Misruptions / Disruptions

Misruptions/Disruptions: A Japanese Graphic Design History Timeline.

Ian Lynam introduces one of his latest projects — an interactive timeline of Japanese graphic design magazines.

I recently put together an interactive timeline of Japanese graphic design publications called Misruptions/Disruptions: A Japanese Graphic Design History Timeline.

The timeline is shown in graphic slices of information:

  • World Events: Sociopolitical and socioeconomic events for greater context
  • Graphic Design Events: Historical events that helped shape the continuum of Graphic Design History in Japan
  • Graphic Design Publications: A fairly granular review of graphic design publications in Japan from 1890 to the present day, including more general design-oriented publications as well as printing industry trade journals and hybrid early Avant Garde art and prose journals
  • Graphic Design Eras: My own interpretation-in-progress of historical slices of Japanese graphic design history
  • Recurring figures: Mentions of some key figures who were primary agents in the development of Japanese Graphic Design as a sector of cultural production.

The Backstory

In May of 2014, I was invited to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to weigh in on strategies toward curating a collection of graphic design artifacts (not the denigratory “ephemera”) from both Los Angeles and foreign cultures that fed into the city’s current diverse population. In my case, I was invited because of my intimacy with Japanese graphic design. Among others present were graphic design luminaries Lorraine Wild (LACMA / CalArts), Victor Margolin (University of Illinois / Design Issues), Andrew Blauvelt (Walker Art Center), Paola Antonelli (New York MoMA), Benjamin Weiss (Boston Museum of Fine Art), Marina Garone Gravier (National Hemerotec of Mexico), and many of the best design curators, critics, and historians working today.

It was a truly wonderful convergence, and I am of the belief that the representatives of LACMA as an institution walked away with a thorough understanding of how they might curate collections of work that promotes and reinforces their goals as a major institution dedicated to crafting a more thorough understanding of graphic design as a cultural sector of production.

In response to their request to suggest a methodology toward collecting work that helps chart the development of Japanese graphic design, I offered something different from than the standard. The easy answer would be a poster collection developed by the institution. I imagine that the representatives of the institution’s potential goal was to help quantify and qualify their already-substantial holdings of Japanese poster work, of which I have since been helping pitch in on. However, in my ever-contrarian approach, I suggested an opposing route to the seeming “show pony” approach of collecting only posters — what I proposed was the cultivation and curation of a lineage of graphic design magazines from Japan. Graphic design magazines, at their heart trade publications, communicate the reality of graphic design as a sector of differentiated cultural production in Japan, warts and all.

In his influential book White, Hara Kenya insists on an ur-Modernist approach to foreign perception of Japanese graphic design. The international stereotype of Japanese graphic design is trifold. There is the perception of graphic white space and singular focus — poise — effete minimalism shrouded in atmospheric, hazy mists of Oriental vapor. Then there is its opposite: hyper-kawaii, nearly-out-of-control-yet-somehow-still-in-control dimension of character-driven graphic design work. Yet there is still a third axis: technologically-driven pixelocity — futurist aesthetics coupled with rapid adoption of the latest technologies .

When one departs Japan’s major urban areas and travels the countryside, however, a very different aesthetic emerges. As many have said, Tokyo and Japan are in many ways very different creatures, and this is also true aesthetically. The Japanese visual vernacular outside urban centers is still a mash-up: graphic design and architecture synthesizing old and new in a much more bare-bones, less articulated fashion. On a recent drive with my wife and father-in-law through their hometown of Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture, the landscape is dominated more by fairly crude, flat 1950s-style sign painting and cheap vinyl plotted signs, dotted with the occasional Mos Burger sign or gaudy, hyper-neon pachinko parlor signage. Rural areas offer up something quite different than minimalist Modernism, cavity-inducing cutesiness, or super-techno-aesthetics. The suburbs and the country are the metaphoric “off-white”: an everywhere fraught with history, continued historical design practice, and just-in-time visual ephemera.

Curating a collection of Japanese graphic design periodicals would help to tell the story of both urban and rural visual life in Japan. This would show the reality of simultaneously commercial and art practices beholden to economic forces and materials, and a more telling paean to how graphic design in Japan has actually developed — a phenomenon diametrically opposed to how Japanese graphic design is portrayed in most international design, art, graphic design, and cultural media. Japanese graphic design periodicals are exemplars of imposed realities and labor expectations in terms of input, throughput and output, as well as following repercussions/reverberations.

The long and short of it: There’s a ton of ugly work in these magazines, but there’s just as much amazing work. And nearly all of it helps tell the story of reprographic technologies and visual styles from different eras, as well as how they have affected the national aesthetic(s)—all with wildly veering quality control.

Instead of doing the usual Powerpoint-esque presentation in L.A., what I created was an interactive timeline of both key moments from Japanese graphic design History and spans of publication of Japanese graphic design magazines, studded with sociopolitical moments of historical note to give everything context. This timeline is very much a work-in-progress—more of a rendered pencil drawing than a rough sketch at the present moment, but with luck it is a useful guide to navigating the “timelessness versus timeliness” debate regarding Japanese Graphic Design History. It is a highly authored timeline, as well.

That being said, at the very least, folks now have a more-than-holistic guide to what to buy when it’s time to lay those cool, crisp yen bills down for crumbling graphic design mags of yore… and that’s actually the most interesting thing about this timeline as a greater project. With it, you can construct your own physical collection of Japanese graphic design publications if you so desire. All it requires is a bit of patience, a keen eye, a penchant for trawling musty countryside bookshops and the obligatory filter mask.

So, with that, I invite you to check it out.

Ian LYNAM
October 16, 2014

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

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