Lost in translation

Rather than homogenising visual communications across cultures, we should be inspired by differences. Paul Belford on a poster by Japanese designer Makoto Saito

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I’m guessing the majority of our non-Japanese readers are none the wiser about this month’s opening sentence. They’re no doubt similarly baffled by this month’s featured work. I know I am.

But on a purely aesthetic level, there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain of. It blows my bloody socks off. And that, surely is a pretty good start for any piece of work. How many posters did you see today on your morning commute that you could say that about? None, I’ll hazard a guess. But why? Do some people really think ugly posters are more effective? Bewildering indeed.

This month’s featured work is by Japanese designer Makoto Saito for Virgin Records, Japan. It was designed to appear in a country and culture that can be more than a little confusing to us Westerners. So it’s no surprise really that the poster may leave us scratching our heads. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired by it and learn a lot from it.

I find the image incredible. A man with literally rolling eyes. A masterful use of colour and collage. And a cool, subtle placement of the logo. Really, what’s not to love? Remember, the intention and context for this work is very different to the average advertising poster on the streets of, say London. You know, the visual pollution that made my journey just that little bit more awful this morning.

There’s a line in a review of an exhibition of Japanese posters earlier this year at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich that provides a fascinating insight into this difference: “Whereas in the West a large proportion of posters are tools for marketing and sales, those from the Far East offer a release from the constant pressure of modern consumerism, creating instead brief moments of visual calm and beauty in the otherwise frenetic existence of commuters….”

So there we have it. Posters commissioned by large corporations designed to offer brief moments of visual calm and beauty. Well there’s another alien concept for you. But of course it’s not an entirely altruistic exercise. They still work as pieces of communication. And they still, ultimately sell stuff. But they work in the context of that culture. Not ours.

What exactly can we learn from all this?

Well it’s interesting that aesthetics is so high on the agenda. Maybe that’s an area where people are not so different after all. But you just have to look at the majority of campaigns on London’s streets to know that it wasn’t even a consideration. Sad. If an advertising message can look either ugly or beautiful, then surely it might as well look beautiful. I’d go further by strongly arguing that beautiful is more effective. For the simple and rather obvious reason that more people are going to spend longer looking at it.

But in terms of the ‘idea’, I’m kind of lost with this poster. An intuitive interpretation of a response to an artist’s music perhaps … who knows? But at least it’s got me thinking.

This differing approach to communications across different cultures also makes the globalisation of creative awards seem ridiculous. It’s simply not possible to judge these things appropriately or fairly. Because it’s not a reasonable or intelligent comparison. So why even bother? It really is all nonsense. And in my experience, a multicultural jury merely adds to the confusion. Are you listening D&AD and Cannes? No you’re not, are you. You’re too busy looking at your bank accounts.

Absolutely, let’s celebrate and learn from the work of other countries and cultures. But not in the crap-shoot of meaningless international awards schemes. Schemes that do way more harm than good by encouraging a kind of samey, lowest common denominator, homogeneous global communications soup. Surely we can all understand how bad that is? 1

Paul Belford is the founder of advertising, graphic design and digital agency Paul Belford Ltd, based in London. He tweets from @belford_paul. See paulbelford.com

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