Japanese Graphic Design Highlights

As the HOW team begins working on the International Design Annual, it’s fascinating to see graphic design projects from all over the world. It’s downright inspiring to see creatives near and far perfect their crafts. That’s why when Lippincott‘s Marc Hohmann offered to write a guest post about his personal highlights of Japanese graphic design from 1970 through today, we jumped at the opportunity to hear from someone who was equally inspired by these works.

(note: read his first guest post on The Relationship Between Art and Design)

Marc Hohmann of Lippincott

Here’s what he had to say:

In 1985, while flipping through German Vogue, I discovered Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. I immediately began to love all Japanese fashion. The way these designers established a sense of belonging and redefined beauty is still unmatched by anyone in the field. With them came a world of visual expression that created a total immersive experience, which we mostly take for granted today. At that time, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons were among the first to use architects, musicians, directors, writers, artists and graphic designers to express their world and make it evolve simultaneously. By leaving the essence of the their products mostly undefined, collateral material became equally important and filled the brand’s open spaces with completely unexpected statements. All that accumulated to something infectious, unpredictable and timeless.

Kenji Ishiguro "Hiroshima Now" photo book, 1970

Kenji Ishiguro “Hiroshima Now” photo book, 1970

Looking back now, it’s clear to me that by trying to dig deep into the world of those designers, I learned about branding at its best. I was studying Comme des Garcons’ publication Six Number 5 so obsessively that I still remember every spread, the position of every word and would be able to reconstruct it, identically, even if I never saw it again. I’d never have become a visual artist without seeing those works at that time.

Tsuguya Inoue, one of the greatest graphic designers of our time, designed Comme des Garcons’ Six magazine and all of its visual communications. Rei Kawakubo became Inoue’s client when she saw an ad of his in the subway; she was so impressed that she hired him immediately. There’s something poetic and off-hand about his work that transcends skill and tradition, yet it’s undeniably classic. His palette is standard, raw, careless and wrong: mostly Helvetica, sometimes stretched or reverse italicized, sparse color.

Yukimasa Okumura, Jun Togawa album cover, 1985

Yukimasa Okumura, Jun Togawa album cover, 1985

The mastery lies in the conscious, his use of the elements and, most importantly, in the attention to the photographic image. Having an unmatched and innate talent for spotting the right image and then, with one stroke, determining the perfect element in type or scale that completes it, is what makes his work so brilliant and undeniably Japanese. An unforced improvisation of image and elements works because of design intuition of the highest order. In the tradition of wabi sabi (the Japanese definition of “the perfect balance and right moment in time”), this is work that utilizes very little but is superior to so much.

Tsuguya Inoue Comme des Garcons Six Number 5  magazine, 1990

Tsuguya Inoue, Comme des Garcons Six Number 5 magazine, 1990

Unsurprisingly, Inoue and his contemporaries (Makoto Saito and the brilliant Yukimasa Okumura, to name a few) learned to sharpen their senses growing up in Japan in the ’60s and ’70s, which was a time when the country defined itself as a photographic powerhouse, developing new technology and pushing the limits of the medium. Looking at Japanese photobooks of that area, one can see the stage being set for new-wave works by Inoue and his careful addition of graphic devices to newly discovered photographic expressions.

Kenya Hara "Muji Horizon Ad," 2003

Kenya Hara “Muji Horizon Ad,” 2003

The essence of this design language is to closely consider space and the relationship of all the elements to each other. It involves embracing open, uncertain white spaces or open-ended gestures that, through design, are enabled to remain unoccupied. This language also requires designers to combine individual elements to create a new whole, which in turn gives life to new questions and another level of uncertainty. Weight is created by emptiness. Design becomes the defender of white space rather than the occupant. This is also the essence of Kenya Hara’s graphic works for Muji. In many ways, these works evolved out of Inoue’s aesthetic of the 1980s.

Hajime Tachibana Plastics poster, 1981

Hajime Tachibana Plastics poster, 1981

Those stark esoteric works create the yin to a yang that is equally otherworldly. My interest in Japanese fashion also led me to the country’s domestic music scene, and I started collecting records by Japanese pop, avant-garde and jazz musicians that often blend contemporary styles into their work to create bizarre yet refined sound gems. These records helped introduce me to new graphic artists and an array of undiscovered styles.

Hajime Tachibana Graphickers Swatch, 1995

Hajime Tachibana Graphickers Swatch, 1995

In the mid-90s, during the rise of digital typography and the shift from authenticity to plasticity, we witnessed the independence of small graphic design studios. One of these was Tokyo’s Saru Brunei. He was influenced by the graphic work of the musician, sculptor and designer Hajime Tachibana, whose work for his post punk band, Plastics, remains groundbreaking. Tachibana foresaw the commercialization and technological saturation of the graphic medium long before anyone else. Hajime packaged his Plastics records in naive, techno-paranoid sleeves. His message reflected the media overkill and decadence of mid-80s and big-bubble economics, and was influenced by the aggressive street art of New York’s no-wave artists, such as Basquiat, and Fluxus artists, such as Nam June Paik. 

To this day, the work remains spontaneous and fresh, and with its lack of visual depth, it’s weirdly organic. In the mid-90s, Tachibana pushed these ideas further and was among the first designers to make digital typography come full circle to a place where it felt naturally evolved, architectural and authentic. Around 1996, Brunei extended their language into Manga territory and they were among the first to create a language of symbols, slogans and characters that are a universal part of our street style today. Influences of this work constitute the foundation of Takashi Murakami’s oeuvre and form a center in the universe of brands like A Bathing Ape and Kid Robot.

Koichi Kosugi "Tokyo New Standard" poster, 2013

Koichi Kosugi “Tokyo New Standard” poster, 2013

I just recently came across the work of the young Japanese designer Koichi Kosugi. His poster for “Tokyo New Standard, J-Wave,” with his centered message that creates an undefined face, has been one of my graphic discoveries of this year. Picking up Tachibana’s surrealism and combining it with the best of Okumura’s early ’80s album cover art, his work continues in the quintessential Japanese language established over the last 40 years: flat, space-conscious and intuitive. There has been an abundance of graphic works over the past four decades, and we have more graphic design around us than ever before. However, the small percentage of work that possesses a soul has always been very special. That’s what makes the works mentioned above so different.


Graphic designers near and far are being asked to take on more branding projects. Want to be the go-to expert? Check out Common Mistakes Designers Make with Branding (and How to Fix Them).