It’s nothing new to say that Japan has a very particular design vision — it’s been that way for centuries. After all, who hasn’t seen “The Great Wave”, by Kanagawa? Without looking further than Uniqlo, this particular aesthetic is apparent. Japanese design is evidently something attractive, with powerful messages, spectacular technology, and incomparable attention to detail. From ancient paintings to industrial design, from fashion to animation, TV to film to architecture, the list never ends. Close your eyes and you can see it: clean lines, open spaces, tranquility, elegant movement, and the unity of aesthetics and function.
Here, then, are a few examples of what we think of as the “ultimate” expressions of Japanese digital design:
But is all Japanese web design like that? Not even remotely.
While here in the Western Hemisphere, we’re more focused on branding and user experience — dazzling the user with good taste and brand presentation — the Japanese market tends to be much more practical. Japanese users need to know: “What is this? How do you use it? For what purpose? What are its technical functions? Tell me everything about it, now.” The user and the information they require is the priority. This tendency has been studied extensively, and to make a long story short, it’s a cultural thing. While we may think of minimalism in Japanese design, it doesn’t take long to see that this “information overload” style extends far beyond Japanese websites. Just think of this type of image:
We’ve seen it in plenty of movies, commercials, and photos: a cacophony of information, all competing for attention in the loudest, flashiest way possible. Yet within this chaos there’s still a sense of order, logic, and mission.
This style is something that many foreigners just don’t get. That’s what happened to Walmart in 2005, when the company almost made a huge mistake while launching its new venture in Japan. The company initially wanted to eliminate the morning tabloids, called チラシ, that the Japanese company they acquired had long produced. Walmart saw them as outdated. But these tabloids were valuable sources of daily deals for Japanese consumers, who appreciated the busy, information-rich design that allowed them to find the exact deal they were looking for as quickly as possible. Fortunately for Walmart, the company’s Japanese marketing teams convinced them not to eliminate the highly successful tabloids.
Brands that want to enter the Japanese market should learn to offer what these users want. Take a look at how brands like Rakuten (the Amazon of Japan) offer two markedly different experiences on their domestic and foreign sites. If you can’t tell which site is directed at which market, well, you better learn.
That said, this issue isn’t an open and shut case quite yet. Resistance is emerging to this “in your face” design philosophy in which you can see all the information at once. Foreign influence in web developers and global agencies, along with minimalist trends within Japan are beginning to enter the country’s web design zeitgeist. Only time will tell us what will happen, which style will win, and how this will affect brand interaction. But as we continue to discuss our different visions of web design, keep in mind that we all find inspiration in many places — soon enough, maybe we’ll be searching for best practices in Japanese sites to apply in the Latin American market.
Sources for More Info on Japanese Web Design:
Head of Development