Works of Japanese graphic design typically employ simplified visual imagery, bold shapes, flat colours and subtle gradations of tone to communicate messages and meaning. These visual conventions and compositional formats were first developed during the Japanese Edo period (1603–1868), and continued to have a strong influence on graphic designers working in Japan throughout the twentieth century.
The related examples of Japanese graphic design were created during two distinct periods in Japanese history. The first is a period of rapid modernisation for Japan that occurred between World War One and World War Two and the second is the 1980s when Japanese graphic designers advocated for global social, political and environmental change through simplified and stylised poster designs.
The first subway in the East
Hisui Sugiura’s The first subway in the East, 1927, celebrates the social progress associated with the opening of Tokyo’s first subway line. The poster boasts that the new service between the neighbourhoods of Asakusa and Ueno is the ‘only subway in the East’.
- How can we tell this poster is promoting the opening of a new subway line?
- Describe the people waiting on the platform
How are they dressed? With whom are they traveling? How do you think they might be feeling as the train approaches? Can we see evidence of this in the design?
- What do you notice about the use of colour in this poster? Where has Hisui Sugiura applied brighter colours, and where has he used subtler tones? Why do you think he made this decision?
Note that there are brighter and bolder colours used in the modern clothing worn by the people in the foreground, and more subdued colours used in the background and in the clothing of the more traditionally dressed people further down the platform.
- How is line used to create a sense of depth and perspective in the work? Why do you think Hisui Sugihara used this perspective in the poster?
- Overall, how does this poster promote and celebrate change? How might this poster have influenced Japanese society at the time?
I’m here. Save being and save world
Kazumasa Nagai utilised traditional techniques in the peace and environment posters for the Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA). The designer campaigned for animal rights and the conservation of endangered species in the series, including I’m here. Save being and save world, 1980s.
1988 Hiroshima appeals
Ikko Tanaka is widely regarded as one of Japan’s leading graphic designers from the 20th century. He was one of a number of prominent Japanese graphic designers who created The Hiroshima Appeals poster series to appeal for world peace.
Look at the two posters produced by Kazumasa Nagai and Ikko Tanaka in the 1980s.
- Compare these two posters with Hisui Sugihara’s The first subway in the East? How are they similar or different?
Consider the posters’ aesthetic qualities, their purpose, their audiences and how they reflect the ideas and values of each time period
- Which meanings and ideas are being promoted by each poster? How can you tell?
- What do the ideas being promoted in each poster suggest about society at the time?
- Describe the use of shape in both of the posters from the 1980s.
Simplified, basic, easy to recognise, flat, cartoon-like?
- What do you notice about the use of colour in these posters?
You might observe that the colour palette in both examples is restricted and muted for the most part, but both posters also feature small areas of brighter, bolder colour.
- How do these kinds of shapes and colours contribute to an effective and aesthetically pleasing design?
- Which feelings might the designers be trying to evoke through their choice of colour?
- How do you think each designer was hoping to influence society with these designs?