The "fish story" and conscious reduction of the nonessential
Carlos Ghosn: The little things matter

Noise and elimination of the nonessential

Tokyo_noiseIn informal usage, the signal-to-noise ratio represents the ratio of useful and relevant information to superfluous or irrelevant information. We want to keep the noise down and the signal up, and the content must be rich enough and appropriate enough for the context. But each context is different. Though borrowed from the engineering field, the SNR principle can be applied to most communication design situations, too, such as building a webpage, a presentation slide, a poster or billboard, etc. The details of how much text and other visual content you actually use depends on your medium and what you're aiming to do, but the principle is the same: make sure your target audience gets the key message easily and quickly and don't tick them off with superfluous detail that amounts to no more than distracting noise.

Japan: the land of Zen simplicity and visual overload
Japan is a wonderful place. Some of the best graphic design treatments in the world are done right here. And some of the most chaotic and mad examples of graphic design and communication are also right here. If you have been to Japan you know exactly what I am talking about. Every student of design should take a study trip to Japan for a month or a year. In Japan we have a 2000 year-old culture steeped in aesthetic appreciation and tradition juxtaposed with modern, fast-paced city centers which give one the feeling of living inside a pinball machine. Insane and yet stimulating and even inspiring...most of the time.

In Japan I have found some of the best (worst?) examples of visual noise. Noise is so common in many retail settings that it's simply accepted as the norm. It's no wonder some of the ugliest, most confusing PowerPoint visuals are also found in Japan. It's all around us.

Reefer madness
One example of clutter and noise that both fascinates and annoys me is the point-of-purchase displays found in many electronic shops. Yesterday, for example, we were out shopping for a new refrigerator. We want it to be energy efficient and with a beautiful stainless steel finish. It must look good and fit with our current interior design. But as you can see from the photo below, it's very hard to imagine how this expensive appliance will look or "aesthetically fit" in our kitchen. Moreover, while the price is easy to find, it was often hard to locate the most basic information such as its exact size or energy consumption, etc. in the sea of crap pasted to the front of the appliance. The information was there, but it took effort to find it. Besides the visual noise, of course, there was the loud background music featuring the store's theme song and the shouting of enthusiastic salespeople with megaphones -- if you did not speak Japanese, you'd swear by their tone and non-verbal cues that they were yelling at you to get the hell out of their store!

Above: A snap taken at Yodobashi Camera in Osaka. How long did it take you to figure out you were looking at two refrigerators?

Above: The dining table in a design-oriented furniture store gets it. We need to imagine how the piece will look (and feel) in our home. The specs and details are there in a small sign, easy to find without searching.

Poster design: the noise continues...
Advertising posters also run the gambit in Japan. The picture below is of a poster on an Osaka train that I snapped yesterday on the way home. The poster (about 60-70cm wide) is encouraging passengers to take a trip to Gold Coast, Australia. Some of the type is no bigger than 10-12 points; I had to stick my nose to the glass to even read all that detail. Good poster design should (1) be noticed, (2) be understood, and (3) be remembered (and hopefully get the viewer to take action). I have no evidence or proof, but I can not imagine this poster was very effective at getting more business. At the very least, though, this poster deserves to be in the hall of fame of ugly poster design.


In defense of the designer, this poster is a classic example of design-by-committee; the actual designer probably became no more than a computer operator with the client saying "Add this!" "Don't forget that!" "Where's the &^*#@! koala bear?!" and so on. Sadly, this poster resembles some design-by-committee PowerPoint slides which I have seen all too often in Japan. Often the default is: "When in doubt, add more."

Graphic design -- good and bad -- is all around us. Even non-designers can learn by observing the various graphic design examples in the real world with a critical eye.


Michael Chui

Every student of design should take a study trip to Japan for a month or a year.

I was in Shanghai years ago, taking a tour of China, and I think that statement applies equally to China.


Since I've never been to Japan, I have to wonder if what we westerners see as noise is actually functional for a Japanese audience. Does the "noise" obscure information or does it actually communicate something else that we westerners just don't get?

A lot of American humor is based on the absurd and the ironic. These don't translate to other cultures, even when the language itself it understood. I wonder if Japan's noise aesthetic (writing that reminds me of all the Japanese noise bands I don't like) is like irony in that it just doesn't translate for cultural outsiders no matter how well they've acclimated.


Wow, I lived in Japan for 6 months, and I thought those refrigerators were just bags of snacks until I read the article!

Of course, I probably would have realized it if I were looking at the pictures closer -- not because I identified them as refridgerators, but because of the little (Y)147,800 in the middle!


Yes, culture *is* an important consideration. The often cited "High Uncertainty Avoidance" concept is useful perhaps for understanding why we feel compelled in Japan to include more rather than less in slides for example. Rather than "risk" leaving anything out, one may choose to sacrifice simplicity (and clarity?) for the sake of insuring that the boss does not "yell at me for leaving something out."


I had no idea what those boxes of stickers were until I read your post!

What an amazing contrast, isn't it? Japan, the land where we get the art of Zen simplicity, banged up next to the horribly trashy and flashy.


I love the "design-by-committee" sample. I think everyone can imagine how that would look even worse if it was done by a governement....!

JF Quirk

I lived in Japan for 2 years and spent a lot of time in the Shinjuku area which is just saturated with this sort of thing.
A couple of things always struck me:
1)I was always amazed by the actual data density (as in Tufte data density)and how much could be figured out even if you could not read the Kanji once you understood the way the information was presented or the "Visual Jargon"
2) That the style of the information presentation was an excellent metaphor for Japan especially Tokyo with so much crammed into such a small place.
3) The efficiency of allowing virtually every question to be answered by the attached labels so you only had to approach a salesperson once you had decided to purchase an item.
In this case maybe comprehensive trumps visual impact sometimes you just need all the data.
The color scheme well that’s another matter

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