Masaaki Hiromura (http://www.hiromuradesign.com/)
Born in Aichi prefecture in 1954. Having gained experience in Ikkō Tanaka’s design studio, he launched Hiromura Design Office in 1988. Creator of many brilliant designs in various areas, including the wayfinding systems of the Iwadeyama Junior High School in Ōsaki, prefecture Miyagi; Saitama University, CI; Miraikan – The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, VI; Yokosuka Museum of Art; and Sumida Aquarium, as well as sport pictograms for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He supervised the artistic creation for Loft. One of the leading Japanese graphic designers, known also the series of exhibitions ‘Jungalin’ dedicated to design rooted in daily reality, and as the author of the book about his design philosophy Dezain kara dezain made (From Design to Design).
Fujii: The official presentation of sport pictograms in Tokyo in March 2019 was widely commented. I have seen your works and I find them truly beautiful. Could you tell us what this project means to you?
Hiromura: I was invited to enter the competition for the pictogram design. Ever since I decided to become a graphic designer, I have known that the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo are of great importance to this profession. The Olympic Games became an impulse to modernize Japanese graphic design. Along with the subsequent economic development of the country, Japan gained international recognition in this field. Everyone is proud of these Olympics, which opened a great chance for us. Since my young age, I was hoping that if the event was ever held in Tokyo again, I could make some kind of contribution. I’m really happy that I got this chance and could participate in the Olympic preparations with my team.
F: What was the design process behind the pictogram project?
H: Bearing in mind that the official sport pictograms were actually introduced during the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, we found it especially important to determine what project to develop this time. That far, every Olympics, be it in London, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing, had their own characteristic pictograms. The question was whether our project should account for “Tokyo” or “Japaneseness”. Discussing the symbol of contemporary Japan, we prepared several solutions, starting with considerations of possible implementation.
F: What is “Japaneseness” in design?
H: I think it is a very complex notion. You could look for “Japaneseness” in tradition. In Beijing, for instance, the shapes of Olympic pictograms referred to the ancient form of writing, the origin of contemporary Chinese ideograms. What could constitute such a form in the case of Japanese typography? Would it be hiragana? Could hiragana serve as a starting point for pictogram design? Or maybe, in reference to Japanese classic, we could design pictograms based on Chōjū-giga (a collection of 12th and 13th century satirical drawings in ink on paper kept in the form of scrolls at the Kōzanji temple in Kioto)? On the other hand, taking the contemporary perspective of video games such as Super Mario, I was considering the adaptation of game characters’ movements for the purposes of pictograms. Also, why not use the silhouettes of sport stars who come to shine during contemporary Olympics in every discipline? In athletics, for instance, would it be Usain Bolt? My woks on this project was the process of elimination of certain ideas based on the possibility of accurately presenting all sport disciplines by means of pictograms.
F: The final version honours the pictograms of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964 but also brings the breath of fresh air. Pictograms are only one aspect of visual preparation for the next year Olympics. It would seem that Tokyo’s appearance is changing, too. I think design can shape the atmosphere of a place, such as a city, affect its comfort and functionality, as well as its general image. What are your thoughts?
H: The city can change due to the design of its elements and I am wondering if it is not the key role of design at large. The focus of graphic design, which seems to have less impact, is on functionality. For instance, does the wayfinding system in the public space facilitate efficient use of public transport and reaching the destination, is information about Tokyo’s gastronomic offer easily accessible, and will it all sum up to the visitors’ pleasant memories of the place? I find it important to provide the foreign guests with a good time in the capital of Japan. Obviously, there is the aspect of infrastructure – constructing highways and subway extension, but as graphic designers, we can also do more. All things considered, I hope to contribute to the success of the Olympic Games in Tokyo if only a little.
F: You used to work under the tutelage of Ikkō Tanaka. As a graphic designer, what did you learn from this experience?
H: Although I specialize in graphic design, the important lesson I learned was: look at the society from a broad perspective. Mr Tanaka was a person of versatile interests, including traditional arts, film, travels, architecture and cuisine. He taught me that design required noticing a bit different worlds and watching them closely. His particular interest was cuisine, you might say it was his speciality. He always said to learn the essence of design by looking into various disciplines.
F: Do you apply this philosophy in your current work?
H: I cannot be a judge of that, but I would be glad if people had such impressions looking at my works. I am not as versatile as Mr Tanaka, but I try to actively use the modest range of my interests.
F: Since you started your independent career, you have been engaged in various projects. Can you see any difference between your design attitude or preferences in the early professional period and now? If so, why? What made you notice this difference?
