Like its English-language counterpart, the Google Japan search page is a study in minimalism: a logo, a search box, a couple of buttons, and six spare links. These elements are centered in a “sea” of blank white space, a design reminiscent of Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji garden, where 15 boulders are surrounded by a sea of raked gravel. But over at Yahoo! Japan, the design is busier. There’s a box for news events, another for partner sites, a link to Shopping Yahoo! with pictures of cardigans and boots, another box on videos, a login for email, a calendar, and, on the left, 27 links to Yahoo! services, each with its own tiny logo. There are the usual assortment of kawaii cartoon characters. As with the streets of Tokyo, little space goes unused.
By American tastes, the Google site is clean; the Yahoo! site is cluttered―noticeably more so than the Yahoo! English-language landing page. But as website designer and consultant Brandon K. Hill points out, Yahoo! Japan is Japan’s top portal site, and he thinks the design contributes to that success. “Cluttered” turns out to be a culturally relative term: what I might find crowded, you might find useful and efficient.
To better understand these difference in design sensibility, I spoke with three people who bridge the gap. Hill is a Japanese native now living in San Francisco. Julius Wiedemann has written about graphical styles around the world, including Japan, where he lived and worked for more than three years. MIT’s Ian Condry researches Japanese popular culture, and when I spoke with him he was an American living in Tokyo. Hill’s experience is hands-on. Widemann’s interest is journalistic. Condry’s is scholarly. The bridge to understanding stretches across all three.
Brandon K. Hill
The son of a Japanese mother and an American father, Brandon K. Hill grew up in Sapporo, then moved to San Francisco after high school. After earning an industrial arts degree from San Francisco State University, he formed btrax, a consulting firm that helps Asian companies market themselves online in the United States, and vice versa. The firm’s big break came when btrax landed a project to localize Expedia, the travel site. After our conversation, he introduced himself as a fellow contributor to Web Site Expert.
- It seems like the aesthetics of Japanese graphics is different from those in the U.
They are very different. Japanese design layouts for magazines, Web and product design are very busy, very colorful. The design may even look chaotic to some eyes. Perhaps the reason is that Japan is a monocultural country?there aren’t too many different people with different backgrounds. Most people have very decent educational backgrounds so we, as designers, don’t have to make things too simple or too easy to understand. Rather, we can make things more playful and more busy or complicated.
- Because everybody has the same cultural context?
Right. In the United States, by contrast, when we design a website, we need to be careful that it can serve a wide range of people―people from different countries and backgrounds―who may perceive things a little bit differently. So here, we have no choice but to be more conservative.
- The stereotypical idea of Japanese design is simple, Zen-like.
That’s the ironic part. Many Japanese designers don’t realize the beauty of the traditional “Wa” design, which you might find in a traditional Japanese restaurant or ryokan.
When it comes to commercial or industrial design, designers do not take that aesthetic into consideration much. Instead, they create designs that are colorful and busy. The ironic part is that many Japanese people love Apple products from the United States―because the design is very simple, very Zen-like. Perhaps Japanese people have this Zen concept in their genes, so they subconsciously like simple Zen-like products without knowing it.
- What has been the influence of manga and anime on Japanese graphics?
It has a huge impact. Comics are not only for kids but also for adults and have a big impact on their daily life. Manga contributes to the cute, kawaii sensibility. When you have a focus group to check out your product, many people respond to the same kind of design.
- Hello Kitty is mystifying to many Americans, but of course has been very popular in Japan?
Hello Kitty is only popular in the United States for kids and teens, but in Japan many adult women are fine with Hello Kitty products. I suppose you would have to conclude that the Japanese tastes are not always mature.
- How does the basic Japanese aesthetic carry through to Web design?
Most Japanese websites are influenced by magazine layouts, which have a lot of content on one page. Otherwise people think that it’s boring. You can see this, for example, in the how Yahoo! Japan looks compared to Google. Google is winning some traffic now, but Yahoo! Japan still is the number one portal site in Japan. I think this is in part because they provide more content on the page.
- What about Craigslist? Websites don’
t get more simple than that? How has it done in Japan?
Japanese people get tired hearing how successful Craigslist is. Many of them say the site looks really bad: it’s too simple, too plain. People are not very interested in using it and don’t understand why Americans like it. Craigslist has a presence in Japan, but the majority of people who use it are not Japanese: they’re expats.
