Words: Daniel Ting Chong | Photographs: Daniel Ting Chong
Tokyo is one amazing city filled with polarising elements. It is one of the largest cities in the world which is why it is no surprise that it has been designed with urban density in mind. The result is not a dense, chaotic metropolis, but rather a peacefully curated zen garden with crazy neon bonzai trees in between. Certain areas of Tokyo have remained traditional and untouched, but there are parts of the city that have western influences while still retaining their Japanese flair. The city itself is an intrinsic living organism and all the public systems have been so well designed that it is no doubt one of the most well run cities in the world.
It would be extremely difficult to speak about design as a topic for Tokyo, as there are so many aspects of design to consider, but this is my perspective of the different types of design disciplines I encountered while recently visiting Tokyo.
Graphic Design has been specifically distilled in Japanese culture for years. In 1870 the Tsukiji Type Foundry was created in Tokyo by Shōzō Motok. Although Japan has a very distinct aesthetic, when it comes to packaging and typography, Japan also adopted a lot of Western aesthetics in the early 1850s.
Typography in Tokyo is easily distinguishable from anything else you’ve seen because there are four different visual methods of setting type. For example, the typography can be read horizontally from left to right, and right to left. It can also be read vertically from top to bottom. These diverse methods create a platform to explore various interesting layouts as opposed to traditional Western methods of setting type.
The architecture in Tokyo is truly incredible. The streets are fairly grey and undersaturated, but then suddenly the city exposes you to this unexpected punch of highly saturated neon signage that screams, “look at me!”. You may encounter a massive robot, a giant Hello Kitty, or even just some crazy over the top store window installations. There is a great design & interior studio called Simplicity. Their name says it all and is evident in their work. There is a sense of calmness when viewing any of their projects. Everything appears stripped away but contains interesting decisions and functionality.
Generally, most of the decorative fences that separate pedestrians from the street are coated in a leafy brown-green colour that harmoniously complements the orange and yellow cones lining the streets. Although it may seem like an insignificant aspect of design, every inch of Tokyo is so well considered that you find yourself appreciating even the small things; this is what makes Tokyo, Tokyo. Traditionally, design is minimalistic, pure and uncomplicated, primarily focusing on function above all else. However, you are then hit in the face with some design that breaks all traditions of conformity and is nothing like you have ever imagined. Most importantly, the common characteristic of design in Tokyo is that everything has been considered for human interaction, which provides an incredible experience to the end user.
Overall, I think it is more so the approach to design in Tokyo that I found most interesting. By having the mindset that anything is possible and nothing is ever incorrect, Tokyo has managed to broaden its spectrum of creativity. There are very specific design theories in Japan. The ones that I resonated mostly with was Kanso. Kanso is a principle that is based on the elimination of the ornate and favouring elements in their most simplistic forms in nature, thereby expressing their truthfulness. Neat, direct and uncomplicated. Datsuzoku transcends convention and tradition, and is free from laws and restrictions which leaves room for true creativity.
On the crazy side of Tokyo, there is a movement called Kawaii. Kawaii was headed by Sebastian Masuda in the early 1990s. Masuda opened a store in Harajuku called 6%DOKIDOKI which became the forerunner of the Sensational Kawaii movement. Kawaii culture is anything lovable, cute or adorable. It has become a synonymous culture in Japan and is adaptable to any form of design. Kawaii usually contains bright colours and childlike characters. When you’re in the Harajuku area, it won’t be difficult to experience a wave of Kawaii.
When walking around Tokyo, different areas have their own distinct identity. Akihabara, for instance, is the electronic district, which has massive buildings with godzilla-like flickering electronic signage. There is a building called Taito Station which is a monstrous building filled with arcade games. On the contrary, when you head into Ueno is it more traditional and contains undisturbed parks and temples.
Tokyo transforms into several distinctly different areas, but no matter where you find yourself, there is unique beauty to be found.