As some of our clients will know I recently took a couple of weeks off for my honeymoon in Japan. It’s been ‘on our list’ for some time, so the honeymoon seemed the ideal opportunity.
It’s the mix of modernity and tradition that has always attracted me. How can a country be both so traditional and so modern at the same time? Japanese art and design has always interested and inspired me too. Particularly the simple yet striking nature of Japanese prints such as Hokusai’s iconic wave or Mount Fuji, the strange beauty of the geisha, clean lines of paper panelled rooms, the neon packed streets of Shibuya and the ubiquitous and expressive art form of manga.
When I travel it always recharges my creative batteries, drinking in new sights and stashing away ideas and inspiration for the future, Japan was no different. I’ve been to many coutries, all over the world and all have served to inspire my design, but what is special about Japan is how the old has endured and lives along side the modern and how it has inevitably shaped the new visual culture. There are many observations I could make about Japan and Japanese culture in general but I’ll stick to just a few brief visual observations…
A full on visual assault
Any westerner can picture the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. It’s often used as a videographic illustration of frenetic city life. In the streets that expand from that point shopping malls are stacked high in every direction and tall neon signs vie for your attention far above. Bright, flashing, animated, loud, it’s not confined to the buildings either, vans with billboards (usually for pop bands) drive up and down pumping out the latest track for all to hear. It’s a full on assault, the design is not refined, it’s a who shouts loudest or blinks brightest competition, and the sight was overwhelming. On the Metro advertising is everywhere too. Ads so packed with writing and photoshopped faces (the trend for ‘real looking’ models has not yet caught on in Japan!) in their desperation to say everything the impact of many ads was completely lost in a sea of writing, but yet something did catch my eye…
Everything has a face…
From many adverts looked back cute little characters, from people to platypus, penguins, green furry blobs, raccoons, bears and trains with faces. These were not there exclusively for children, they featured in many marketing messages for adults. Some brands had obviously been developed to include a character or character set and these cheery little creatures told me what to do in an emergency, what train pass to get which drink to buy.
It made me wonder, were these characters how their designers sought to make an emotional connection with the audience? They certainly triggered a little smile in me. They allowed the brands to connect with the audience by infusing their communications with emotion.
Though the ‘cute’ is less accepted for an adult audience in the UK, the use of characters can not be underestimated as a way to engage, communicate and create emotional connections. Particularly where staid stock photography and photoshopped perfection might alienate or disengage the viewer.
Patterns and line work
I’ve mentioned that I have long admired Japanese art, for its graphic simplicity. On visiting a couple of museums I was delighted also to see the use of patterns overlaid on to simple black line drawings to illustrate backgrounds and fabrics was used. These types of patterns were echoed in the origami paper that was gifted to us by friendly strangers. The patterns I found in these places have certainly inspired me to create and use some repeating patterns in my own work. It was interesting also and perhaps not unrelated to learn (at the International Manga Museum) that in Manga, shading and texture is added by cutting it from pre made texture sheets applied to the ink drawings. Maybe this, once upon a time was informed by Japanese wood block prints? Manga uses simple yet highly effective lines to portray movement and emotion. An art that can surely be studied and injected into logo design, to create more dynamic brand marks. In the art of old and new Japan I saw plenty of inspiration.
Beauty in the mundane
Whilst wandering many cities and towns in Japan we noticed that the manhole covers were works of art in themselves, often unique to each city, depicting everything from cherry blossoms to repeating geometric patterns. I decided to start documenting them. Many were great examples of design that worked in one colour effectively using the circular space. I wondered if some might not inform the future design of some logo, stamp or motif. I’ll certainly be looking through them next time I’m creating one.
Japan is a country of contrasts.
From grey suited salary men to brightly dressed and alternative Harajuku girls. From the calm simplicity of a paper doored tatami room to frenetic, neon lit city life. The contrasts of Japan create a vibrant mixture of old and new, conformity and sub culture. And a rich visual culture of which I’m sure I have only just scratched the surface. But even this has seen me sit down at my desk once more, inspired and eager to apply this new found inspiration in my work.