Japanese Graphic Design: Why So Many Creatives Love It

Japanese Graphic Design: Why So Many Creatives Love It

15 min read

From ukiyo-e of the Edo period to manga and kawaii culture, Japan’s design trends have had a major influence on graphic design today.

Japan has a very complex language system spanning three different alphabets. Japanese children are taught penmanship at school, where they learn to master the characters using a fude (brush) and sumi (black ink).

The way of writing, or shodo, is an ancient practice that is much more than putting the proverbial pen to paper—it's a practice in articulation, repetition, endurance, and composition.

Japanese calligraphy involves the whole person; an upright, relaxed posture, focused breathing, the paper right in front of you, your mind fully engrossed in the task at hand. How you write is as important as what you write, and the austere simplicity of black ink on white paper is considered high art.

Japanese Graphic Design | Shodo Japanese Typography Examples
Image source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Moreover, shodo reflects Japanese philosophies of beauty:

  • the transience of life: each character representing a moment passed that cannot be replicated.
  • balanced flow: how the ink is moved on the paper.
  • the appreciation of imperfection: variable marks made by hand.

Appreciating the simple things in life is integral to Japanese culture and forms the foundation of Japanese design. Let's take a deeper look at what makes Japanese design so special and how it is interpreted in graphic design.

What is Japanese Design?

The phrase "Japanese design" would, of course, refer to creative work done by Japanese designers. Still, Japan's unique culture, history, and development lend a recognizable style to work done within the country or by creatives living in the Japanese diaspora.

Japanese design is known for minimalism, organic forms, and representations of nature, geometric shapes, symbolism and custom typography. There are many examples of these in traditional and contemporary Japanese art and design, and it all stems from their pragmatic way of life.

Minimalism

The Japanese value simplicity and a loose hold of material possessions, whereas the West generally follows a "more is more" rule of thumb—thanks a lot, capitalism!

Minimalism is a Japanese design trend that has influenced designers worldwide because of its austerity, simple beauty, and the philosophy of owning fewer things but giving them a higher value.

This also explains Japanese design's efficiency and clean lines, as you can see from the image of a typical Japanese interior below.

Another express example of minimalism in Japanese creative arts is haiku poetry. Standalone haiku poems emerged in the 17th century as a response to traditional Japanese poetry called renga, which usually consisted of 100 stanzas.

A haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables that can be said in one breath. It depicts a fleeting moment with a deep meaning that can profoundly impact the listener (or reader). Below is a reproduction of a famous haiku called "The Old Pond" by the master poet Matsuo Bashō:

An old pond!

A frog jumps in—

the sound of water.

Organic Forms and Nature

Japanese design often features natural scenes, paintings of animals and flowers found in the region, rock gardens, and bonsai. Being close to nature and appreciating seasonal beauty is important in Japanese culture. Seasonal events are signaled by calendar celebrations, like the falling of cherry blossoms in Okinawa.

Above we see a photograph of Japanese actress Emiko Yagumo (1903 - 1979) wearing a kimono with a sakura (cherry blossom) floral pattern.

Geometric Patterns and Symbolism

In combining their appreciation of nature and simplicity, Japanese designers often use geometric shapes that represent natural phenomena. Cherry blossoms, Mount Fuji, the sun, water, and fish are some of the important symbols in Japanese design.

The Japanese assign spiritual meanings to things found in nature, and you should make sure to understand the significance of these symbols before you use them in your Japanese-inspired graphic designs.

For instance, the red circle used in the white national flag of Japan symbolizes the sun. The traditional name of Japan is Nippon (also Nihon), which means "origin of the sun". Circles also symbolize enlightenment, strength, the universe, incompleteness, or emptiness, according to Zen Buddhism.

