Exploring Graphic Design in Japan

Graphic design is language. It varies based on location but it can be recognizable to those who aren’t familiar. Design can also be influential across countries and reach beyond political and language barriers. Visual language is incredibly important to society and it links people who otherwise would have no way to connect. What designers create can impact the entire globe if we allow it too.

It is always beneficial, as artists and designers, to acknowledge the different trends and techniques happening in design all around the world. In our presentation we went through and described basic historical ground work and examples of graphic design in the countries of Japan, Germany, and India, in hopes to gain inspiration and admiration for all the different forms of design that can exist in our world.

We picked these countries because they are incredibly diverse from not only each other, but also from the western aesthetics that we’ve witnessed and been used to our entire life. We wanted to find new perspectives on design choices that will hopefully help us in our own endeavours. We can learn a lot from exposing ourselves to these different perspectives on art and adding what we learn to our design “toolbox”.

Japanese Culture

Japan has an incredibly distinctive style of design. Especially with how popular anime and manga has become all around the world. A lot of the work that comes out of Japan can be universally recognized. But within that, there is also a huge range of styles to explore. Japanese design techniques almost oppose a lot of rules and tendencies of modern western trends and I believe that is why other parts of the world have become so fascinated with the culture there.

Trends

The first thing you’ll likely notice when looking at Japanese design is the abundance of vibrant colors. This use of color  is present in all of Japanese culture in general with the beautiful and lively neighborhoods of Harajuku and Shibuya. The neon signs and rainbow of hues definitely translate into Japanese art and they definitely aren’t afraid of moving away from constricted color palettes.

Harajuku city at night

Tadanori Yokoo poster

One of the most recognizable trends in Japan is the “kawaii” style in pop culture. It’s seen in clothing, art, music, tv, movies and more. This began around the 1970s with the popularization of teenage girls using mechanical pencils to create extremely fine lines that would lead them to develop a very soft and round style of handwriting accompanied by cute small drawings like emojis. This handwriting trend was actually difficult to read but got so popular that it had to be banned by schools. But the style would eventually reach magazines and become comics which marketing companies would then turn into profitable merchandise (Ratner). Overall it is just an aesthetic that the Japanese people admire. They praise round, youthful faces and pastel colors just as americans accentuate chiseled jawlines, hollow cheekbones and the dramatics of dark colors.

Another commonality in their design that I found interesting was their web design and how much it actually differs from american web design. Websites tend to be very information dense and lack empty space (Stribley). This contrasts greatly to the west’s tendency towards minimalism. This is also partially because Japan has an aging society and a lot of their older population uses older software and are unwilling to upgrade. So a lot of web designers have to keep this in mind. They do not want to risk confusion so they cram as much information as possible onto these sites as well as keeping the interface simple and familiar (Wada). “Details are needed because risk is absolutely not tolerated. More is better. Way more is best.” says digital creator Rich Mirocco.

Screenshot of Japanese website

Important movements and designers and modern similarities

Let’s go back to the beginning of graphic design in Japan. The difference between fine art and commercial design began in the 17th century with ukiyo-e (ooki yo eh) genre of woodblock prints. These prints were mass-produced and reached a large number of people. It was often discussed whether it should even be regarded as art. The prints exhibited famous actors, landscapes, heroic tales, folk stories and more (Novin).

Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave

Skipping ahead to the 1920s and 30s. We have the Showa Period. Much of graphic design during this period is directly related to modern commercial trends in art. Artists put a big emphasis on the product and making it as appealing as possible. We see this as an essential in commercial design now. Communication design became popular and was accepted by the public and a lot of the visual elements extend from Japan’s growing cities and industrialization. More cities meant more businesses and more businesses meant more advertising. Gihachiro Okuyama is an example of the type of commercial art that was being printed at this time. He made posters for different companies like the Japan Wool Company and Nikka Whiskey in the late 20s (Novin). Below on the first image is a poster from the Showa period for a Japanese beer company and on the second is a modern Coca-Cola commercial. As you can see there are similarities between the two styles.

1960s Japan saw radical changes in popular art as Neo Dada became a popular art practice. Eye-popping colors and bold images with commentary about the political climate emerged as a new aesthetic. Keichi Tanaami used images of American airplanes, fleeing masses, and bombs reflecting his memories of growing up during WWII alongside psychedelic patterns and motifs. He would continue to design for bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Monkees and worked with Andy Warhol in the late 60s (Novin).  Again, below, I’ve shown an example of a poster from 1967 by Japanese designer Keiichi Tanaami and a band poster from today, inspired by the psychedelic design of the time period.

As the end of the century rolled around, computer graphics started to advance more and more. Design had less of a “handmade” look. Clean lines, solid colors, and perfected shapes took over as essential during this time. Shigeo Fukuda is a great example of art from this period. He’s most known for his optical illusions. His work focused a lot on portraying what is needed with as little information as possible. This is super different from the Neo Dada era of the 60s (Novin). This minimalist technique is becoming more and more popular in western modern graphic design.

As you’ve seen Japan holds an incredibly huge and diverse collection of design styles. It’s really interesting to see what elements get pulled from which eras and what other elements have been adopted into western design as well. This country is so rich in culture and art that it is not difficult to understand the fascination that the rest of the world has.

Sources

Ratner, Paul. “Why Do Japanese People Love Cuteness? Learn the Science of ‘Kawaii.’” Big Think, Big Think, 30 Jan. 2019, bigthink.com/paul-ratner/why-do-the-japanese-love-cute-things.

Stribley, Mary. “Graphic Design from around the World: Japanese Design.” Learn, Canva, 28 Oct. 2018, www.canva.com/learn/japanese-design/.

Wada, Natsuki. “Why Are Japan’s Websites so Cluttered?” Medium, Medium, 2 Aug. 2018, medium.com/@wachka06/why-are-japans-websites-so-cluttered-59dbc8c99cd3.

Novin, Guity. “Chapter 62; Modern Graphic Design in Japan.” A History of Graphic Design, guity-novin.blogspot.com/2012/11/chapter-62-modern-graphic-design-in.html.

 

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