is that the Japanese visual language is comprised of a number of other systems, as well as including Latin characters and analphabetic symbols.6; To be ignored is one matter, but for a whole country’s activity to be given a glossed-over, under-informed conflation through the prism of a sole company/easy target is just as insulting. Sure, Morisawa is the biggest type foundry/distributor in Japan, but the company is by no means the best. The past decade has seen Morisawa’s primary advance be a push for annual font licensing through their Morisawa Passport subscription program, not the development of excellent typefaces. Many smaller type foundries have popped up or refined their game, offering far more formally thorough typefaces that render better at smaller sizes than Morisawa’s. In essence, an attempt at an easy summation and a lack of sophisticated understanding is provided in lieu of in-depth cultural analysis. (Moreover, if the Morisawa entry was not included, this whole essay most likely would have never come into being.)

Morisawa is an odd choice as the representative of design activity in Japan. Known quantities/old guard such as Hara Kenya and his work for Muji, Groovisions, Nakajima Hideki, and Sugiura Kohei are not mentioned. Newer Japanese practitioners whose work is widely respected and whom have helped shape global aesthetics over the past decade such as W+K Tokyo Lab (in the realm of formally rich, detail-oriented motion graphics), Dainippon Type Organization (operating at the intersection of concept and modular typography/lettering), and Nakamura Yugo’s THA (trailblazing web-based aesthetics and practices7) also go unmentioned. In their stead, the reader is lobbed an easy, sloppy catch — akin to summing up American graphic design as summarized by Adobe or British graphic design as being exemplified by Monotype Imaging Ltd.

Aside from purely typographic and orthographic concerns, Graphic Design: Now in Production neatly mirrors the lack of regard and research exhibited by graphic design-oriented writers and researchers toward areas other than Western Europe and North America since the establishment of a body of writing about graphic design as a practice.8 Graphic design is not merely an America/Euro-centric First World pursuit, and the cultures and histories surrounding the development of graphic design elsewhere are worthy of pursuit.

It is with this disregard for acknowledgement and discontent with the cultural viewpoint expressed in Graphic Design: Now in Production that we have put together Japanese Graphic Design: Not in Production. Gently inspired by a myopic worldview of graphic design activity, and mimicking the form and format of Graphic Design: Now in Production, what will follow shortly is an overview of contemporary Japanese graphic design practices in a mix of short-format texts accompanying images with outbound links in the version here.9 The focus of this feature is equally myopic, showing only a number of important projects and practices from within Japan that have surfaced in the past decade. It is my hope that it will act as a localized supplement to the greater understanding of design activity.

Japanese Graphic Design: Not in Production focuses on the activities of highly active designers, type foundries and Japanese design publications from the past ten years. The goal of this section is to help promote cognizance of graphic design activity in Japan — acknowledgement of such activity is often hindered by the linguistic and social differences between Japan and the rest of the world, yet this gap is lessening. The activity of publications like Idea and +81; Japan-based international designers like Helmut Schmid and AQ; and internationally-minded Japanese graphic designers like Hara Kenya have helped to increase the communication and awareness of Japanese graphic design as a sector of culture and cultural production. It is my hope that the follow-up feature helps serve the same purpose. It is by no means a holistic, comprehensive collation of all important graphic design activity in contemporary Japan, and pointedly veers in the direction of smaller, more critically-oriented practices and publications.10

A culture having a different language and a divergent history does not make the culture off-limits for international review. This should be a challenge to individuals examining graphic design as documentarians — the world is larger than navel-gazing information graphics analyzing one’s personal consumption habits, as popular as that may be. Other languages and cultures are intensely more interesting in the long run. In particular, Japan’s history in regards to graphic design has been under-analyzed in the English language, both in the historic and contemporary schemes11. It is worth straying from the comfortable and easily understood to cast a wider net: observing and analyzing graphic design from a wider perspective. It is also worth questioning what is presented in officious formats: because something is plated does not make it food. In the case of Graphic Design: Now in Production, this analogy may not be wholly apt, but I, for one, left the dinner table still feeling hungry.

