We sat down with Colin M Johnson, the founder of Omencraft®. With 25 years of professional experience in graphic design, Colin has led creative for many F500 brands, won industry design awards, and has created digital advertising design standards still used today. I asked him difference in brand design between Japan and the US.

Aki:
Having had experience working in North America for almost three years, I’ve definitely seen a different perception of brand design compared to Japan. I’m curious to know what difference you see in design between Japan and the US.

Colin:
I’ve realized that not a lot of Japanese companies prioritize brand design in a business sense as much as we do in the US. Even some of mid-sized companies only have an in-house designer or two and don’t invest in design.

Whereas in the US, they intuitively know that great brand design is the vital key to business success and bad design can undermine the company’s bottom line. They usually have a much larger in-house design team and tend to invest more in design.

I know this situation in Japan is changing as younger companies started valuing good design and investing in it more and more.

Aki:
Right. Why do you think that Japanese companies don’t value design?

Colin:
I don’t know… That’s a question for you, haha.

Aki:
Haha. Well… I would say that it’s hard to justify investment in design. It’s not to say that we don’t appreciate good design, but can’t spend millions of dollars on it without any concrete rationale. I know that it will be effective for a long run though.

Colin:
Take a look at this 25 most valuable brands in 2017 presented by Statista.

Source: Statista

I only count 2 Japanese brands, Toyota and NTT Group. While America has 15. Where is Sony? Where is Nintendo? Mitsubishi? Rakuten? Korea’s Samsung is 6th largest brand in the world, Toyota doesn’t show up until twelfth. My point is simple: the companies that invest in strengthening their brands grow the biggest as Samsung spent around 10 Billion USD on brand marketing in 2016 and planning even more in 2017. Good design and branding is the number one thing that strengthens brand awareness and affinity, and it has to be done continuously. It’s not something to overlook or try to be ケチケチ with.

Japan has the 3rd largest economy in the world (dwarfed by US and China), but could you imagine how much it could grow if high quality Japanese companies invested more money in strengthening their brands?

Like stated on the Statista page, strong brands enhance business performance primarily through their influence on stakeholder groups and they influence customer choice and create loyalty; attract, retain, and motivate talent; and lower the cost of financing. It’s worth investing for sure.

Aki:
True.

Colin:
Especially when you target US demographic, design has to be the primary factor to consider and has to be simple given that Americans are not comfortable dealing with too much information at a time. For instance, we can’t process any Japanese website, store or product package that provides too much details on limited space. They may feel overwhelmed and may be freaked out.

Aki:
Interesting. To be frank with you, as a Japanese consumer, I don’t mind reading through the overwhelmed information anymore. It’s not to say that I like the stuffed design, but don’t care as much as you guys sound like. It may be because I got used to it growing up.

If one of the Japanese companies with stuffed design went into the US market, do you think they’d succeed?

Colin:
Most likely not or at least, it’ll be a big roadblock for them. Through the bad design, you present poor brand experience to customers.

Aki:
I see.

Colin:
Another reasons they don’t spend money on brand design may be because the majority of Japanese companies may not be used to getting much from a designer. When I present my brand identity work to my client, often times they are surprised at the quality of work and how much effort I put on the brand design.

For instance, we did brand identity work for Zyrus who is a Japanese insurance technology company. Their CEO wanted a new brand identity that felt simple, modern, and classy. We did this letter mark for him and he absolutely loves it. The English letter forms in the lettermark are subtly inspired by hiragana character forms. So there is a nice subtle homage to the Japanese heritage of the company but with a modern “Business English” forward face.


Source: Omencraft

On the other hand, some of the design work presented by creative people that I saw here were not polished enough. For instance, they show up with 50 different color versions of logo and ask what color you’d like. It almost feels like there’s no thoughts or thinking behind it. They are not solving any problems, just presenting arbitrary variations for the sake of quantity.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are lots of great designers and design work in Japan and this is only the tip of iceberg.

Aki:
Why do you think this is happening?

Colin:
Like I said earlier, there’s few in-house designer within an organization. I can easily assume that young designers in Japan may not have many opportunities to work with senior designers and designer colleagues where they can nurture their design skill sets.

In the US, we have an opportunity to work with superiors like creative director and art director who provide great feedback. On top of that, the design community in the US is big.

Aki:
Right. It’s common in Japan that a superior who manages a designer doesn’t have any design knowledge. He/she may have sales, marketing, or development background, but not necessarily design background. Any advice for those designers?

Colin:
My advice for Japanese designers would be to cultivate and create your own design communities so that you have other talented designers to share your work with, get quality critique and feedback, and be your design support network. It’s tough, but I think very important because you can not rely on Japanese corporations to hire large creative departments like we do in the west. You will feel more confident about your work and will be better able to defend and champion good quality work within your corporations. You’ll have to take the lead yourselves.

Aki:
Lastly, anything you want to say to readers?

Colin:
Without a doubt, the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and production is outstanding. I see huge potential for Japanese companies to grow globally with the help of good brand design. I’d like to be the one they want to work with when they need help from a great design agency.

Aki:
Thank you, Colin.