Japanese design has always been a source of amazement around the world, from simple, minimal designs to crazily complex ones that catch your eye a mile away. Along with their bizarre concepts for television commercials, Japan expresses a distinctive identity when it comes to design. Therefore, we are going to talk about what it takes to craft this Japanese design identity and the complexity needed to achieve this level of craftsmanship.
To start off, let me introduce myself. I’m a digital designer born and raised in Singapore. Singapore is known as an Asian country, but we’re actually a cluster of people from all over the world. On one hand, what makes Singapore uniquely Singapore is Singlish, a pidgin mix of languages and dialects such as Mandarin, Malay and Hokkien. On the other hand, our culture and design aesthetics bear strong influences from other countries. After spending 4 years working in various medium to large design companies in Singapore, I wanted/needed to experience a different domain of design. I spent 6 months mastering Japanese before I decided to take the plunge. It has been another short 6 months since I joined Japan’s design industry, and here are some things I observed.
Coming from a primarily Web Design background, I’ll talk about my experience in that. We all know that in order to create stunning design, many elements have to come together:
1. A Big Idea that differentiates the company from the rest of the pack,
2. Digital User Experience (UX) that makes using the medium easy and seamless,
3. Key Visuals (KV) that not only carry the tone of voice for the company but also the main message that can’t be expressed by words,
4. Font Families that carry emotions and make the website that much sexier,
6. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO),
7. Load Speed,
Of course, whatever I say here is from personal experience and is in no way the absolute truth. What are some of your experiences in the design industry? Leave a comment if you’d like to share your story.
Conceptualising a Big Idea with a devoted yet quirky team is the best part of my job; some may say it’s the only fun part. Truth is, having such a team is a luxury most small to medium companies cannot afford. These companies either lack time or money to devote many resources to a project, or the Big Idea has already been determined beforehand. Luckily for me, in ZIZO we spend a good amount of time coming together to scratch our heads—or bang our heads against the wall—to hatch a solid concept for our clients. We also dig into the client’s company’s history and build a SWOT analysis around the company itself. Doing so helps us present our clients in the best light possible to the world and help them make a mark.
Digital User Experience (UX)
Japan’s digital community is growing. Japan has always been outstanding in product design user experience (They invent the craziest things you never knew you needed!), but where it falters is the complex matrix of how users interact with contemporary mediums like smartphones, tablets and computers. Japanese design tends to create wireframes before the start of the project, plotting the interaction flow and mapping out content for each page. While I think that’s great, more user testing and target audience studies would greatly elevate their projects to the next level. Although it may take more time for clients to come round to the importance of digital UX, investing in it definitely benefits the company in the long run.
Key Visuals (KV)
KV, otherwise known as the face of a website. Japanese design has the most prominent, if not the best, visual sense out there today. For them, colours are not merely wavelengths of reflected light; each of the primary colours has elements attached to them. The Japanese appreciate how colours impact emotions and the way different colours combine to achieve visual balance. It is hard to put into words the power of colour; it is something you see and feel.
When I was working in Singapore, finding stock photos of Asians was a pain, as most of them looked either pornographic or hackneyed. In comparison, there is a rich and comprehensive library of paid stock photos for designers like me to use in Japan. This makes what we create more sophisticated. I estimate that in Japan, 40% of project time is devoted to crafting visuals. KV has the ability to make or break a website.
You might have noticed that Japanese commercials and packaging use drawings extensively. Illustrations or mascots are a common design feature in Japan. This departs from Western corporate mentality that believes such drawings make a company appear juvenile and unprofessional; to make up for the lack of visuals, Western companies swamp their designs with icons.
Another thing to note is that there are many types of illustrations. I agree that some visuals are childish, but it boils down to selecting the right style that could inject the right amount of liveliness and fun to a company. Designers who can illustrate are, without a doubt, assets in today’s Japan design industries.
Here comes one of my biggest struggles. Despite working in design for 4 years, I have had almost zero exposure to Japanese font design in Singapore. This is because I come from an environment where roughly 95% of communications are conducted purely in Singlish, with the rest in Mandarin or Malay. As a result, it is difficult to design/select appropriate Japanese fonts to match the design. The Japanese have plenty of unique fonts available, unlike English fonts, where it takes a designer to tell the difference between one font and another.
Sadly, there aren’t many Web Safe fonts out there. Web Safe Fonts are fonts that can be used on a website without requiring viewers to download anything extra to view the text properly. Web Safe Fonts are powered by the font family that comes with a device or Google fonts. Even so, there are not many good fonts to choose from. (I’ll write about using fonts in Japan in another article.)
Copywriting is a lost art. Copywriting is not only just conveying a message to users, but also extending and shortening content to accommodate mobile-responsive design so that the content will not stick out like a sore thumb, layout-wise. In this respect, there are some advantages to the Japanese language. There are three forms of writing in Japan, katakana, hiragana and kanji. Although kanji allows you to adjust the length of your content to fit your desired layout, it is wise not to go overboard with it. This is because some Japanese words are more commonly used in kanji, whereas others are more commonly used in hiragana. This is something Japanese language schools can’t teach; you have to live in Japan to know it.
The other challenge to Japanese copywriting is the lack of spaces between words. English words are demarcated by spaces between each word, but because Japanese words do not, it is awfully difficult determining where is a good spot to insert a line break. Throw in complex Japanese grammar and you’ve got a design puzzle in your hands. Admittedly I’m still getting used to working with the Japanese language.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) & Load Speed
For businesses, appearing high on the list of search engine results is critical. Getting there is a separate story; tips and guides abound, but from my understanding, Google is keeping mum on what works and what doesn’t. (If you know of any inside news from Google, do share!) Some clients think SEO is about weaving in keywords inside content, but it’s actually more complicated than that. Designing content that Googlebots pick up is a science in itself.
Load speed is not an issue in Japan due to their advanced Internet infrastructure. This is a huge plus since most Japanese websites are visually intensive.
I am blessed to be part of the digital design industry today. Technology continues to advance even as we speak, with better and more powerful devices being introduced in the market every year. Internet speeds are improving too. What all this means is that platforms are becoming more dynamic than ever. Japanese clients are making tentative steps towards using animation and interactive media, but they’re getting there. Nevertheless, Japanese sites that do include animations are often very good; Japan’s anime culture and their focus on visuals might be contributing factors. Japanese design possesses a keen sense of knowing how various elements should appear and transit on screen. This acuteness is quite the rage in Google’s Material Design today. I aim to push the boundary of design and development in ZIZO.
I hope this article has given you some insight into Japan’s design industry.If you are a designer in Osaka, drop us a message and let’s hang out someday!Drop me an email if you like! – email@example.com