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Urban life: Graphic design is everywhere

Design is everywhere. But if you live in a crowded urban environment, you are absolutely surrounded by it. Much of it may go unnoticed. Just paying attention to the ubiquitous samples of graphic design — for example posters, banners, billboards, etc. — could fill every waking moment of your day. This explains why we ignore most of it — we've all got stuff to do! Still, we can learn a lot by paying attention to our urban environment. Professional designers tend to be better than most people at noticing "the design" around them, but we all can improve our "design quotient" by simply opening our eyes and our minds and peer into the urban background that may have been no more than visual noise before.

By slowing down a bit we will be able to see all of the graphic design that fills our daily lives. Living in Japan is a designer's dream in many ways; there is just so much to see. Some of the "best" graphic design in the world is right here in Japan, and so is some of the "worst." Much can be learned by examining both extremes and all the bits in between. We can even learn something during the morning commute. I usually spend a couple of hours everyday on trains, all of which are filled with an ever-changing tapestry of banners, signs, and ad posters. All most every day I notice something particularly good (or bad).   
Every time I step outside the door there is more graphic design to witness. I like to view the posters and billboards I encounter as if they were slides on a screen supporting a narrative. Now slides and posters/banners are different things, but we can — more or less — examine them using many of the same basic graphic design fundamentals. I outlined some of these principles on my website here. I also suggest Design for Non-Designers by Robin Williams; Elements of Graphic Design by Alexander White (which I have recommended many times before); or Exploring The Elements of Design by Mark Thomas. And I love Japanese Graphics Now! by Wiedermann and Kozak. This book will give you insights in to how Japanese think about graphics. The book includes a fantastic DVD featuring interviews with Japanese designers and 600 pages of colorful, high-quality real graphic examples from Japan. Excellent book.

"The Japanese style sensitivity is based, among other things, on a respect for balance... But Japanese design is not only about balance and proportion, or even minimalism, which is probably the strongest image people abroad have about Japanese design. Sometimes graphic design gets a little more chaotic..."                                                                                                               — From Japanese Graphics Now!

On the train to Kobe
Sunday we took the train to Kobe across the bay from our home in central Osaka to attend a charity walkathon. As you can see from the photo below, I joined attorney Jiri Mestecky (guitar/vocal) and Swiss musician Mereu Sebastiano (bass) for a set of blues on stage to entertain the crowd at the event. Performing music on stage is one of my favorite kinds of "presentation." The sound was actually great as we were lucky to have the American producer Aaron Walker from Music Japan TV volunteering his time as stage manager and sound engineer for the event. Anyway, below are some photos of signs I found noteworthy on the train ride in to Kobe.

Performing for a charity event in Kobe.

While walking in the rain near the Kobe Harbor I spotted this café sign (above). Simple pictographs with minimal text, two colors in harmony with the "green" atmosphere of the park. The design communicates a clear, noticeable message from a distance: this is a café where you can get something to drink and something to eat. No big deal. No big café brand. But it works. Signs, like posters or even slides, must (1) be noticed and (2) must be understood.

The banner ad (above) is advertising an event for used and vintage Rolex watches in Osaka. My wife, who received her formal design education from Chico State in California, pointed out this wonderfully cluttered poster to me on the train. She felt the narrow type face made the ad very hard to read (and don't get her started about the oblique treatment to this "Gothic" kanji). Every nook and cranny is filled with some kind of text, logo or map. Good poster design (or slide design) will have a clear hierarchy and one clear focal point. By featuring two watches of the same size rather than just one large image, the focal point is less clear. I'm sure you could think of many ways to improve the design. This is not a very attractive ad (though this is not the ugliest I've seen), and I do not think it was a very effective one. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the designer is just trying to entertain the passenger and give him something to read (so long as he is close enough to read it). In that sense it may "work." It is also possible that the designer was just following orders from the client to "Put in more info! Really sell it big!" Sadly, the banner reminds me of a lot of PowerPoint slides in Japan.

If you buy a new Softbank phone (and a two-year subscription) you get a free iPod. Talk. Rock. Simple. It's so simple in fact that it sticks out, it gets noticed, and it's understood. (Though there is still a bit of mystery in this design, which can be an attractive thing.)

On some of the JR lines they have replaced some of the paper banners with monitors featuring static slides (ads) that fade in and out. Recently I have been creating visuals similar to the slide on the right. Minimal text with a full-bleed photograph.

Noise and elimination of the nonessential (Presentation Zen)

Font Myths: italic and bold styles
Dot-font: Ten Tips for Top Type

Typeface tips
Japanese gothic typeface
Mincho (Japanese "serif" fonts)


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