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An interview with Yusaku Kamekura, 1979
Katzumie Masaru speaks with Yusaku Kamekura about Japanese logo design for Issue 73 of Graphic Design.
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The following is an interview with legendary designer Yusaku Kamekura conducted by designer and editor Katzumie Masaru. It was published in Issue 73 of Graphic Design, alongside 100 logo designers. The following was trasnalted from Japanese. Occassionally, it’s a little difficult to follow, however, there’s a lot of interesting insights to be gleaned.
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The reason why we planned this ‘100 Series’ is that unless we evaluate design over a longer period of time, rather than a short span like annual awards, we would not be able to accumulate designs. Something feels empty. That's why the first article focuses on the field of symbol marks, and as you can see from the history of coats of arms, this field has long been the field in which the Japanese people excel.
Kamekura: Who was the first person to design the Japanese coat of arms? Of course, when you think that it was not just one person, but many craftsmen working together, and that it took many years to become so sophisticated, it must be a really big job. It's no wonder there were so many changes.
Katzumie Masaru: The tradition of Japanese coats of arms is probably unique in the world. Just like tanka and haiku, It was not only related to the family, but had a national spread. That is a big foundation.
Kamekura: Many Japanese family crests are inspired by nature. Flowers, birds, etc...
Katsumi: Of course, there are things that came from China, like the tomoe pattern, but Japanese people aren't very good at things that involve abstracting the view of the universe. Rather, I look for motifs in things that are familiar to me, things that I have seen thousands or tens of thousands of times since I was a child. The design of the coat of arms was created by simmering images that can be seen even when you close your eyes, and I think this is the basis for its use as a common visual language among Japanese people.
Kamekura: I don't know the details of the history of coats of arms, but when they move from samurai to peasant life, things that are closely related to daily life, such as sickles, ears of rice, and lightning bolts, become themes. Also, when you become a townsman, things like your own desires, such as money, coins, and mallets, come out. That's a very interesting point. Motifs that are always present in the living environment are reflected in the coat of arms.
Kamekura: This isn't a story about marks, but when I try to simplify a bird into a bird or a sparrow into a sparrow, I always end up bumping into a coat of arms. Indeed, there are all kinds of coats of arms, and there is always something similar. As a Japanese person, I believe I have studied the coat of arms quite a lot, but when foreigners see the Japanese coat of arms, they are always impressed by the way they are simplified. Foreigners are impressed by Japan's coat of arms, but what do they think about Japan's current marks and symbols?
Kamekura: That's right. Although it cannot be said that there are many products of such high standard, the amount of marks that have been produced in Japan over the past 4-5 years is probably the largest in the world. If this were the case in Europe or America, we probably wouldn't be able to do this many times a year.
Katsumi: Symbol marks are something that people tend to think can be easily created even by an amateur. At first glance, the result is simple.
Kamekura: The simpler it is, the more appealing it is.
Katsumi: Therefore, I feel that anyone can do it. However, it can be used not only for printing, but also for metals and glass.
Kamekura: There are developments.
Katsumi: The range of applications will expand depending on the difference in size and frequency of repeated use. There is actually a system for taking responsibility for such issues, assignments, quotas, and so on behind the scenes, and it would not be something that an amateur could easily create.
Kamekura: In any case, a mark is a very condensed form, and I think the true essence of a trademark is to take it to the point where it doesn't allow any other embellishments. For that reason, there has to be some vitality in it. If you look at something for a moment and it's interesting, but you get tired of it within a year, it can't be said to have a life. The shape of a trademark that never gets old is an ordinary shape. However, there is something charming about it, and it has a life force all the way through... This is a tough job.
Katsumi: In a sense.
Kamekura: There may not be many people in the world who can make it.
Katsumi: Actually. We play a little bit like Paul Rand. There aren't that many. I'm sorry about Japan.
