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Communicating with graphic design is
complicated enough when you're operating within your own culture, using
the 26 letters of the English alphabet. But imagine having to design in a
country with three totally different writing styles; for instance,
Japan, with its hiragana, katakana and kanji. For a foreigner who
doesn't read Japanese, even just consuming the visual chaos can be
stressful. But it's also a fascinating way to find out how many meanings
can cross cultural boundaries and stay intact, and just how much, when
the literal contents of signs are stripped away, the tactile qualities
of "look and feel" alone might be able to communicate across cultures.
Since I'm in Osaka just now, I decided to compare notes with my
Japanese girlfriend Hisae (who also happens to have a BA in Graphic
Design from Central St Martin's in London) about the meanings of a
cross-section of Japanese signs. One evening in January, as dusk was
falling, we took a tram to Abiko, a peeling, charmingly shabby district
in the south of the city. Here, in a shopping arcade, we found a fairly
typical cross-section of signage from the last three or four decades. I
snapped photos of the more interesting displays. Then, back at Tennoji,
the Westerner and the Japanese sat in a cafe comparing notes on what
we'd seen. Here's the conversation we had when we asked: "How was it for
Nick: This looks like a '70s sans serif to me, with that fat
base line. But the descenders have a serif thing going on. What is this?Hisae: It's a sign for a bakery specializing in
chestnut cakes. It looks '70s to me too. That thick bottom line gives a
fuller feel... just like cakes do! But this also reminds me of the old
ladies who like these cakes; they're the kind of ladies who would have
pierrot paintings on their walls.
Nick: Okay, this one evokes LCD displays to me, because of the diagonal angling on the letters. But I'm probably way off...Hisae: Actually, this is a beauty salon. I have no idea
why they chose such a masculine, functional lettering style, though. I
think they'll probably go out of business soon, because this just looks
awkward and wrong.
Nick: This is a traditional Japanese hanging curtain, right?
These go back hundreds of years. You have to push them aside as you
enter restaurants...Hisae: This curtain is called noren. We associate it
with the Edo period (pre-1868). It's more common in restaurants than
shops these days, but a restaurant wouldn't use this color combination.
This blue and white combination is more for kabuki actors; if they're
famous they get their name on hangings in the backstage area.
Nick: This one is easy for me, because it's using a Western
style, 1920s "flapper" Art Deco. It's funny to see it applied to
Japanese letters, though! Hisae: Yes, it makes me think of Marlene Dietrich movies. This is an old ladies' clothes shop, perhaps they can remember the 1920s!
Nick: This sign has quite a rounded, handwritten look, with a nice logo evoking Shinto, Japan's ancient agrarian religion.Hisae: Yes, it's selling rice. It's not just the logo
that makes a picture, for us the characters do too. The two words on the
right mean "river" and "rice."
Nick: Now, to me that bottom bit looks more like Indonesian or Vietnamese than Japanese.
Hisae: It looks exotic to us too, like a sign for a Tahiti
coffee shop. The three letters together spell out "Pierrot." In fact,
it's a Western-style cake shop.
7.Nick: That's amazing, it's Japanese Gothic! Does it make Japanese people think of German things and old newspapers?
Hisae: It does look Gothic to Japanese too, but more like the
type that you'd see in a Gothic Lolita fashion magazine than a
newspaper, or anything German. To me it evokes jewelry, sparkly and
8.Nick: This is quite funny, because it's clearly ink
calligraphy lettering converted into white relief plastic. Does it evoke
that for you?
Hisae: Yes, it suggests calligraphy. And that in turn means they want to suggest something serious, decent, authentic or historical.
9.Nick: It's a standard red lantern restaurant sign. You see these everywhere. They're very welcoming. Is it really handpainted?
Hisae: Yes, it is. It's not very well made. But this is a
Japanese pancake (okonomiyaki) restaurant. There's a hot plate on the
table, and the cooking involves mixing things and frying them on it, so
this sign has a warm and messy feeling for us, like those pancakes.
10.Nick: This chiseled marble sign looks like a gravestone!
Hisae: Actually, it's a hostess bar, I don't know why they did
it in marble! I guess it dates from the '80s, when there was a lot of
money around, and marble's meant to look classy. But to me the font
looks a bit comical, like Microsoft Comic Sans!
11.Nick: This blocky squared-letter shape seems to be punctuated with little flames! It doesn't look Japanese to me. Hisae: It makes me think of a manga by Tetzuka Osamu,
the guy who did "Atom Boy." Actually this sign is advertising
binoculars. I'd say it's from the early 1960s, when men wore thick
black-framed glasses and berets! 12.Nick: This is pretty boring, like standard catalog type from the '80s.
Hisae: I'd say, with that strange orange and gray color combination, it's more '70s. This is a salaryman clothing store.
13.Nick: Let me guess, this is a folksy, alpine, rustic style, a sign for a restaurant?
Hisae: It's a cafe called Cherry Blossom. I'd say it's been
hand-painted by a professional. They probably said to the sign painter
"We want a feeling of kindness, smooth strokes, and harmony."
14.Nick: It's a logo with a word inside; to me it looks like an insect, a scorpion biting its tail!
Hisae: It's not a scorpion, it's a picture of a garlic, and the letters say "garlic" too. But it could also suggest a rice bowl.
Nick: This looks rapid, handmade, violent, splashed with blood, like the titles of a violent Akira Kurasawa movie!
Hisae: It's a drinking and eating restaurant, an izakaya. To us
this style isn't violent, it has a traditional, original or arty
appeal. It evokes the style of a male chef who's splashing his
16.Nick: It's a big brash commercial sign that screams
"Cheap prices!" The yellow and red and the flash are universal
signifiers for "cheap."
Hisae: Yes. This is designed to make you hurry in for discount
shopping. But it's also a style we associate with pachinko parlors;
quick and loud.
17.Nick: These rounded edges make me think of 1970s graphic design.
Hisae: Yes, it also has a receding perspective which makes it
kind of 3D. It's a Korean barbecue, but there's nothing Korean in the
Nick: I can't believe katakana can be so simplified and yet still be legible!
Hisae: It's a pet store. It's meant to appeal to children. The
decorative balls are supposed to look like they're jumping, like they're
19.Nick: This looks like a subway sign. I like how the
letter shape combines rounded and straight so well; it's like sun
shining through a window, the light flaring.
Hisae: This is an advert for the Yomiuri newspaper. For me this
typeface is not convincing, it doesn't look contemporary and suggests
the articles wouldn't be very trustworthy.
20.Nick: We cheated a bit, this was back in the center of
town. A huge electronic shop sign to return us to the digital age. It's
made with LEDs.
Hisae: Kintetsu is a department store, but they also own a
train line and a baseball team. All three use the same logo. The face is
universal, not distinctive, it has no "smell." But because it's so
familiar, we think immediately of the brand when we see it, despite the
Alexander Isley is recognized with the AIGA Medal for decades of design that engages the imagination through wit, surprise, intelligence and delight, no matter how complex the story. Learn more about his work.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
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