H: When I became professionally independent, I first wanted to find my own style and initially strived to draw possibly furthest away from Mr Tanaka’s. I wanted to become detached from the great impact he had had on me. More specifically, I avoided using the layout or colour scheme he could have used. At first, I wanted to be noticed. After a while, however, I found this approach unreasonable. I realized that distancing myself from the past was not the way to build my own identity. The important thing is how we make ourselves up of the past experience. It recognized that I should use everything what had become part of me over the years, throughout my childhood, youth, and all the time of Mr Tanaka’s tutelage.
F: You have worked on projects in various disciplines hand in hand with architects, artists, photographers.
H: I rarely work individually. Graphic designers sometimes work on their own, but I currently participate in many projects that involve discussions with others. I change depending on the person I co-operate with. As much as I am influenced by others, I have impact on them all the same. I do enjoy that. Still, there are frictions at times. When we face a difference of opinions, it indicates a discrepancy. Then, you need to do your best to understand where the other person is coming from. Hold on and listen carefully or clearly restate your point of view. If we still cannot get on the same page, it is good to find a common ground around the most important aspect and start from there. It is not about power play. We work together to achieve optimal results, so you cannot force someone to your side or push for your vision. In my work, I always try to accept adjustments and changes. The final result is sometimes completely different from the initial assumptions. I think it should be appreciated and enjoyed.
F: Is there any project you remember especially well?
H: Working with others, you design something you have not expected and this is interesting. Wayfinding system design, however, other than graphic design, engages a lot of people, requires considerable founding and is very time-consuming. You must collaborate with architects and people connected with a given place, conduct endless discussions. I had an opportunity to work for the Yokosuka Museum of Art. Having developed its visual identity, I was supposed to design a wayfinding system. I presented several ideas, but none of them was appreciated by the curators. Hard as we tried to achieve an agreement, we could not find any common ground. Frequently, I listen to my client’s expectations and understand what they mean. In this case, however, the curators had their own vision of the museum, while I wanted to design something innovative. As the museum’s visual identity features the sea, I tried to use this motif in the wayfinding design – work in photos of the sea in different seasons or various times of day, for instance. It was an original concept which I found interesting. The curators, however, firmly disagreed arguing that such wayfinding elements could be treated as exhibits and visually detract from the artwork display. I kept persuading: It is only wayfinding, it won’t be a problem – but it was not accepted. I do understand their point of view, of course. Then, I developed a few more solutions and consulted them with an architect, Riken Yamamoto. The museum is visited by many foreigners, so the wayfinding system must be multilingual, up to four languages, actually. This leads to accumulation of letters and the loss of their legibility. Therefore, I presented an idea involving the use of pictograms shaped like silhouettes of guides. The curators approved and the project was implemented after all. This example shows that when working with others, the changing circumstances can bring satisfactory results. Today, I consider it my flagship project.
F: You talk about “convincing design”. Could you explain this term?
H: It is a difficult question. There is something like a good moment to design. On the other hand, it is work, so there are time and financial restrictions. For this reason, you plan your design in a particular time period. Working, you wonder if it is original or attractive enough, but in my opinion, only later is it possible to evaluate the design. Sometimes, I am only satisfied with a project when I revisit it after a while. I usually don’t consider my fresh design to be a completely finished work and my legacy. I think you need to wait, let the design mature. It is like brewing sake.
F: Working on a project is like brewing sake, indeed. We were talking about type. I am under the impression that in you work typographic signs serve a very important function and you have a specific approach regarding their use. Many students of the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology study typography. Could you tell them about the most significant notions connected with type design?
H: I would seem that among many human inventions, script is the most important. Around 4 000 BCE, both in Asia and Europe, there arose multiple writing systems which, to my mind, are not a mere substitute for speech. The recent studies show that script had not been devised solely for the graphic representation of words, but also as a means of communication. Moreover, in culture of Japan and other Asian countries, European probably as well, script holds aesthetic value too. I think it has a double function – as a carrier of beauty and human thought. In my opinion, it is important that while fulfilling its primary role as communicator, the script also evokes positive aesthetic impressions in the readers. It should not be solely the conveyor of content nor the beautiful composition. Graphic designers use script in various ways, sometimes in the leading role, other times only complementary. It is very important to properly prepare or match typography to each project. Graphic design includes three most important elements: script, colour scheme and layout. Only having mastered these three elements is one capable of making a good design. I think that the careful study will gradually enable students to make appropriate decisions about the shape of their work.
F: Design and artistic education are currently highly specialized and divided into various disciplines. This is true of other professions, too. Can such progressing specialization harm the quality of design?