Meaningful geometric patterns have been used for kimono fabrics and other items in Japan for centuries. Some of the traditional patterns include:

  • Uroko (Scales): a combination of triangles resembling the scales of a snake or fish, sometimes worn by samurai as a talisman to protect them from harm.
Japanese Graphic Design | Uroko Scales Kimono Pattern
Image source: Your Doorway to Japan
  • Kōjitsunagi (Interlaced Characters): the seemingly infinite arrangement of I-shaped characters represents good fortune.
Japanese Graphic Design | Kōjitsunagi Kimono Pattern
Image source: Your Doorway to Japan
  • Asanoha (Hemp Leaves): representing the strength and vitality of the hemp plant; this pattern was often used on babies and children's clothes in the hope that they'd grow big and strong.
Japanese Graphic Design | Asanoha Hemp Leaves Kimono Pattern
Image source: Your Doorway to Japan
  • Same Komon (Shark Skin): this pattern was used by the Kishū Tokugawa family. Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684 - 1751) is considered one of the greatest rulers of Japan.
Japanese Graphic Design | Same Komon Shark Skin Kimono Pattern
Image source: Your Doorway to Japan
  • Tachiwaki / Tatewaki (Rising Steam): in this pattern, two curving lines represent gently rising steam. It was often used for kimonos worn by people of high status in the Heian period (794–1185). Variations are created by changing the curve lines, such as Kumo tatewaku (cloud) and Sasa tatewaku (bamboo).
Japanese Graphic Design | Tachiwaki Tatewaki Rising Steam Kimono Pattern
Image source: Your Doorway to Japan

Custom Typography

Considering that the Japanese alphabets contain thousands of characters, it's not surprising that most Japanese design work is accompanied by custom typography and hand-drawn lettering.

Custom typography is an essential feature not only because Japanese calligraphy is highly respected, but could you imagine trying to create a Japanese typeface with thousands of characters in regular, bold, and italic?!

Adding written characters is a prominent feature in Japanese creative work and spans centuries, as you can see in the woodblock print (ukiyo-e) below.

Japanese Graphic Design | Aoyama in Edo (Tôto Aoyama), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjûrokkei) by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige, 1852
Aoyama in Edo (Tôto Aoyama), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjûrokkei) by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige, 1852. Image source: Ukiyo-e Search.

Although creative work in Japan has had some key influences ranging from Zen Buddhism to Western Art, Japanese graphic design follows certain principles that distinguish it from other styles.

What Influences Japanese Design?

Shintoism and Buddhism

Within the traditional religion of Japan, Shinto, the concept of mono no aware developed as an intense awareness of one's place in the world. Later on, when Buddhism was introduced in the 5th century in China, mono no aware was also used to describe the Buddhist concept of the transitory nature of life or impermanence.

Meaning "the pathos of things," mono no aware is not a nihilistic view of the world - instead, it is the acute awareness of being in the moment and enjoying what is around you.

Whether it's viewing the falling cherry blossoms or being attentive to the calls of wild birds, mono no aware permeates Japanese culture. It is the idea that life is valuable precisely because it doesn't last forever. This explains why you'll often see symbols like cherry blossoms, birds, mountains, etc., in Japanese visual arts and design.

This Buddhist influence also formed the basis of what we call minimalism today. The difference between Western conceptions of minimalism and Japanese minimalism is that minimalist designs can lean toward feeling sterile and cold in the West.

However, Japanese culture produces the proper kind of minimalism, warm and inviting, having an appreciation for simple things and giving value to old things.

Japanese Culture

During the Edo period (1603 - 1867), Japan enjoyed relative peace and stability, strict Confucian social order, economic growth, and a boom in the creative and dramatic arts. These were some of the formative years of Japanese culture as we know it today.

With the banning of foreign trade and the creation of "pleasure quarters," Japan's arts and culture (and other pleasures) could be enjoyed by its own people.

The people and places in the "pleasure quarters" were popular subjects in ukiyo-e. These artworks were reproducible and used bright, flat colors and striking designs. Ukiyo-e were produced mainly to adorn the homes of wealthy or noble families and up-and-coming business people.

Ukiyo means "to float" and initially expressed the transitory nature of life. Later, it represented the fleeting pleasures of Japanese society in the form of woodblock prints of plays, beautiful women, and scenic views.

