Clicking on to Japanese graphic design website Gurafiku is something like stepping feet first into a black hole of graphic design. Started by Chicago-based designer and researcher Ryan Hageman in 2009 as a way to learn more about the history of graphic design in Japan, it has since grown into a archive which spans over 200 years of work, from the 1800s all the way up to the present day.
Ryan first came across the work of designers like Yusaku Kamekura and Ikko Tanaka while studying graphic design at MCAD in Minneapolis. “I was impressed by the energy and playfulness of their compositions,” he explains, “and I was also intrigued by the writing system and how designers used the characters.”
After discovering that his school ran an exchange programme with a school in Osaka, Ryan figured that the best way to gain a fuller understanding of Japanese design would be to experience it firsthand, and so moved to Osaka to begin training there. He started Gurafiku as a means to prepare for his time in Japan. “I used it as a place to collect all the examples I was finding, and noticed that other people found the designs interesting as well.”
Over the years he has continued to add to the collection, building the site into a rare resource of in-depth information about Japanese graphic design. Nowadays he posts a new graphic – an exhibition poster, magazine cover, album artwork, example of typography or an illustration – every day. “I’ve been able to meet many practising designers in Japan through the project,” he says. “A lot of the work featured on the website is very contemporary.”
It may have been born out of personal interest, but Ryan recognises the vital importance of archiving this kind of material – especially in an area such as Japanese graphic design, which is so often overlooked by Western design publications and blogs. “Japanese design sometimes gets separated out into a few isolated mentions – woodblock printing, a few notable designers – but I think it would add so much more nuance and character to the history of design to have other perspectives and lesser-known histories integrated into the narrative.”
“I think it would add so much more nuance and character to the history of design to have other perspectives and lesser-known histories integrated into the narrative.”Ryan Hageman
Cultural histories are full of similar holes, in which a lack of enthusiasm to record people’s work results in its being forgotten about altogether. “Some are working to reevaluate design history, identifying areas that might have been neglected, and are adding that missing detail. I appreciate projects like the blog Women of Graphic Design, and the Art+Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon. They generate much needed attention, alternative perspectives, and above all, action.” Ryan is duly attentive when it comes to crediting designers for their work, sometimes sitting on an image for months in order to work out who made it. “Design can be an anonymous and uncredited profession, so I try as much as I can to include the designer’s name wherever possible.”
I’ve wondered in the past if the attraction of Japanese design isn’t largely down to the otherness of Japanese lettering – how can you resist a pretty, dancing script, of which you can’t understand a single word? – and much to my satisfaction, Ryan agrees. “I think what captures people’s attention… is the written language,” he says, and this is partly because of its variability. “Text can be arranged as we read it in English: horizontally, from left to right. It can also be oriented vertically, read top to bottom, and from right to left.”
On top of the different formats, Japanese and Roman characters are often mixed together. “Japanese words are usually written with ideographic characters, and can also be written with the Roman characters we’re familiar with, and English mixed with Japanese writing is also a common occurrence in Japanese design.” All in all, this variability allows for endless possibilities when it comes to experimenting with composition.
"It takes a lot of work to create a Japanese typeface, and because of this there are not nearly as many off-the-shelf and expressive typefaces to choose from... For a poster or book cover, it's easier to just draw up the characters for a few words than to create an entire typeface."Ryan Hageman
The complexity of Japanese characters adds a whole other level. “It’s a language with over a thousand different characters,” Ryan continues, “and they’re very visual and dynamic with so many different shapes and forms.” As a result “it takes a lot of work to create a Japanese typeface, and because of this there are not nearly as many off-the-shelf and expressive typefaces to choose from. As a result, you’ll quite often see typography custom-made specifically for the project at hand. For a poster or book cover, it’s easier to just draw up the characters for a few words than to create an entire typeface.
“Because the typography is being drafted specially for the project, it tends to be heavily integrated into the composition, forming a strong relationship all the other elements at play. This limitation also encourages the experimentation with typographic style, where the characters not only convey meaning through text, but are also expressive visually.”
This enormous breadth of influence allows for endless variation. “Looking through all the works archived on Gurafiku, I am always impressed by the sheer diversity of different styles, approaches and methodologies present in Japanese graphic design. It’s these characteristics that’s been able to carry my interest in the project for so many years.”
Now six years old, Gurafiku has grown to be a highly respected archive, so we couldn’t resist asking creator Ryan who his favourite designer is to date. “One designer whose work always captures my interest is Tadanori Yokoo. He’s a designer who was prominent in the 1960s and 70s, capturing the spirit of the time, known for his provocative collage-based designs for avant-garde theatre and for mashing up traditional Japanese motifs and pop-culture iconography. He’s still designing well into his 70s, and aside from his design work he has a prolific art practice. I feel like no matter how hard I might try, I could never design the way he does.”
Next up for Ryan is an exhibition of works by Japanese graphic designers at Present Works, a gallery in Wisconsin, in the USA. Watch this space!