Japanese Graphic Design: Not in Production

Japanese Graphic Design: Not in Production

This is the third iteration of the essay Japanese Graphic Design: Not in Production. The first appeared in the German typography magazine Slanted in 2012. The second version appeared on the Japanese cultural criticism blog Neojaponisme, an endeavor of which I am a co-editor. Both of these iterations featured an accompanying selection of work by contemporary Japan-based graphic design practices and projects. This version is unaccompanied by said selection of work, and the text has been slightly modified to allow the essay to work as a standalone piece. What follows is a contextual analysis and introduction to the issues at hand when considering cross-cultural discussions of graphic design between Asia and the Western World at present.

The Economic Angle

Japanese Graphic Design: Not in Production
Graphic design in Asia is almost wholly consumed with practice from a commercial perspective. Culturally, graphic design is “cool”, however does not have the greater cultural cachet/sense of being ‘important’ to society that graphic design as an area of activity has in the Western First World. In Japan, my country of residence, graphic designers’ salaries are approximately 1/3 of what Americans’ and Europeans’ salaries are. Junior graphic designers in Japan often make less than USD $20,000 a year. This financial reality cultivates a worldview of economic struggle and a singular focus on commercial activity. Critical graphic design practices, speculative projects and community-driven efforts are emerging, but on a much smaller scale and lessened pace than in North America and Europe.  Client/designer roles are both the norm and the standard.

The Classroom

Japanese Graphic Design - Classroom / Education
This near-completely commercial approach to graphic design is complemented by a lack of educational infrastructure in Asia for deeper design study and education. Undergraduate programs in Japan suffer from an inability to offer adequate comprehensive education, as to how fold graphic forms, themes, and concepts into compelling, well-reasoned, craft-centric graphic design. Instead, educational institutions with graphic design programs focus on style and reductive “Big Idea” methodological approaches to design thinking. Japanese postgraduate programs do not focus on graphic design theory, literature or history – instead focusing on practical projects. Students and faculty at universities are focused on scrambling to obtain grant money from large corporations in order to stay afloat in lieu of focusing on expansion (much less study) of design discourse. One of the lone programs focusing on a variety of methodologies and design-centric thought is the non-accredited MeMe Design School, a trade school specializing in editorial design in Tokyo. Given the cultural insistence upon subsistence models of graphic design practice in Japan, it unsurprising that one of the lone bastions of quality design education in Japan is wholly privatized.

The Designed Word

Japanese Graphic Design - Translation / History
Within Japanese graphic design literature, criticism and history is nearly non-existent. There is a dearth of contemporary writing on critical issues from within Japan and the lone publication that offers a complimentary selection of graphic design criticism, theory and history in Japanese is Idea Magazine. The bulk of other graphic design publications within the country focus on printing technologies and portfolios of work from abroad – if any play is given to a domestic designer, it is usually in the service of maintaining a cult of personality around an older celebrity designer1. It is unfortunate that many recent issues of Idea are not translated into English – budgetary constraints do not permit Idea’sgreater project of contributing to the narrative of Japanese graphic design history to be extended into secondary languages. There is a decade’s worth of Japanese graphic design history just waiting to be translated and published in English. As much as Japan is lacking international design literature, the rest of the world is similarly without a deep understanding of the singular and rich history from this highly developed, aesthetically unique nation-state.2

Additionally, 99% of Western graphic design literature has not been translated into most Asian languages. The few translations available are the results of self-initiated efforts. Korean graphic designer Jiwon Lee is notable for having recently translated the collections Looking Closer 3 (Allworth Press, 1999) and Graphic Design Theory (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) into his native Korean. Fellow Korean Min Choi should be commended for his also-recent translation of Robin Kinross’ Modern Typography: An Essay In Critical History (Hyphen Press, 1992). These three titles have infinitely helped to open up discussion about the potentialities of graphic design in Korea, both in the educational and public spheres. The lack of this type of literature and the resulting discussion in Japan and other Asian countries are notable and palpable. Lee’s excellent essay, What’s ‘Crystal Goblet’ in Korean (Design Observer, 2011) is a wonderful reference to the issues inherent in Asian graphic design education, striving toward a common literature and the need for graphic design publication across multiple languages for wider audiences.