Japanese Graphic Design | Three Kabuki Actors Playing Hanetsuki, an ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Kuniyasu, 1823
Three Kabuki Actors Playing Hanetsuki, an ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Kuniyasu, 1823. Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the Edo period, Japan had little to do with the rest of the world. When the Tokugawa rulers were overthrown in 1867, the Meiji period began - and Japan's borders were opened for the first time in over 200 years.

The opening of Japan's borders signaled an influx of Western goods and influences, as well as the export of Japanese goods and the movement of Japanese people.

Western Culture

Since the opening of Japanese borders, Western styles and ideas could cross-pollinate. Western goods became increasingly popular and also influenced Japanese graphic design. From 1915 until the 1940s, the Shin-hanga and Sōsaku-hanga movements in woodblock printing saw Western ideas and processes interweaving with Japanese subject matter.

The lustrous images produced in this time also inform the manga (Japanese comic book) styles we see today.

Japanese Graphic Design | Araki-yokocho in Yotsuya, a Shin-hanga print by Tsuchiya Koitsu, 1935
Araki-yokocho in Yotsuya, a Shin-hanga print by Tsuchiya Koitsu, 1935. Image source: Ukiyo-e Search.

Besides the international trends that have influenced Japanese design, Japan's culture and artifacts have also significantly influenced other cultures. For instance, Japonisme was a trend in mid-nineteenth century France (and other European countries) that consumed all aspects of Japanese culture.

Japonisme even translated into the works of fine artists such as the Impressionists, who were captivated by the fleeting moments that Japanese artists liked to capture in their artworks.

You can see this in the Impressionists' choices in subject matter, their use of bright, flat colors with dark or black outlines, and playful spatial effects like cropping or zooming in.

Japanese Graphic Design | Almond Blossom, oil painting by Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Almond Blossom, oil painting by Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Image Source: Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

The flat, brilliant colors, highly stylized images, and realist subject matter featured in Japanese design began to be widely incorporated into European art and design, and led to the Art Nouveau movement.

Why Japanese Graphic Design is So Different

The Japanese have a profoundly philosophical approach to graphic design, valuing simplicity, striking contrasts, and appropriate symbolism (as seen in their national flag design and other examples discussed earlier).

Let's look into some of the most influential schools of thought and practice in Japanese graphic design to understand its development and the styles we see today.

What is Japanese Graphic Design Called? (Styles And Examples)

As with other movements in art and design worldwide, Japan's graphic arts feature some key styles or trends in history.

Kamon

Kamon are the ancient crest designs of Japan, used to distinguish families and their belongings. Japanese family crests were used on clothes, ox carts, battle banners, samurai swords, pottery, furniture, graves, ships - even roof tiles!

Kamon play a vital role in Japanese graphic design, and today inspire company logos and even feature on Japanese passports.

Yamato-e and the Rinpa school

Yamato-e artworks were highly stylized, elaborate decorative paintings and other works that focused on classical themes such as natural scenes, Japanese folklore and poetry.

Key characteristics of yamato-e include the use of gold leaf and lacquer, vibrant colors, and strong patterns. Yamato-e are highly sophisticated and valuable works of art and craft.

The Rinpa (or Rimpa) school was not an organized group but a 19th-century revival of this classical art during the Edo period. The Rinpa school was a call to return to the classical Japanese ideals of the Heian period when the nobility were losing their political power.

Ukiyo-e

We briefly discussed ukiyo-e woodblock printing earlier in this article. The main difference between yamato-e and ukiyo-e is that ukiyo-e emerged as a cheap way to reproduce pictures. In contrast, yamato-e were epic, often large-scale pieces of art that were highly refined and costly.

Where ukiyo-e skilfully documented and decorated the 'new world' filled with cash flow and high brow entertainment, yamato-e harkened to the 'old world' with its honor and painstaking craftsmanship.

Shin-hanga and Sōsaku-hanga

We also mentioned Shin-hanga and Sōsaku-hanga earlier in this article. Shin-hanga ("new prints") developed directly from ukiyo-e, depicting contemporary early 20th-century Japanese subject matter (with Western influences) through the use of new printing processes.

Sōsaku-hanga ("creative prints"), on the other hand, was a contemporary art movement around the same time, using new techniques but seeking a more cosmopolitan artistic expression through adopting Western creative ideas and styles.

