Japanese design proudly makes reference to thousands of years of traditional Japanese arts while also being contemporary and modern. The style’s clear, strong voice ranges from simple design, geometrics and spots of color to loud mascots, cute patterns and cartoons. From minimalism to pop, we can see Japanese design’s influence all over the West and beyond.
Let’s take a look and see how you can bring Japanese design inspiration into your own work!
A short history of Japanese design
Japanese design in general has been heavily influenced by the world around it. Japan is a country with a very diverse artisan craft tradition. Ceramics, woodcut prints, calligraphy, origami, kabuki theatre, and more recently manga and anime are just some of the arts developed there. These art forms have influenced Western Art and Design for hundreds of years—Japanese woodblock prints, for example, influenced many famous Western artists, such as Gustav Klimt and Vincent Van Gogh.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan flourished economically and culturally. Design and creativity flourished, too. Japanese advertisers were pioneers in the way they marketed products and services, creating mass-scale posters, graphics infused with typography, and quirky illustrations of the stars of the day—sumo wrestlers and and popular kabuki theater actors. They were using influencer marketing hundreds of years before Instagram even existed!
Ukiyo-e, an important genre of Japanese art of woodblock prints and paintings, also developed during this period. It featured common themes of female beauty, kabuki, sumo wrestlers, folk tales, and landscapes. Because it was easily printed, ukiyo-e became vastly distributed and quickly gained popularity.
Ukiyo-e later evolved into modern illustrations, which evolved into mangas, anime, and even video games. With a more pop aesthetic and larger color palette, these new styles hugely influenced the west through cartoons, comic novels and toys.
The late 1800s
In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world, welcoming trade and the exchange of culture and design. This led to an explosion of creativity in Japanese design for the next 50 years inspired by Western art and design.
After World War II, Japan’s economy grew enormously, eventually becoming the third largest economy in the world. Driven by the industrialization and manufacturing of the post-war years, the styles of Constructivism and Bauhaus inspired the design of the day, using strong geometric shapes mixed with Japanese symbolism.
In the 90s, Japanese design exploded like never before. With postmodernism and the popularity of computer software like Photoshop and Illustrator, a whole new world of design possibilities was available, and the Japanese fully embraced it.
This period also saw Japanese design become more conscious about social responsibility. In 1991-1992, the Japanese economy collapsed, and the nation entered a time of economic stagnation known as the Lost Decades, which lasted until 2010. Designers tried to positively influence people during the economic recovery by getting rid of excesses and bringing balance to their work.
Today, Japanese design has become even more conscious about environmental problems like global warming and pollution. With a large population and limited space to live, designers must think about how people consume their products. As a result, Japanese design has gained quite a natural tone.
9 ways to bring Japanese design into your own work
1. Wabi- Sabi and Japanese minimalism
Do it like Marie Kondo, and get rid of anything that’s unnecessary. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-Sabi is a worldview centered on the acceptance of imperfection that comes from Zen Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.
Basically, it finds joy in the imperfect and gets rid of all that doesn’t spark joy.
Wabi-Sabi has a lot in common with modernism, but it’s more intuitive, asymmetric, warm, and fluid. This technique tries to keep the essence of a design without losing the poetry. Clean, but not sterile. Simple, yet smart.
Try bringing Japanese minimalism to your branding, logo, packaging, website and more.
2. Natural motion
Many of the earliest Japanese wood print blocks illustrate nature and how the world constantly changes and moves. This sense of continuity evolved into modern-day manga and bright packaging.
With striking (and daunting) natural features like earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons, Japanese culture is keenly aware of the environment. The Japanese people celebrate nature and the seasons like no one else. This influence has also led to creative design solutions.
Architectural design borrows from elements like wood and stone. In graphic design, nature makes its way into packaging material, natural illustrations, and earth tone color palettes.
Japanese design is very geometric because shapes have much deeper, cultural meanings.
Squares and rectangles represent artificial forms not often found in nature and are often used to create the outline of the kimonos, lacquer boxes, chests, screens and some ceramics. Curves and circles arc represent intuition and inspiration.
Japanese typography is much more complex than the Western alphabet with over 2,000 characters to write and three different scripts. No wonder calligraphy plays such a huge role in Japanese design—drawing letters is an art form in itself.
Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three basic scripts: Kanji (Chinese ideographic symbols ) and Hiragana and Katakana (phonetic symbols). Because of that, Japanese has a limited amount of fonts, and it’s very common to customize typography for any design project.
Japanese folklore says that all things have its own spirit—even things that are inanimate like a stone or a box. That’s why it’s common to add faces and human-like qualities to products. You’ll see this widely used in advertisements, posters, packages and branding.
Traditions have infused themselves into Japanese design. Don’t be surprised to see lots of images of Mount Fuji, the Rising Sun, Lucky Cats or Sumo Wrestlers. Symbols have, too. Clouds mean elegance and high status. Mountains represent the unmoving. Water symbolizes power and resilience.
7. Japanese illustration
Manga is a Japanese comic or graphic novel. Compared to American comics, manga is more visual and contains fewer words. Manga also has a wide range of genres that appeal to a larger demographic.
Anime is a Japanese cartoon (usually based on a manga, but that’s not a rule) that’s famous for its distinct graphic characteristics, like huge eyes, “doll” faces and cute characters. Anime is a broad term for a larger spectrum of genres that appeal to all ages.
To draw a lot of attention, especially from a younger crowd, designers use manga and anime in all sorts of ways.
From the shiburi art to woodblock prints, geometric and floral patterns abound in Japanese design.
Hanakotoba is the study of flowers and how each flower has a spiritual meaning. According to Japanese tradition, pink symbolizes healing, red symbolizes love, and white symbolizes virtue.
From ramen to sushi and more, Japanese food is loved all over the world. Design and food even come together in kaiseki, or Japanese High Cuisine, a multiple course meal that celebrates the seasons using local, seasonal ingredients.
Bring Japanese design into your own creations!
Japanese design has countless different styles and visual techniques, and it’s impossible to name them all. They each have something very fluid and natural about them, which means the rules can always be bent. That’s why Japanese art continues to influence design today. Try to mix and match the styles to discover something truly unique!