As designers, we’re always striving to create original and unique work. But in order to keep our stuff fresh, bold, and original, it’s important to stay inspired by constantly exposing ourselves to new styles and modes of work. And one of the best ways to do this is to look at what designers are getting up to in different parts of the world. 

With this in mind, we thought we’d create a mini-series focussing on graphic design from all around the globe, kicking things off with Japan. 

Chances are that when you think of graphic design and Japan, you think bold, colourful, bright, and loud. Or you may think the opposite: restrained, minimal, soft. In truth, all of these elements seem to feature prominently, to varying degrees, in Japanese design. That’s part of what makes it such an interesting medium to study.

Of course, the design elements and techniques featured in this post aren’t exclusive to Japanese design. Nor are they exhaustive. They also don’t represent all of the graphic design coming out of Japan (of course!). They’re just a few things we’ve picked up on during our research into the field, and they seem to be representative of certain cultural styles and trends (at least from a Western perspective). 

Circles

The circle represents, amongst other things, positivity, endurance, fortitude, harmony, and community. It’s a shape that’s synonymous with Japan, if for no other reason than its prominent place on their national flag. 

It’s also the shape in which Mon are contained. Mon are Japanese emblems used to decorate individuals, families, and institutions, similar to our European coats of arms. 

So, as a basic shape, the circle is very much entrenched in Japanese culture, which is often manifested as a prominent design element.

Colour

Japan is a very colourful and vibrant place. And Japanese pop culture is positively steeped in bold and bright visuals. Everything jumps and pops. 

The two colour rule definitely doesn’t apply here. But there’s a certain sense of mastery over the colour spectrum, an order to the chaos, which produces effects that are very pleasing to the eye. 

Kawaii (or: cute culture)

What do Pusheen, Hello Kitty, and Pikachu have in common? They’re all kawaii

Kawaii, in a nutshell, is the culture of cuteness originated in Japan. Words like charming, shy, childlike, and vulnerable all apply to anything (human, animal, or miscellaneous) that’s kawaii. And it’s had a tremendous cultural impact, not just in Japan but worldwide. More and more these days we’re seeing Western iterations of kawaii characters and brands.

Though it’s often seen as a very commercial trend, it’s still important to acknowledge how far-reaching this “culture of the cute” is, and how it has come to life and spread throughout the design world.  

Classic elements of the kawaii style include distorted head-to-body ratios (large head, small body), tangible textures (wooly, furry, fluffy etc), and minimal facial features. 

Typography

In Japanese design, typography is handled much differently to its Western counterpart. This is due to the complexity of the Japanese character system. In the words of Ryan Hageman, founder of Gurafinku, “It’s a language with over a thousand different characters. . . and they’re very visual and dynamic with so many different shapes and forms. . . it takes a lot of work to create a Japanese typeface, and because of this there are not nearly as many off-the-shelf and expressive typefaces to choose from. As a result, you’ll quite often see typography custom-made specifically for the project at hand.”

The ubiquitous nature of bespoke typography, then, calls for more reason to make it a prominent feature of a design culture. Because really, when you’ve made a font from scratch, you’re probably going to want people to notice it.

Stay inspired

For more design inspiration, check out these 14 must-see Ted talks for designers and creatives, 12 fantastically unique vehicle advertisement ideas, and 8 eye-bending VR marketing campaigns