Kamekura: That humor makes you go away. And he's a genius. I'm the only one in America. No matter how much people make a fuss or say that he's an old man, no one can surpass him. Even if you say Milton Glaser, you're competing by writing a lot of unnecessary things…Paul Rand is sorting things out and getting rid of unnecessary things. That's why I'm so nervous.
Katsumi: After all, you clearly understand the merits of Japan's coat of arms. Young people today probably don't see much of Paul Rand.
Kamekura: Ah, I don't think you know.
Katsumi: So no matter how much I talk about it, it just doesn't click. It doesn't have to be old history, but at least 20 or 30 years. I think it would be good if you could study the history of development.
Kamekura: That's right. At least 20 years. After all, we have to teach it through books. The role that design plays in society.
Katsumi: By the way, over the past 10 years, the evaluation of design has become more ambiguous in Japan regarding the social impact that designed objects can have. This does not mean that public nature is superior or that commercialism campaigns are inferior. In fact, we need to evaluate things in terms of how they actually perform a certain function in society, and what kind of results that function has achieved.
Kamekura: Anyway, some people were angry the other day. The issue of the value of design. For example, people would put my Olympic poster and a coffee shop match book drawn by a popular artist side by side and vote on which one was better. There's nothing we can do about this. That's where people vote that matches are more interesting. I'm sure it's interesting, but you can do anything with matches in a coffee shop.
However, Olympic posters must represent the country, and they must resonate with people of all ages, genders, and nationalities. I think it's different from just finding something you like interesting. I feel that it would be a mistake to treat posters for small theaters in the same way as posters with a real weight of corporate or political backgrounds.
Katsumi: Well, that's what we call work-basedism, and we focus too much on the finished work. That's the same as the picture is not it.
Kamekura: Yes, it's the same as the painting.
Katsumi: Of course, you can't evaluate a design without the work, but the resulting product (the so-called ‘work') is not the only thing that constitutes design. The weight you are referring to is probably a matter of that. A certain amount of social energy is mobilized in the background of design activities, and we must evaluate the effect that the finished work, or poster in the case of posters, appeals to and evokes in society, and the multiplier effect of these things. Otherwise, it will not be considered as a design evaluation. Although there is a problem with how objectively you can grasp the weight and breadth of a design, your attitude towards evaluation will be completely different depending on whether you make an effort to grasp it or not. Symbols of public and national events.
Katsumi: Currently, it seems like there is a lot of activity in the creation of symbols but don't you feel like they are being left unfinished? There is no accumulated design evaluation. This is a design I don't think the responsibility lies solely with either side. Sponsors also have an attitude of throwing things out, which leads to designers overproducing inferior products, creating a vicious cycle. However, if you seriously tackle the design of symbols and pictograms, it's a tough job. Especially public symbol marks. I think you are the one who has been working the hardest in this field. What do you think?
Kamekura: Certainly the most difficult thing is the public one.
Katsumi: In a sense, you have to read into the decades ahead of a country.
Kamekura: A public mark is a mark of one's own. It's an expression of a clear idea. If there is thought, expression will come later in nature; without it, there will be no form, and it will become something like a pun. I think this is the most difficult part of creating a public symbol. Isn't the official symbol of the Tokyo Olympics, which Mr. Katsumi looked after until the very end, an example of a successful event in Japan?
Katsumi: I simply tried to utilize the potential of your design as honestly as possible. Rather, people who are now top-notch designers worked together to create the International Pictogram project, even though they knew they didn't have the budget. People like Ikko Tanaka and Kohei Sugiura, who today's young people think of as gods, cooperated with us. That was very moving. It was worth it for me, too, and it was because of everyone's support for humanism that I declared at a press conference with foreign journalists that I would like to entrust this pictogram system to the international community as a shared cultural property. I was able to do it. New York Times reporter: At first, I didn't believe you when I told you that such a system was created without a penny of design fees. Anyway, it was a great reaction. This was relayed to a series of international events, including the Montreal Expo the following year, it became part of Otl Aicher’s system.
