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Train to Osaka: Finding inspiration in Japanese print ads

On_trainLike most people in Japan, I spend a lot of time riding trains. Trains here are clean, comfortable, and on time. The trains are also full of print advertising hanging and fixed to every conceivable space. This is not bad, however, as the print ads allow passengers something to read if they should tire of their magazines, books, or the audio files on their iPods. I enjoy scanning the print ads while I commute as this allows me the chance to keep abreast of new products and events, and also to study graphic design trends and observe the way graphics and print are used in the media.

For the most part, Japanese poster design — although usually very creative — is anything but simple or "zen." Busy, colorful, noisy, and intense seems to be the order of the day (these words also describe my first Japanese boss, but that's another story). So last year when I noticed the JT (Japan Tobacco) "Smokers' Style" campaign I was immediately impressed, delighted, and amused by the way the agency designed the JT posters. Depending where you are in the world, these green and white posters may not seem so special, but for me, given the clutter found in most posters and print ads, these poster where like a breath of fresh air (quite ironic given the nature of the campaign, I realize).

There are actually several different campaigns by JT. But two in particular stand out. One is called "The kind manners of Mr. Inhale" (called "Su-san" in Japanese). The "Mr. Inhale" campaign posters may be creative, cheeky, and colorful, but they also have less visual impact when compared to the clean simplicity of the posters from the "Smoking manners awareness" campaign ("Anata ga kitsugeba mana- ha kawaru" in Japanese).

  Mrinhale    Snow_face

Notice the difference in terms of impact and clarity between the two posters above. The one on the left is from the "Su-san" set. The poster on the right is from the "Smoking manners awareness" set.

I asked a local Japanese graphic designer I know, who works here with some of the largest firms in the world, what she thought about the JT posters from the stand point of effective visual communication. I asked her to compare the posters from the two different campaigns above. She much preferred the "Manners" posters for their clean, simple messaging. Here's what she said:

"It seems like they use different taste/artist for each campaign. The "Manners" campaign posters are indeed much simpler. It is one-color printing with green, the most eco-friendly color. The two simple colors, white and green, are a good choice for these messages. The "Manners" ads use a pictograph-like illustration. Pictograph is the ultimate form of universal design, and it is simple enough for anyone to understand: old or young, Japanese or non-Japanese. Also, there is so much clutter and noise in most print advertising that this very simple design actually stands out more. People see this on the street or in the train where it is filled with clutter. Also, it is a bit comic-like, so people like Japanese who grew up with comics are naturally drawn to it."

What struck me when I first saw the posters is how much they reminded me of the slides used in a PowerPoint presentation I once saw on the issue of environmental resource planning. The use of white space, simple colors, minimal use of text, and the consistent use of unique pictographs to illustrate systems, processes, and events really made for good visual support of a content-rich presentation to an international crowd. With some additional editing, I could imagine using visuals like these below for a presentation.


   Love     Wider

EXERCISE: Take a look at the two sets of posters here and here. If they were PowerPoint visuals, how do they compare for simplicity, clarity, beauty, grace, impact, and overall visual support? Are there any principles or techniques in these examples that you can adapt to your presentation design project?  Perhaps a future project?

Here you can see links to the campaign's TV ads, links to all the posters used in the campaign, and a smoking manners screen saver (so if you want to give subtle hints to your coworker, this screen saver might do it). There is even a "manner poster maker" which allows you to type in your own text.

Download the "Manners Screen saver" here. The screen saver will circulate through several different posters. I guarantee no one else in your office will have this screen saver. Voice your smoking-etiquette evangelism! You can download the "Su-san" ("Mr. Inhale") screensaver too here.

See how manners are changing in Japan. Simple pie charts along with the graphical and written representation of the behavior in question.

See TV commercial promoting "smoking manners awareness" in QuickTime or RealPlayer.


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