A lesson in design from Japan

I recently visited Japan to satisfy my life long obsession for all things Studio Ghibli and my fascination for Japanese culture. I was determined to soak up as much inspiration from all aspects of the country to feed into my design practice, and there are few countries I’ve visited that have left a greater impression on me as Japan did. Here are a few things I’ve taken away from my visit:

Attention to detail

The Japanese show extraordinary attention to detail in all aspects of their lives, from the meticulous packaging and presentation of food to the intricately detailed directions given to me by Airbnb hosts and hotel attendants. The tendency towards perfectionism can seem over the top in some cases but it means that every interaction feels authentic and has been extremely well considered. Some Japanese people dedicate their lives to perfecting a particular skill and their perseverance is an inspiring characteristic. I experienced this while visiting a paper museum  in the town of Kochi where I learnt the traditional art of making paper. The wonderful documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi is another great example of this lifelong dedication to a particular skill.



I found that a unique aspect of Japan was their inherently minimalist lifestyle. The accommodation I stayed at and the homes of Japanese people I met were clean, compact, and functional. In many instances I found that some of the simplest objects were elegantly designed, take for example the Ema plaque featured below. From a design perspective, the idea of less is more applies.


Throw simplicity out the window

Walking around Tokyo was like a visual assault of every possible permutation of every possible design idea that ever existed or will ever exist. Retail outlets in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya manage to fill every square inch of space with mass amounts of information, colour, lights and sound. The sensory overload that is Tokyo is at times overwhelming, however I was intrigued by the creativity that went into the war of grabbing people’s attention. Jamming mass amounts of information into a small space is also common in Japanese web design, take for example this site.

Mass information, good communication

Travelling in Japan was an absolute breeze due to the fact that their communication systems are so well designed. Despite not knowing a lick of Japanese except for ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘delicious’, no matter where I was there would always be detailed way finding, an intricate but user friendly map system or an incredibly knowledgeable transport officer close by.

The lesson that I’ve taken from Japan that will feed into my design practice is this: don’t be afraid to experiment. While Western design dictates that when it comes to design aesthetics ‘less is more’, don’t be afraid to go bolder. Experiment with layering, collaging, customising, and doing things designers wouldn’t dare to do. You don’t have to try to be a Shinjuku shop front, but learn new things from breaking the rules sometimes.

Hannah Guilford
Junior Designer 

Image of Tokyo street – photo credit to Xiang Goa


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