Kamekura: However, the pictograms that everyone made during the Tokyo Olympics are the foundation. It is said that improvements have been made little by little, depending on the ethnic characteristics of each country, but I don't think the changes have really made anything better. Sometimes they explain too much and it actually made things worse.
Katsumi: That's right. Even if I look at it calmly and without being selfish, I can't say that it's better than Tokyo. However, while Japan has taken the lead, everyone is falling apart. Commercialism has proliferated where there is no need for it. It's strange to criticize yourself, but I think my greatest contribution at the Tokyo Olympics was to put designers on an equal footing with architects. On the contrary, for events such as the Olympics and World Expos, the budget for graphics and visual projects is immediately reflected. When it comes to events, the fabrication part is always taken up first, and most of the budget is spent there. My argument led me to a direction to change this. So whether it's Paul Arthur at the Montreal Expo, Lance Wyman in Mexico, or Otl Aicher in Munich, I'm grateful for their contributions in that respect. Looking back on it now, it's a funny story, but for the Tokyo Olympics, there was a budget set aside for signs, so when I looked into the breakdown, it was the construction costs for the signs.
Kamekura: Ah, the kind of budget you would pay for a signboard shop...
Katsumi: You can decide what to do with typography for free. I guess that's what it means. Pict's design fee, etc. I hadn't even thought about it. In this way, I always focus on the hard part, and the soft part is the service...
Kamekura: I think that's what we can do. However, at the Tokyo Olympics, Mr. Katsumi directed the designers comprehensively and brought them all the way there. Until now, when it comes to the Olympics and World Expos, the architecture always comes first, and the design takes a backseat. Thanks to the Tokyo Olympics, international events have certainly gotten better since then.
Katsumi: But, what about in Japan? At the Osaka World Expo, architects once again took the lead. The same goes for Ocean Expo. My successor may not have emerged in Japan. By the way, I'm sure Mr. Kamekura has created many other marks as well.
Kamekura: The next most difficult thing after the official symbol mark is the bank or so-called academic corporate entity of large corporations.
Katsumi: First of all, you have to have social trust.
Kamekura: Very difficult. I feel like there aren't many people in Japan who can do this. A bank I worked with in the past asked me to do an open competition. So, I asked someone who thought it was a good idea and a young person to design it, but apparently young people were not allowed. The worst part is that some people have drawn a square around the bank symbol. So I asked him to redraw it again, and this time, drawing a circle. It's called money...From their point of view, they don't have to go through it. Which even so, I was surprised because I was told that I would receive a nomination fee.
Katsumi: After listening to what you just said, I realized that in Japan, the format of open competitions is being used a little too easily. I proposed this as a last-ditch measure for the Tokyo Olympics, when the budget was insufficient. We need to work together to find the best results. I think it's a little too easy for banks to hold competitions. In many cases, the mark that has been created gradually deteriorates without the designer's follow-up or after-sales service.
Kamekura: That problem certainly exists. The problem with symbols and marks is what happens after they are created. However, when changing an old mark, it is usually planned as a commemorative project for the 30th or 50th anniversary, and once the design is adopted, that marks the end of the anniversary celebration. That gives me peace of mind. Perhaps it's because the sponsors lack wisdom, but once the mark is created and it's time to use it, it becomes the responsibility of the general affairs department. In that case, the only wisdom you have is to attach it to stock certificates, business cards, or badges. There's a part of me that thinks it's okay to just create something.
Katsumi: I guess there's always a lack of after-sales service on the part of designers, but without these two things working together, we end up with the situation that Mr. Kamekura mentioned earlier, where thousands or even hundreds of thousands of marks are created in a year. I guess it's possible. The symbols must be used effectively afterwards. Well, it would be as good as dead.
