Spring 2006

Japan’s graphic scream

Urban Sign Design

By Hiroshi Tsujita. PIE Books, £61

I still find it astonishing that Japan has embraced Western (more specifically US) culture so enthusiastically. Maybe everything is so temporary there that such things hardly matter, and the values that last and count continue in some less obvious and quiet way.

There is nothing quiet about Urban Sign Design: it is one enormous garish mess, which categorising by use (restaurant, manufacturing / retail, services / other) does little to clarify. The type presented, too, in this endless array of neon and plastic, is largely English, or multilingual, and usually reinforced by some illustration or device. You are reminded of 1950s American advertising – bold, brash and obvious. Every theme, style and culture is randomly referenced, jumbled and multiplied infinitely. The only voice here is a constant scream.

Does this amount to a criticism of contemporary Japan, or this book? The publishers appear not to understand their media. What is the point of producing a CD that merely replicates the printed version? This is a wasted opportunity. The CD (and the book) might have taken the opportunity to step back and place the signage in a context. It never does, so you come away knowing no more about Japan, or urban sign design, or the relationship between architecture, advertising and ornament than you did before. No work is credited, even when contemporary and by leading international designers such as British architects-in-exile KDa. Their website (klein-dytham.com) has the serenity that we still associate with Japan, and at which this book never even hints.