These movements formed part of the modernization of Japan while still aiming to establish Japanese printing as an art form as opposed to cheap commercial objects.

Manga

Tracing back to 12th century Japanese illustrated scrolls of The Tale of Genji, manga is Japanese comic book-style graphics. Manga draws from a few different sources, in particular Japanese woodblock prints and post-World War II American comic books.

The manga style can be recognized by sharp lines and contrasts, overly expressive characters, abstract backgrounds, and moody effects. Manga is also closely related to anime (animated Japanese cartoons) and kawaii.

Kawaii, referring to things that are "cute" or "lovable," is a global cultural phenomenon but has its roots in the very same scrolls as manga. The illustrated scrolls of the Heian period featured an interesting sort of miniaturization to tell a story.

The etymology of kawaii is said to begin with the archaic word kaohayushi (and later kawayushi), which refers to embarrassment, pitifulness, smallness and vulnerability.

Above is an illustration from The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, arguably the first novel ever written.

It makes total sense, then, that kawaii as we know it today is believed to have begun as a student protest against authoritarian education in the 1960s. Radical Japanese students refused to read their prescribed academic textbooks and read comic books instead, taking on a child-like posture to education and authority.

Kawaii style and behavior are used to retain a sense of innocence and child-like wonder as a way to escape or refuse to grow up in a world with strict social order.

Moreover, adolescents and especially teenage girls were a vast untapped market and companies started targeting these demographics - as we can see from the most famous kawaii character of all, Hello Kitty, created by stationery brand Sanrio.

Kawaii also has a strange connotation to femininity - in the one sense asserting feminine ideas and buying power, on the other hand suppressing feminine emancipation by portraying women as cute and dumb (have you ever noticed that Hello Kitty doesn't have a mouth?).

Heta-uma

Heta-uma was an underground graphic design movement in the 1970s that came about as a response to the sleekness and elaborate designs of mainstream manga.

At first, heta-uma designers made poorly rendered images and caricatures featured in Garo magazine. Still, today the spirit of heta-uma lives on in rough drawings with bright colors accompanied by clever or funny phrases.

Pop Art and Neo-Pop Art

The American Pop Art movement of the 1950s reached Japan soon after. Y can see its influence throughout modern and contemporary Japanese art.

More recently, the 1990s revival of Pop Art ("Neo-Pop") has some influential proponents like artist Takashi Murakami, who blends Japanese folklore with manga, American Pop Art, and design.

Wabi-sabi

Steeped in Zen Buddhism and its practice of the tea ceremony, the wabi-sabi aesthetic is derived from two concepts in ancient Japanese philosophy: wabi, referring to emptiness, transience and imperfection, and sabi, referring to rust or the movement of time.

Together these concepts describe a style of design that is simplistic, rustic, and inspired by nature.

The wabi-sabi style was popularized in contemporary graphic design in the 1990s with the publication of the book "Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers" by Leonard Koren.

Wabi-sabi graphic design is characterized by the use of natural materials and organic patterns, imperfect brush strokes, and subdued colors sometimes combined with gold or silver leaf.

Now that you have a pretty comprehensive understanding of Japanese graphic design history, philosophy, and principles, let's take a look at some contemporary examples and trends that you can see today.

Mitsubishi has a Kamon-inspired logo.

Superdry is a UK clothing label inspired by American and Japanese graphics and features Japanese typography in its logo.

Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise brand combines an American doll with Japanese product packaging and typography.

SugoiJPN is a UK-based brand that creates Japanese fusion street food. Their logo features a kawaii character wearing a headband with the Rising Sun emblem on it.

Maruchan ramen noodle brand features a kawaii character and custom lettering that resembles the rounded shapes of Japanese typography.

Japanese Graphic Designers on Instagram and Pinterest

There are many great Japanese designers, illustrators, and artists working across the graphic design discipline. We've found a few contemporary examples and elaborated on their styles and influences below.

Megumi Koyama is a service designer/design researcher based in Tokyo. Their client work often displays playful minimalism, combining hand-drawn illustrations with elegant lines and shapes.