1 I really, really wonder how “important” Experimental Jetset really are. They have a staggeringly huge body of work, but when conflated, it is often a simplistic collection: “One concept/visual style per project only, please move along…” This was discussed more at length in the essay “With A Spatula In Her Hand” in my self-published The Space Is The Place Supplement and reprinted in Slanted Magazine #19.

2 Åbäke have made it excusable for every half-baked cultural practice to parade itself as being somehow graphic design-oriented.

3 Their “self-critiquing” works have already been wrung and hung out to dry by Randy Nakamura in “On The Uselessness of Design Citicism”.

4 Notably, that of the Werkplaats Typogrpaphie.

5 Ondol is a student research project led by Chris Ro that explores Korean graphic design and typographic history in journal form also go unnoticed. With only two volumes published to date, Ondol has already greatly added to the discourse and body of Korean graphic design literature, education, and understanding.

6 The following is excerpted from Japanese Typography Part One: Building Blocks, published in Slanted #11:

The core components of the Japanese language:

This is the family of Chinese logographic characters imported to Japan which are utilized to write nouns and the bases of verbs and adjectives. Kanji are morphograms — visual symbols which represent words rather than sounds. They can be a bit confusing, however, in that the forms of Chinese calligraphy were borrowed and used to represent natively Japanese concepts and subjects. Some kanji are fairly direct pictograms, while others represent ideas. Kanji include huge numbers of compound characters, as well. Some kanji can have up to ten different readings (base meanings/morphemes).

There are over 50,000 characters that comprise the kanji system, though between 2,000 to 3,000 are in common use in Japan.

The syllabic family of Japanese characters that can be used to spell out words phonetically, be that a form of kanji, or not, as is the case for many Japanese words to inflect language. Hiragana developed from Chinese characters used to aid pronunciation, a practice which originated in the 5th century. Originally, there was more than one hiragana character for each syllable in the Japanese language, but this was reformed in 1900, and one character (or character set) was codified for each sound. Hiragana, being simplified calligraphic characters, are formally fluid and graceful.

There are 46 hiragana characters currently in use.

The syllabic family of Japanese characters utilized for words from foreign languages, onomatopoeia, and to spell out difficult kanji-based words. Katakana were potentially developed from simplified Chinese characters as a form of shorthand, though a conflicting and disputed theory exists that they are a form of imported script from Korea.

There are 46 hiragana characters currently in use.

The Western alphabet, sprinkled liberally throughout written Japanese where appropriate for ease, atmosphere and communicativity. Latin lettering is often simplified in terms of the omission of macrons and circumflexes necessary to pronounce Japanese words correctly (which just leads to further confusion for all involved).

Based on Chinese numerals, there are a number of systems including a common one that utilizes a minimum of strokes per character, as well as a formal numbering system used for financial documents.

Japanese punctuation is as highly developed as punctuation in Western languages, though very different formally. For example, in lieu of quotation marks, Japanese uses its own form, called kagikakko, i.e.:「Hello!」Western punctuation is utilized, as well, in particular question and exclamation marks.

non-alphabetic characters
Included in most Japanese digital typefaces is a large collection of marks and symbols used to delineate abstract ideas such as “postal code” (〒)

The Japanese language is a mix of all of these different systems, each with several subcategories.

7 i.e: Ffffound!, Pinterest’s precursor and archetype

8 That being said, despite many design educators’ grumblings, Philip Meggs and Alston Purvis should be praised for the brief history of Japanese commercial art that was folded into their History of Graphic Design.

9 The print version of this essay is bolstered by texts not applicable to Néojaponisme’s Japan-centric focus.

10 The work of more popular designers such as Hara Kenya and Nakajima Hideki get a fair amount of play in the contemporary global graphic design press at present.

11 Korea’s even less so.

September 25, 2012

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.

5 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Most important Japanese typographical innovation of the twenty-first century? Without question, it has to be

  2. Carl Says:

    Haha, my comment broke your comment system. The punchline of joke was the emoji .

  3. Carl Says:

    Ugh, this comment system and I do not get along. :-(


  4. leoboiko Says:

    > For example, in lieu of punctuation marks, Japanese uses its own form, called kagikakko, i.e.:「Hello!」

    “in lieu of quotation marks”?

  5. Ian LYNAM Says:

    Thanks for spotting that, Mr. Boiko!