Japanese graphic design has, in many ways, paved the way for Western graphic design, turning its rich cultural heritage and idiosyncrasies into a visual format that seems both alien and familiar. Historically, Japan has been influenced by Chinese and Korean traditions in calligraphy, pottery, painting and poetry, but following the Second World War, America became the dominant cultural role-model accompanied by Japan's rapid modernisation.
In effect, Japan became a melting pot where East and West met. Unlike many Asian cultures, Japan wholeheartedly embraced foreign influences but warped them through its own unique prism. And just as Japanese society is multi-layered and clearly structured, two different kinds of graphic language have emerged.
The first is the loud, vibrant visual assault that many in the West associate with Japanese design. It's seen on packaging, comics, and magazines: bright pinks and electric blues with brash katakana typography slashed through the middle, and often accompanied by cute Manga characters.
But Japan is as much about order, tranquillity, Zen rock gardens and Buddhist monasteries as it is bug-eyed cartoons and visual chaos. This flip-side to Japan is typified by the modernist aesthetic of the retail brand Muji, with the emphasis on minimalist lines and neutral colours. You can also see it in the witty but ordered work of Yugo Nakamara and the clean grids of Japanese design agency WOW.
The new evolution
Nowhere is this progressive mash-up exemplified better than Japanese design agency Loworks, headed by Haruki Higashi. Loworks has a visual style that includes acres of Zen calm, punctuated by random patches of visual havoc. By mixing relaxed, hand-drawn graphics with the precision of digital tools, the agency represents an evolutionary jump for Japanese design.
Higashi learned graphic design at technical college and, after graduating, joined a design company that produced free papers. It was there that he met Tomohiro Morita and together they decided to form Loworks in 2004. As the company began to grow and attract more motion graphics work, Higashi asked animators Shinya Noda and Yoshinori Miyamoto, who he knew from his college days, to join the company.
Loworks is a multidisciplinary collective, equally at home producing websites, print, videos and typefaces, all united under Higashi's design philosophy: "Creation, continuation and reputation". Reputation is particularly apt, because Loworks has been garnering international praise for its unique and whimsical style, all without any kind of promotion or PR. The organic nature of the internet is the only tool they use, admits Higashi. "Our website has been gradually checked out and reported on by other websites so that more and more people are discovering our work. We always make sure that we upload images to the website every time we create new artwork."
Loworks' website is part hub that collects its client work and experiments in print, web, video and type, and part strange world that simply begs to be explored. It's littered with secret links and Easter eggs that zoom you into the site to reveal tiny lumbering robots, before whisking you off to explore Higashi's incredibly slick photoblog.
The internet has put Loworks on the international stage, so it makes sense that the default language is English rather than Japanese and that Higashi designs Western typefaces. He admits that the real reason for designing Western fonts is that they're actually easier to make: "I tried to design Japanese fonts before, but Japanese has three different alphabets - kanji, hiragana and katakana - so it was really hard to make everything." Higashi promises that he'll "try to design at least katakana next time!"
In fact, being a Japanese design company is not all it's cracked up to be. The domestic market can sometimes be unappreciative. "Japanese clients often prefer a designer's name value to the quality of their work," complains Higashi. And worse still, "some Japanese design companies value quantity of work over quality." As far as Higashi is concerned they're not creatives, "they're just operators." And this is where Loworks steps in. The agency is an advocate of quality not quantity and, for Higashi, design is ultimately all about having fun. "If you enjoy creating and can make money, you can say that design is a good business to be in," says Higashi.
When asked why Japanese design holds such a fascination for the West, Higashi is philosophical. "It's not only Western designers, but designers from everywhere who are intrigued and impressed with other countries and cultures." As for what inspires Higashi, he cites Ukiyo-e, or traditional Japanese woodblock prints, which literally translates as "pictures of the floating world". It's easy to see the link between this ancient and stylised form of art and the stark graphics of Loworks.
Another influence on Higashi's design is that bedrock of Japanese pop culture, Manga. Ironically, Manga actually means 'random or whimsical pictures', which is a good way to describe Loworks' output.
Bizarrely, Higashi's favourite piece of Loworks design is not a website, animation or piece of print, but a space. Loworks was commissioned to create artwork for a wall in a design company, something that will ultimately become a backdrop for photoshoots. Higashi recently attended an opening party there and says, "I was glad to see people enjoying a drink with our design: it looked completely different when it became a part of people's real life.
Loworks' graphic design - which new media design portal and digital culture magazine Netdiver describes as "grunge meets exuberant eclecticism" - is all about convergence. The past and the present, traditional motifs and modern ideas, Japanese culture and an international outlook go through the Loworks blender to become the coolest artwork to emerge from the Prefecture of Fukuoka.
Designs such as Ignition, where an armoured tank is piled high with random shapes, scratchy graphics, bug-eyed gun turrets and odd Teletubby-esque characters, seem to speak about Japan's military past and its current obsessions with cuteness and pop culture. Created in crisp colours, perhaps even bleak black and white, it's typical of the depth of Loworks' output.
Rise of the robots
As for the future, Higashi already has a plan: Loworld Project - taking the robots and strange characters that pepper the agency's artwork and turning them into a range of toys. It's something Higashi has been thinking about for a long time, describing it as his dream. Adding yet another string to Loworks' bow seems to make sense for a company that's already pushing the boundaries in everything else it does. But that has always been the Japanese way.