How Was It For You?

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 you?"


: 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.

: 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.


: 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.

: 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!


: 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."

: Now, to me that bottom bit looks more like Indonesian or Vietnamese than Japanese.
: 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.


Nick: That's amazing, it's Japanese Gothic! Does it make Japanese people think of German things and old newspapers?
: 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 delicate.


Nick: This is quite funny, because it's clearly ink calligraphy lettering converted into white relief plastic. Does it evoke that for you?
: Yes, it suggests calligraphy. And that in turn means they want to suggest something serious, decent, authentic or historical.

Nick: It's a standard red lantern restaurant sign. You see these everywhere. They're very welcoming. Is it really handpainted?
: 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.


Nick: This chiseled marble sign looks like a gravestone!
: 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!


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!

Nick: This is pretty boring, like standard catalog type from the '80s.
: I'd say, with that strange orange and gray color combination, it's more '70s. This is a salaryman clothing store.


Nick: Let me guess, this is a folksy, alpine, rustic style, a sign for a restaurant?
: 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."


Nick: It's a logo with a word inside; to me it looks like an insect, a scorpion biting its tail!
: 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.


: This looks rapid, handmade, violent, splashed with blood, like the titles of a violent Akira Kurasawa movie!
: 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 ingredients around!


Nick: It's a big brash commercial sign that screams "Cheap prices!" The yellow and red and the flash are universal signifiers for "cheap."
: 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.


Nick: These rounded edges make me think of 1970s graphic design.
: 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 signage.


: I can't believe katakana can be so simplified and yet still be legible!
: 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 animated.


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.
: 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.

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.
: 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 blandness.