Japanese design style is influential throughout the West. But cheap imitation is easy – engaging with the culture is the key to truly innovative design, as Digit found out.

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Japan is a source of inspiration for designers all over the world. For many Western creatives, Japanese culture has nurtured an enduring fascination with the country’s visual output. 
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Manga has a massive influence on visual style in the West. Cute, cuddly characters and typographic or icon-centric design are closely associated with Japanese visual style too, and these styles have been widely imitated all over the world. 
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But while these styles are seen as iconic in the West, they’re not as celebrated in Japan. Rei Inamoto, global creative director for AKQA, suggests that the styles are merely part of everyday life in Japan. 
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“Japanese people, especially those in the graphic design industry, don’t necessarily consider those things as part of Japanese design in a way that UK graphic designers and artists might,” he says. 
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Part of the reason for the Japanese impact on UK mainstream art, suggests Inamoto, is a Western interest in difference, and how difference provides a certain cool factor. 
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“Often the lack of understanding in the cultural context leads to a fresh or sometimes naïve way of interpreting and using in another context,” he says. 
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“That’s what I think has happened in modern graphics and design in the West.” There are several key themes in homegrown Japanese design, but one of the major ones is simplicity. 
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“Simplicity is a very big thing – not just in Japanese design but in culture itself,” says Inamoto. “Japanese culture at its very core aims for simplicity, and this is reflected in graphic design and art.” 
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Another theme is abstraction: “A lot of Japanese graphic design work is quite abstract,” claims Inamoto. 
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“In Japan, there is an unspoken appreciation for design as craft and art, and people appreciate design without questioning it.” 
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“The fact that Japanese design is often based on creative integrity as much as commercial pressure means that there is a sense of experiment,” agrees Large Design’s MD Jim Boulton. 
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“This can result in groundbreaking work such as the interactive designs of Yugo Nakamura (www.yugop.com). But it can also result in unwieldy solutions. For example, Sony pulled out of the PDA market in the US despite the fact the identical product is a huge hit in Japan. 
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“The failure is down to cultural difference – in Japan, a complex interface suggests power, whereas in the US the same screen is seen as confusing.” 
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However Eric Cruz, creative director of Wieden +Kennedy Tokyo, feels that within graphic design, Japan is influenced by gaijin (foreign) fever as much as the rest of the world. 
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“The usual suspects, such as Tomato, Bjork, MM Paris and the likes of Ryan McGinness, still penetrate Japanese culture,” he says. 
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“Japanese graphic design was more influential in the past through the likes of Tadanoori Yokoo in the 60s and Noriyuki Tanaka in the early 90s. 
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“Right now, I think historical cultural genres and movements or ideas about Japan and ‘Japonism’ have more influence in the world than current specific designers.” 
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Cruz says Japanese subcultures are still not easy for Westerners to access. “It is still a very closed society. But I think manga, animé, and the Japanese ‘kawaii’ culture of cute remain the most influential to the external world.” 
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As well as traditional Japanese art and calligraphy, other major influences on the West include Takashi Murakami and his superflat movement, itself influenced by animé and manga. 
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The otaku (variously translated as animé fanboy, fetishist, or technology nerd) subculture has also caught on outside Japan. 
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The outwardly cute but deceptively dark work of Yoshimoto Nara is another product of this culture, and one that has become high pop art in the West. But while imitation is attractive, it’s easy to make mistakes. 
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A lack of cultural insight and the flippant use of stereotypical notions about Japanese art can make a project seem ill-conceived. 
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“Many Westerners treat the unknown recklessly, sampling the look without knowing its meaning,” says Eric Cruz. 
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“For example, the first mistake most Westerners make is to sample the Japanese alphabet and characters without regard to its meaning, purely for its form and lacking understanding.
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This ends up coming across as uninformed and pure exoticism.” But Inamoto encourages people outside Japan to investigate its visual culture. 
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“It’s not that the market is only susceptible to homegrown talent – it’s quite the opposite,” he says. 
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The key is to engage with the culture before you try to ape its style. “We often have to do a lot of educating others about what Japan and Asia is,” agrees Eric Cruz. 
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“My best suggestion is to dig deeper. Gain true insight by immersing yourself within the culture and truly studying and observing it.” 
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<h2>Eastern</h2>
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<b>W+KTLAB PROJECTS </b><BR>
<a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.wk.com" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">www.wk.com</a> <BR>
Eric Cruz is an art director, designer, commercial director and educator. His strong interest in Asian culture and commerce drives his work at Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo. 
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His clients include Nike Japan and Aiwa. As director of W+K Tokyo Lab (W+KTLAB), he oversees the label’s entire visual output, from directing music videos to art directing and designing its packaging and online experiences. 
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His work focuses on the intersection between art and design, moving images and digital narratives, he says. 
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“W+K Tokyo Lab is Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo’s creative lab, beyond client-based work,” says Cruz. 
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“It’s a way for us to be active participants in the culture we exist in, rather than simply observe from afar. 
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“We develop new experiences that can only be created here and now in Tokyo, fusing a global mix of music, art, visuals and other forms of expression with a uniquely collaborative approach.” 
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<h2>Hifana</h2> 
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