H: I’ve heard that in Italy, students first learn about architecture, and only then move on to studying design. Only after taking the architecture course do they start their specializations: painting, design or graphic arts. As you said, in Japanese schools students set off to study in particular faculties at once. In my opinion, it is necessary to take the more holistic and prospective approach to design. At the end of the 20th century, when design had its grand renaissance, it needed a faculty of experts and that directed the education. With the increasing use of the achievements of new technologies, it will be important for designers to carry out the overall assessment of design from a slightly broader perspective. It will be crucial to apply our cultural knowledge to pointing out shortcomings of a given design.
F: You said it was incredibly important to observe the society from a broad perspective.
H: That’ right. In reference to the previous topic, conducting several projects involves the necessity of working with various people on each one. Also, the functions you serve in a project differ: you can be a manager, graphic designer, wayfinding system designer. Each of these roles entails different requirements. You need to find yourself in these diverse functions. This gives me another point of view than when I work solely as a graphic designer. I also think that it is a very important ability to present your opinion before people representing a different profession. You must be able to talk about architecture as well as about management. In my opinion, this competence is prerequisite to performing well as designers. That’s why I think that general knowledge is crucial in design education, so that everyone can dwell on it in their further work. Educated people will become promising individuals in service of the society.
F: Speaking of looking at the society from a broader perspective, do you think that design should include the social context, such as trends in the contemporary mass production and consumption, for instance?
H: This could even be the most important issue. I started working as a designer in the peak of the rapid economic growth, when producing ever new things was considered as good. It is obviously desirable all the same today. I do think, however, that a very important function of design is seeking sustainable development and solutions to various problems touching different regions of the world. Another issue is overcoming social inequalities. Thanks to technology and knowledge obtained from various disciplines, such as medicine and farming, design can be useful in many areas. I would really like design to facilitate the sustainable development of societies. Several years ago, I learned about the base of the wealth pyramid, that is the 80% of the world population living on under 1 dollar a day. At that time, there was an exhibition dedicated to the potential of design regarding raising the living and safety standards of people. It had a great impression on me. For example, there are children in the world who must spent several hours a day to even get water. Drawing water itself is exhausting to them. The solution to this problem comes from projects in the scope of design and technology, such as constructing a simple system of water abstraction and transportation from the well or producing electricity by water power. I was very moved. One of the companies I collaborate with produced a simple and cost-efficient paper thermometer for general use. I think that businesses should allocate some section of their resources to such operations. This issue refers to the industry as well as to designers and experts on new technologies. I am under the impression that in this area functionality and beauty come very close together. To me, the most important thing is making life not only easier, but also more beautiful on all levels.
F: The current technological development is impressive. New technologies and design influence each other and thereby both disciplines progress.
H: Design and technology, as much as art and science, is a matching duo. I think there are many things to be discovered and constructed thanks to these disciplines developing together. There are cases, however, when a great design is for some reasons impossible to effectively use in the society. Has it really been necessary then? We shouldn’t go to excess and demand new things constantly. People have a great acquisition ability and whenever there is a technological novelty, they adopt it almost instantly. The creators of new technologies are therefore currently interested in the primary notions, such as individual human physical performance, which is apparent from the Olympic Games, for example. It is worth using technology and design to enhance human abilities. The world of sport shows how the great technological progress helps the athletes improve their performance. Although it might be due to the human egoism, in the end design should serve us in our daily lives, relieve our living environment and global conditions. From my humble individual perspective, I have always believed that design should be a means to create a better society.
F: Do you perceive the future of design in the categories of serving the society by creating things close to people which will enhance their abilities and projects improving the living conditions wherever people face social inequalities?
H: Yes, but that’s not all. You can, for instance, enjoy the beauty of a single line as much as the projects provided by means of new technologies. Therefore, I would like to enjoy design on various levels and in different ways. Being a designer myself, my ultimate wish is for design to be for the world and for people.
F: Finally, could you formulate a message for students, the future designers, worldwide?
H: A human is a creature who enjoys being appreciated and respected. We are not satisfied by the efforts we make in themselves, we feel the need of being noticed – this is our dependency. Nonetheless, the joy of creation is a primal feeling. The joy children feel when they passionately draw or form in mud, even when it goes unnoticed, accompanies us in the adult life as well. In this sense, the effort made always yields some results, not only in design, but in creation at large. If students take this idea as their starting point and do not forget about the joy of creation, they will be proud of their profession under any circumstances. I hope they will use this time of their lives well and bear this philosophy in mind.