Kamekura: That's right. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate the applied state as well. Design conscious from pre-war to post-war
Katsumi: Well, since we're talking about banks, I have to ask: Was that Mitsubishi logo created in the Meiji era? I'm not an educated person, so I don't know who created it. It's pretty good. For a long time, shapes have been used many times, such as Takeda's four diamonds, but it is so clear, it is a combination of just three element shapes, and because it reminds us of a diamond, it was used in banks. It would not be strange for a trading company to use it, and it has dignity. The other thing is the Ministry of Communications' ‘〒’ mark, which I think could be included in theTop 100.
Kamekura: Yes, I think it's a masterpiece. Ministry of Communications ‘〒’ is the kana `te’, right? I asked Teru Takakura, a farmer activist, about this, and he said that Japanese people use too many difficult words, and that we should use simpler words that everyone can understand. With principles. In that sense, the Ministry of Communications' mark 〒 is a masterpiece. It can be read with 〒 and the shape is beautiful. It was around that time that postcards were created. It's fine if it's romantic, with calligraphy on the leaves. Leaves on trees are postcards, express delivery is quick, and parcels are small. They say this is a masterpiece. He was very complimentary, saying that Japanese officials had often thought so much about the name.
Katsumi: Back then, the term copywriter as we know it today didn't exist. However, it is still a copywriter-like. There must have been a person inside that plane. Even if it's not your specialty.
Kamekura: There was someone who was really great. That's why the Ministry of Communications is doing well, even in architecture. Isn't it the most cultural of all the government offices in Japan?
Katsumi: Although it is old-fashioned now, the building of the Central Post Office was the most modern in the early Showa period, and it is a masterpiece, blending European elements with the Japanese landscape. And when you think of the Ministry of Communications mark, it means the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. In terms of design, Japanese government offices are design conscious.
Kamekura: Even now, the post offices and telegraph and telephone offices of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications are all buildings with no waste, and I think they are masterpieces of government architecture. You can see why that the mark has appeared.
Katsumi: By the way, has it already been 10 years since the Meiji 100th anniversary? At that time, the government held a competition to design an official symbol for the commemorative project. We were the jury.
Kamekura: Ah, at that time, Mr. Ohashi's work was selected from among 35 works by Tadashi Ohashi, Takashi Kono, Ikko Tanaka, Shigeo Fukuda, and Makoto Wada.
Katsumi: Normally, most Japanese emblems show flowers from the front. Ohashi's mark appeared that way because he looked at the flower from the side. With that, you could say that Ohashi created an epoch in Japanese tradition. Then, if I were to list the events after the war, it would be Mr. Kamekura's Tokyo Olympics. It's not just Mr. Kamekura's masterpiece, but it's representative of Japan. Also, the next Sapporo Olympics is interesting in its own way, but it's a repeat of what Mr. Kamekura did. Rather I think Nagai’s Suruga Bank would be interesting...
Kamekura: I think the Suruga Bank mark is the most masterpiece of all the ones depicting Mt. Fuji. There's nothing we can do about Mt. Fuji's appearance. If that happens again, I won't be able to visit Mt. Fuji. (Laughs) I'm in trouble...
Katsumi: I'm sure Takashi Kono also participated in the Tokyo Olympics. There was also a trip to Mt. Fuji.
Kamekura: Ah, there it is. With the snow, it has a slightly old-fashioned feel.
Katsumi: Well, from the current perspective of Mr. Nagai's Suruga Bank, the modern view of the Mt. He's a nice person, so I wanted him to be nice. Recently, he was the one with the heart symbol, right?
Kamekura: If you look at it like this, it would be quite difficult to gather 100 people. It's tough, isn't it?
Katsumi: It would be great if we could recruit 100 people around the world, but I felt like it would be impossible to recruit 100 people domestically.
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About Logo Histories’ Extra Issue
Logo Histories' Extra Issue unlocks opinion and insights lost to time, buried within the pages of rare out-of-print design books and magazines. Through this series, you'll come to understand the challenges and opportunities corporate identity designers of the past faced to help you better understand design practice of the present. For Logo Histories, click here.