Fast, Loose & Deadline-driven

Japanese Graphic Design - Cross-Cultural Communication
Despite these immense barriers, more and more young Japanese design practices are moving into critical fields of inquiry – exploring the boundaries of what graphic design can be. I have significant interest in the promotion of 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. Though Asian graphic design and Western graphic design have some common ground, it is not enough – we all have much to learn. All involved are striving for similar purposes: enhanced awareness, expanded forms of practice and a better quality of life infused with multiple perspectives.

The mass movement of yore to rebrand graphic design as “visual communication” exposes our primary weakness: graphic designers seem to have little interest in actually communicating, particularly cross-culturally. It is of the utmost importance to engage with other cultures and explore what they have to offer.

Japanese Graphic Design: Not In Production

© Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center
© Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

2011 saw the opening of Graphic Design: Now in Production, a massive, sprawling exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota (US), with the exhibition later travelling to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York (2012), the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2012), the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in Texas (2013), the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina (2013) and the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence (2014).

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 National Design Museum curated both, with Ian Albinson of Artofthetitle, Jeremy Leslie of magCulture, 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, methods 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.

Walker Art Center - In Production
© Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

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.3 Åbäke get their usual turn as well – their poor form and “exploratory” practice4 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?5 – 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?

Walker Art Center - In Production
© Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

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.

Walker Art Center - In Production
© Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

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 approach6. Less well-known, but equally influential and highly participatory projects such as Ondol/A Few Warm Stones7, 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 write up by curator Andrew Blauvelt:


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. The following is excerpted from “Japanese Typography Part One: Building Blocks”, published in Slanted #11 (2010).

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.


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.

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.

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 practices8) also go unmentioned. In their stead, the reader is lobbed an easy, sloppy catch – akin to summing up American graphic design as being embodied 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.9 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 exploration.

The goal of this essay 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. (Intent is something else – some seem to publish in order to reify their positions as the “statesmen” of graphic design within Japan, whereas others have a true interest in helping communicate culturally specific nuances of visual communication.)

A culture having a different language and a divergent history does not make it 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 schemes10. 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: just 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. Within Japanese graphic design literature in book form, aesthetics and a sense of ‘purity’ are paramount, often backed up with a thinly veiled nationalist rhetoric that does not come through in English translations of certain famed authors – potentially inflammatory comments are transliterated in as non-threatening language as possible.
  2. Conversely, the countries in Asia formerly under the imperial rule of Japan have had an extremely tough go at presenting cultural visual identities to the world that are not consummately inflected by Japanese occupation. After a recent lecture trip to Seoul, a somewhat design-savvy blogger commented to me at a networking event, “What does Korean design look like anyhow? Everything I see from Korea in the contemporary sense looks Japanese.” He was talking about style, not the granular elements of Korean visual communication (i.e. Hangul) that so clearly separate Korean visual and cultural representation from the rest of Asia. In terms of popular culture, it was the usual lack of analysis on the part of a North American designer – the cultures’ visual output looks similar, so it apparently isn’t worth further investigation.
  3.  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(2011) and reprinted in Slanted Magazine #19 (2012).
  4. Åbäke have made it excusable for every half-baked cultural practice* to parade itself as being somehow graphic design-oriented. * I was not referring to the spaghetti that accompanied the movie viewing that is apparently an intrinsic part of their design practice.
  5. Their “self-critiquing” works have already been wrung and hung out to dry by Randy Nakamura in On The Uselessness of Design Criticism (2010).
  6. Notably, that of the Werkplaats Typographie (NL). More at Sulki & Min’s website.
  7. 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.
  8.  i.e: Ffffound!, Pinterest’s precursor and archetype.
  9. 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 theirHistory of Graphic Design(Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983).
  10. Korea’s even less so.