A company famed for its fusion of hand-drawn aesthetic and playful concepts, Loworks is a cross-media design firm at the top of its game. Rob Carney meets founder Haruki Higashi.
It's a possibility that his words may have been lost in translation, but nevertheless, you can see what Loworks' founder and art director Haruki Higashi means when he describes his multi-disciplined, multi-talented company as "a box of toys". Since it opened its doors in 2004, Loworks has been juxtaposing its highly distinctive, kooky aesthetic with strong concepts and intelligent, awe-inspiring cross-media design. And today, four years later, Higashi plus his co-founder Tomohiro Morita and a team of freelancers employed on a project-specific basis, boast some incredibly high-brow clients - all of them after a bit of that Loworks magic.
"I've done work for clients such as Nike, Sony and Softbank," Higashi states. But it's not the bragging rights of having such clients that interests him. In fact, far from it. "I just want a lot of people to see my work," he gleams. "The bigger the client, the better for this. The size of the client is not important to me on the whole though, it's the content and quality of the work that matters."
Higashi told Computer Arts back in 2006 that "Japanese design companies value quantity of work over quality." Is this still true in his eyes? "I think there are definitely companies that still think this way," he says. But Loworks' work ethic is at polar opposites to this. A philosophy that Higashi coins in the phrase "creation and continuation" rings true as he outlines the company's approach to its daily design jobs. "Personal work is very important," states Higashi. "It helps shape and develop the way I work for clients." And talking of clients, what are Japanese clients like to work for - different to Western patrons? "They are sometimes angelical, sometimes satanic," jokes Higashi. He goes on to say that clients in Japan often value a design firm's reputation more than the quality of their work - two points that designers all around the world can relate to.
It's a fact that discerning Western audiences are obsessed with Japanese design aesthetic. Why does Higashi think this is? Well, the short answer is, from his point of view, it's impossible to comment. "I am from a different culture. I love Western design," he laughs. "The Japanese design scene is like the weather - it changes every day to me."
Higashi's inspirations are simplistic. First and foremost, like many artists, he cannot help but draw inspiration from the surrounding world. "I am influenced by everything around me," he says. When pushed he gets down to specifics, including Ukiyo-e (known to a Western audience as Japanese woodblock prints) and of course manga - a multi-billion-yen industry in Japan, and a genre that has spawned many a niche studio and collective in the UK.
A recent development for Loworks is that of its store. An extension of Loworks' main site (and designed very much in the same vein), the store stocks everything from free desktop wallpapers to t-shirts to custom toys and iPod skins. It's also home to an incredible, limited-edition silkscreen machine. The 260,000 yen box (a reasonable £1,670) designed as a collaboration between Elshopo and Loworks, it enables you to create your own t-shirts and prints in the comfort of your own home or studio. It comes with inks, emulsion and everything else you need. Best of all, it's decorated with Loworks' unique graphics. It's a luxury item, limited to 15 units.
Higashi is frank when it comes to the day-to-day running of www.loworks-store.org. "It was set up last year and since then I've had a lot of problems managing it - it needs to be improved." And with the development of a new Loworks site will come a new version of their online shop. "A new store is in the pipeline with lots of new products," says Higashi. "T-shirts, artwork, toys - including the Loworld range of characters - and more."
Speaking of new developments, Loworks' main site is going through a huge redesign. It's a momentous project that is currently eating into most of Higashi's time. The sprawling, beautifully crafted, Easter-egg-laden environmental Flash masterpiece of the current site is about to be taken offline. Replacing it is what Higashi refers to as "an easy-to-use and easy-to-navigate" portfolio. It may seem a shame to replace the highly original offering currently online, but Higashi's company is all about change and continuation, after all. It will be borne out in a Flash front-end powered by a WordPress back-end. This will enable Higashi to easily manage the huge amount of work in Loworks' portfolio.
There will still be some suitably impressive design though - the new Loworks isn't just a templated blog page. "I have many ideas for the site," he begins. "The theme of the new site will be its colour. The whole interface will change colour depending on the artwork, or portfolio piece selected. This Flash/WordPress approach will also help us optimise the site for search engines." The new Loworks site takes a more restrained approach, concentrating on the company's work and client-base.
And so it should do. Loworks has an incredible body of work, and one of its biggest projects to date is the site Higashi and his team created for the HumanRace Japan project for Nike. "Everything - the images, banners, homepage and so on were created by Loworks," he tells us. The project came through Nike's agency in May 2008, and had the purpose of promoting Nike+'s HumanRace - a global gathering of runners. "There wasn't much time," laughs Higashi on the difficulties Loworks faced. The site was created using a combination of Illustrator, Photoshop and Flash. And Higashi's favourite part? "The graphic on the homepage." It's a perfect representation of Loworks bringing a hand-drawn aesthetic to an established identity, he explains.
A similar approach was adopted when Loworks was commissioned by Japanese telecom giant Softbank to create a mobile phone case. Although the project is still in the works, Higashi outlines the brief: "I was asked to produce two designs," he says. "I united the Softbank logo and the illustration, which was the biggest challenge along with the limitations of the size of the phone. Everything was completed in Illustrator." And is he happy with the final project? "I love this illustration," he enthuses. "It makes me want the phone."
As we leave Higashi and his team at Loworks, the company is flourishing. And something that the founder keeps reiterating - "change and continuation" - makes you believe, even though it has produced one of the quirkiest aesthetics out there and is currently in huge demand, there is a lot more to come from this playful yet intelligent design house.