Asuka Watanabe is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Tokyo. Their style is described as "a combination of fine art and industrial design." Recurring themes in Asuka's work are abstraction through geometric shapes, symmetrical arrangements, and bright and contrasting colors.

Okamura Yuta is a Japanese illustrator. Their most well-known work includes "Tokyo Disaster Prevention," which won the Good Design Gold Award, and the "Tokyo Metro Manners Poster" project. Okamura's work reminds us of retro printing techniques using bold, flat colors offset with simple line drawings.

Jonathan Yamakami is a Brazillian-born Japanese ceramicist and graphic designer based in Los Angeles. Their work features elements of wabi-sabi, heta-uma, and various other influences.

Ryogo Toyoda, based in Tokyo, specializes in 3D illustration, character design, and motion design. Their client work includes big brands such as Disney, Apple, Amazon, and Nintendo. Ryogo has a way of creating colorful, dreamy scenes and cute, relatable characters.

Japanese graphic designers are doing great work for clients worldwide. The few examples above show that Japanese influence is everywhere in the product, poster, and game designs we see today.

Hopefully, you're feeling inspired to start using the Japanese style in your graphic design work!

How to Add Japanese Style to Your Graphic Design Work

Looking for ways to add a Japanese flavor to your next graphic design project? Let's break down what we've learned in this article in a few practical steps below:

1. Apply Japanese Graphic Design Principles

Throughout the centuries, Japanese graphic design has shown some unique principles that you can apply to your design work:

  • Elegant simplicity - using white space, clean lines and bright, flat colors, cropping/cutting.
  • Harmonious asymmetry - as with the aesthetic concepts of wabi and sabi, allowing imperfections, using brush strokes and natural motifs.
  • Geometric abstraction - creating patterns and a sense of order, applying symbolism to your designs.
  • Tradition - honoring the cultural history of Japan and the work of old masters.
  • Innovation - always looking for new ways to interpret contemporary culture by incorporating processes and styles from other countries.

2. Choose Your Graphic Design Color Palette

If you follow Japanese design trends - especially as depicted in ukiyo-e - you'll see a wide range of colors available for your design's palette.

  • Use a color picker to grab a color palette from ukiyo-e or other Japanese art and designs.
  • For a wabi-sabi aesthetic, rely on subdued natural colors and tones combined with gold.
  • Kawaii and manga can make use of any choice of colors. However, kawaii designs often tend to be pastel-colored.

Choose a few bright colors that contrast each other well. To create a pastel palette, use the brightness slider on your color picker to add more white to your chosen colors.

  • If you're using brushstrokes to create custom lettering, stick to black and gray. Sometimes red can also be used.

3. Use Japanese Motifs

Traditional Japanese motifs include mountains, clouds, water, birds, fish, flowers, patterns, characters and scenes from Japanese folklore or poetry, and ukiyo-e.

Draw inspiration from the Japanese landscape and the people's customs to design your original piece.

Contemporary Japanese motifs include a wide range of animals, cartoon characters such as manga and kawaii, cityscapes, futurism, neo-Pop Art, and elements and styles borrowed from other countries. Any of these motifs may also be combined with traditional Japanese art.

4. Be Attentive To The Cultural And Spiritual Meaning

Make sure to research the meaning of each element and their correct placement - everything used in Japanese art and design has a specific application and meaning!

Making sure that you understand the cultural background of Japanese designs will show respect and sophistication in your own creative work.

Wrap Up

From calligraphy to animation, Japanese graphic design trends play a massive role in graphic design today. You don't need to be a Japanese graphic designer to be able to create inspiring Japanese designs.

As a graphic designer yourself, recognizing and appropriately incorporating Japanese design in your work is super important. This is especially true if you're serving clients of Japanese descent or if you're commissioned to create Japan-inspired designs.

Not only will your clients be impressed with your dynamic application of graphic design styles, but you will also be more confident and experimental when you're constantly learning new design skills. As with the ensō (circle) in Japan - stay open to change and improvement in your design work!

Inspired to create your own Japan-inspired designs? Open up Vectornator today and get started. We can't wait to see what you come up with!

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