- When you talk to Japanese clients interested in having a Web presence in America, do you have to explain these differences in reverse?
Yes, and it is challenging. Explaining is one thing, but making them understand it is another. It’s very difficult because they are so used to approving designs with a lot of colors and content. If we present something that looks really simple, they say it looks boring. With American clients interested in attracting Japanese customers, it’s a bit easier. We explain things using examples and statistics, and that’s often what persuades them. When we present our ideas for the design, most of them say they don’t understand why it looks that way. But they’ll go with it anyway as long as they believe Japanese users will like it.
- Has that design “gap” between West and East played out in your work?
Expedia is an extreme case. The very first version we made was in 2006 and looked fairly close to the main Expedia.
com website, sharing most of the branding themes. But we’ve kept updating that design based on the results and statistics. Now, Expedia. com and Expedia. co. jp have come to look very different. Expedia. com looks stylish, cool and simple, per their branding guide. Expedia. co. jp site looks very cute and very busy.
- What kinds of things did you add?
More promotional banners and more content on the home page. We also have the mascot, a bear. We were looking for a way to make the site more friendly to a Japanese audience, and then, working with the client, we came up with this idea of creating a mascot for their business.
Another example of our work is NEWPEOPLEWORLD.
com, the website we designed for NEW PEOPLE, a 20,000 square foot shopping destination in San Francisco’s Japantown, which features Japanese popular culture: cinema, retail, and art. Although the website is for the US audience, the client wanted it to have a Japanese touch to it―so it has something of both aesthetics. NEWPEOPLEWORLD. com still looks very simple and clean, but we added some color combinations you wouldn’t expect on a strictly U. S. site: orange, pink, green, blue. Their president, Seiji Horibuchi, didn’t like the looks of it when we initially set up the site―he thought it looked a little bit too simple. But a lot of Americans like the site.
- What about mobile sites in Japan?. In the U.
S., perhaps because of the iPhone’ s head start, Steve Job’ s Zen-like sensibility is obvious. Has that influenced mobile sites in Japan?
Obviously, the same screen limitations of mobile devices are present in both countries. However, in Japan you will be surprised to see how decorated things are on the mobile screen. One of the reasons why Japanese people initially didn’t like using iPhones is that they cannot add icons and emoticons to email. Japanese have crazy variations of those icons, and many mobile sites in Japan are filled with icons, and, of course, a lot of colors. So even though the devices are limited in terms of what they can display, those sites still look very busy.
- Looking forward, what kinds of design opportunities are you seeing for btrax?
We see an opportunity to help Japanese online services market their services in the United States. We’ve seen this trend a lot in the other direction: U.
S. companies like Twitter, YouTube, Ustream have strong followings in Japan―and they developed those followings even when they weren’t localized for Japan. But the reverse is not true: there are some wonderful web services in Japan that could attract attention here. But they haven’t, in part, because they haven’t adapted to an American market. Since everything is in Japanese, the people outside of Japan do not know they even exist. It’s understandable: many are just struggling within the Japanese market―they may not realize they have huge potential outside of Japan.
- What are some examples?
One is Pixiv, a social media site for sharing your manga artwork. There are so many good Japanese manga artists, even though they are not professional. Manga has a strong American following, but so far, the site has no English version. Another example: Lang-8.
com. Here, you create an account, write something in Japanese or a foreign language, and a native speaker will correct your writing so it is perfect. In October, we hosted an event, SF Japan Night, in which six hot Japanese companies presented their services to a local audience of 300 in San Francisco. We are planning to our next one in spring 2011.
- What should Japanese designers think about in making their sites more appealing to an American audience?
One is the usability: they need to make it easier for people to use outside of Japan. Maybe Japanese people are smart and they don’t realize how “dumb” we are in the United States when it comes to site navigation. We need simplicity. Marketing outside of Japan is also really challenging for Japanese people. I’m talking about everything related to marketing?from doing presentations, to creating sales, to using social media to promote their services. Japan is such a small country that it’s easy to connect to people and spread the word. But when it comes to the United States, it’s not that easy, so they need to adopt a U.
S. way of marketing, especially online.