Yuta Takahashi is an Art Director & Designer running a design studio of the same name in Japan. Check out our chat with him below.
What is your background as a designer?
I don’t really think of myself as a designer. I didn’t reach a certain age, decide that I wanted to be a designer, and then attend school to learn the trade; and I’ve never thought about attending any school to learn design. The source of my designs comes from the undeniable presence of design in daily life, such as when I’m cooking or making alterations to clothing, or the manner in which I played when I was young. With age, one’s view of society expands, and design springs from thoughts such as, “wouldn’t a product more like this be interesting?” or “wouldn’t a design like this look cool?” Of course, it’s necessary to understand design techniques and to have a mathematical understanding of design, and I like to undertake such research, but the roots of my design can be found in my search for fun ways to play when I was a child, and nothing has changed since then.
What do you think defines a minimal approach to design?
We think a minimal approach to design isn't about considering products and designs which already exist. It's about taking a step back, intently examining our lifestyles and culture from that viewpoint, and trying to correct them. Our culture is perpetually being updated, and since existing products and designs are also relics of the past, we can't create anything based on a sense of modernity if we just revise those designs as they presently exist. That's why the first thing to do is eliminate product categories. We think it's essential to get a grasp on what we are conscious of, what we perceive, and the state of our culture. From there, it's necessary to consider: what exactly does the modern person perceive? By designing from that comprehensive viewpoint, it's possible to make something that works in harmony with the culture and environment. We think you will get the vibe that "minimal means the absence of waste" via the designs we created from that comprehensive viewpoint.
Where do you look for inspiration?
In daily life we ponder a variety of things, and lifestyles vary based on the way that different people see matters differently and have different impressions. I find inspiration in experiencing things from a variety of angles based on different ways of thinking and acting that people exhibit, leading me to think of things that I never would have thought of on my own. This is something that anyone can try on a daily basis. For example, experiencing something that one would normally think is totally unrelated to them (for example, going to a place that you normally wouldn’t think of going to). By doing so one gains new experiences and thoughts that serve as a relief and allow one to objectively consider a wide range of matters that exceed one’s previously narrow field of vision. Design is a matter of looking at something from as many angles as possible, so expanding one’s own experiences is hugely important when it comes to objectively viewing matters. This is one method of gaining inspiration.
Can you explain the concept behind your branding and packaging for Mandarin natural Chocolate?
Mandarin natural Chocolate offerings are “Bean to Bar” chocolates, which are made consistently by chocolatiers after roasting the cacao beans. This modern brand only uses raw materials that have been singled out for their superior quality, and carries out a very particular chocolate-making process. We wanted to express the brand’s rigorous idealism and their concern with material quality through a simple, minimalist identity. We did that by representing the acidity of high-quality chocolate with pointed serifs, and representing their idealism with a striking, exclusive white color. Then, through dot navigation, we expressed Mandarin’s modernistic sensibilities, as they relate to design and quality, in a humorous way.
Do you have a process when working on a new project?
First, in terms of the market, it’s important that we consider ourselves “users” more than “designers”. When taking on a new design project, it’s important to go out into the market and internalise the user experience. This process will make clear the standing of the product and the issues facing it. Then, after creating an identity for the product, this identity must be realised using a variety of intentional design techniques, repeated over and over to improve sophistication to achieve the desired product.
Your branding for POLKA uses polka dots in an original way. How challenging was it to find an original way to use them, considering they are used often by many brands?
We established POLKA’s refined, urban impression through the logotype, and represented the cuteness and curiosity of young women — the main user demographic — through an original dot pattern. There may seem to be a small divide between the keywords of “cuteness and urbanity” and “fun and refinement”, but we thought it was possible to craft an original identity by cleverly mixing those things together.
What is the idea behind your work for the Traditional Festival of Japan?
We did the visual design for our local festival, a traditional event held every fall in Shikoku, Japan. In this traditional local festival, we carry something called a Taikodai, which is a 2 ton portable shrine decorated in gold. We carry this through town, thanking nature and the gods for the years abundant harvest. Skilled craftsmen decorate the Taikodai with delicate yet bold embroidery, done in the shape of a golden Ark of the Covenant. Various myths passed down through the ages are depicted through the elaborate embroidery, and the skill of the craftsmen is truly breathtaking. We selected one scene from a myth, and used Japanese methods like gold leaf covering and calligraphy, as well as modern design, to pay homage to these skilled craftsmen.
Do you find designing something in Japanese requires a different approach to designing in English?
The Japanese form is already internalised and solid. On the other hand, the alphabet strikes me as something abstract and external. Because the alphabet is an external force, it’s easy for people to be aware of the area around the characters. That is to say, it becomes easier to use a space design that takes negative space into account. Japanese characters contain emotion within them, and they expand from the centre outward, making it easy to be aware of the interior of the character without being aware of the exterior of the character. I believe that the origin of claims of the Galapagosization of Japanese products and complaints that total packaging is impossible originate in this characteristic of the Japanese form. Japanese always seeks to satisfy the internal, and expands out while protecting the internal. The alphabet is not internal but directs one’s attention to the outside, so, for example, rather than just satisfying the needs of one’s own country it is easier to promote a consciousness of globalism. Due to this difference in form between Japanese and the alphabet, the design approach must incorporate different angles when dealing with each.
When you designed two books for Michael Debus, how did you make sure the two remained cohesive, yet still felt like two separate publications?
These are book versions of “Trinity”, based on talks that the writer Michael Debus gave when he visited Japan two times over the course of 2013 and 2014. In this book, he tackles the idea of a new worldview, one which advances dualism. In order to explain that, Debus says that “you must once approach the world of abstract thinking”, and tries to guide Japanese people to this abstract world. However, he fails in this effort. He says the reason is that “even if they love the world, overflowing with color and diversity, Japanese people have no interest in an essential sphere that lies behind that world. If one ascends from the lively, diverse world to the essential sphere, the world that fills that space is colorless, merely conceptual, and abstractive” (from Vol. 1). We thought of a way to visually highlight that abstract world he failed at, shown over the entirety of the books. Through this, we aimed to make the books pass through an abstract world, and face each other. In Japan, when a book with two volumes is published, it is traditionally treated as having an “upper” and “lower” volume. We abstracted this into an image like an ON・OFF switch, and applied an appropriate motif to the Trinity of a triangle and cross. Via mathematical, skillful control of contrast, we designed the books to look like a visual pair.
What are your favourite typefaces?
That’s a difficult question, but I suppose that I would have to say Helvetica. However, I’m not a Helvetica fanatic and I do enjoy using a variety of typefaces. It’s said that Helvetica is commonly used throughout the world, but as we can see in the success of the thoroughly impersonal Apple, it could be that the font matches the sensibilities of the age in which we live. Just as certain types of architecture are prevalent in any given era, although we tend to generalise, Helvetica may be similar. In terms of design, Apple’s removal of individuality may in fact be a form of individuality, and there may be cases where clear individuality must be accentuated, but the ability to examine the psychological effects of a font and to use them appropriately is an important aspect of being a designer.
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