Japanese design proudly makes reference to thousands of years of traditional Japanese arts while also being contemporary and modern. The style’s clear, strong voice ranges from simple design, geometrics and spots of color to loud mascots, cute patterns and cartoons. From minimalism to pop, we can see Japanese design’s influence all over the West and beyond.

Let’s take a look and see how you can bring Japanese design inspiration into your own work!

A short history of Japanese design

Japanese design in general has been heavily influenced by the world around it. Japan is a country with a very diverse artisan craft tradition. Ceramics, woodcut prints, calligraphy, origami, kabuki theatre, and more recently manga and anime are just some of the arts developed there. These art forms have influenced Western Art and Design for hundreds of years—Japanese woodblock prints, for example, influenced many famous Western artists, such as Gustav Klimt and Vincent Van Gogh.

Japanese paintings
A Hokusai woman in contrast to Gustav Klimt. Note the similarity of the patterns. Via Wikipedia.
Japanese paintings and their influence
See the fluid movement of the wave of Hokusai influencing the movement in the sky of Van Gogh. Via Wikipedia.

The 1600s—1800s

advertising poster from the Edo period
Advertising poster from the Edo period. Via The Ad Museum Tokyo.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan flourished economically and culturally. Design and creativity flourished, too. Japanese advertisers were pioneers in the way they marketed products and services, creating mass-scale posters, graphics infused with typography, and quirky illustrations of the stars of the day—sumo wrestlers and and popular kabuki theater actors. They were using influencer marketing hundreds of years before Instagram even existed!

Ukiyo-e, an important genre of Japanese art of woodblock prints and paintings, also developed during this period. It featured common themes of female beauty, kabuki, sumo wrestlers, folk tales, and landscapes. Because it was easily printed, ukiyo-e became vastly distributed and quickly gained popularity.

Ukiyo-e later evolved into modern illustrations, which evolved into mangas, anime, and even video games. With a more pop aesthetic and larger color palette, these new styles hugely influenced the west through cartoons, comic novels and toys.

The late 1800s

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world, welcoming trade and the exchange of culture and design. This led to an explosion of creativity in Japanese design for the next 50 years inspired by Western art and design.

Japan welcomes and celebrates Western culture. Via Tokyo Library
Late 1800s Japanese painting

The 1950s—1980s

After World War II, Japan’s economy grew enormously, eventually becoming the third largest economy in the world. Driven by the industrialization and manufacturing of the post-war years, the styles of Constructivism and Bauhaus inspired the design of the day, using strong geometric shapes mixed with Japanese symbolism.

The 1990s—2000s

In the 90s, Japanese design exploded like never before. With postmodernism and the popularity of computer software like Photoshop and Illustrator, a whole new world of design possibilities was available, and the Japanese fully embraced it.

This period also saw Japanese design become more conscious about social responsibility. In 1991-1992, the Japanese economy collapsed, and the nation entered a time of economic stagnation known as the Lost Decades, which lasted until 2010. Designers tried to positively influence people during the economic recovery by getting rid of excesses and bringing balance to their work.

Today, Japanese design has become even more conscious about environmental problems like global warming and pollution. With a large population and limited space to live, designers must think about how people consume their products. As a result, Japanese design has gained quite a natural tone.

9 ways to bring Japanese design into your own work

1. Wabi- Sabi and Japanese minimalism

Do it like Marie Kondo, and get rid of anything that’s unnecessary. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-Sabi is a worldview centered on the acceptance of imperfection that comes from Zen Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.

Basically, it finds joy in the imperfect and gets rid of all that doesn’t spark joy.

Arko Tea Japanese packaging by by SOMA design dealers
Arko Tea packaging by SOMA design dealers
Book Cover Design for Two Mouths
Book Cover Design for Two Mouths by Fe Melo
Zenji Matcha
Zenji Matcha by O I O O I I O I
Japanese cannabis pouch design
Cannabis Pouch Design by Una.F
Two Arrows Zen Japanese Logo Design
Two Arrows Zen Logo Design by Fahrenheit 32
Japenese book cover design
Book Cover design for a collection of short stories by Clar.c
Japanese book cover design
Book Cover design by Fe Melo
Japanese packaging for tempered glass by aran&xa
Packaging for tempered glass by aran&xa
Logo for single origin Japanese green tea company by Raveart

Wabi-Sabi has a lot in common with modernism, but it’s more intuitive, asymmetric, warm, and fluid. This technique tries to keep the essence of a design without losing the poetry. Clean, but not sterile. Simple, yet smart.

Try bringing Japanese minimalism to your branding, logo, packaging, website and more.

2. Natural motion

Many of the earliest Japanese wood print blocks illustrate nature and how the world constantly changes and moves. This sense of continuity evolved into modern-day manga and bright packaging.

Bonsai tree illustration
Bonsai tree illustration by LizYee
KAI SUSHI logo
KAI SUSHI logo by Redsoul
Hikari japanese sushi food truck
Hikari japanese sushi food truck by Priyo
Maru Japanese Bowls logo
Maru Japanese Bowls logo by Agnesema

3. Nature

With striking (and daunting) natural features like earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons, Japanese culture is keenly aware of the environment. The Japanese people celebrate nature and the seasons like no one else. This influence has also led to creative design solutions.

mochi mochi Japanese logo design
mochi mochi logo design by coccus
Japanese SHINCHA bag design
Japanese SHINCHA bag design by D e a a
Simple Japanese packaging design for skincare product
Simple packaging design for skincare product by Mirza Agić
Japanese inspired baby pattern
Japanese inspired baby pattern by Fe Melo
Arko Japanese Tea Label
Arko Tea Label by Fe Melo
Japanese Osho Brewing co. logo
Osho Brewing co. logo by ssnastasia

Architectural design borrows from elements like wood and stone. In graphic design, nature makes its way into packaging material, natural illustrations, and earth tone color palettes.

4. Geometry

Japanese design is very geometric because shapes have much deeper, cultural meanings.

Future Females + Logo
Future Females + Logo by goopanic
Horigushi Architects logo
Horigushi Architects logo design by hkdesign
Daring Deer logo design
DARING DEER Logo Design by Spoon Lancer
Sash Logo
Sash Logo by red lapis
Concept for Mindfulness Card Game
Concept for Mindfulness Card Game by joanna-draws
Nippon Week Davos Logo
Nippon Week Davos Logo by goopanic
Japanese chocolate bar package
Chocolate bar package by Vectordinaire
Workshop Poster for Wedding videographers
Workshop Poster for Wedding videographers by semnitz

Squares and rectangles represent artificial forms not often found in nature and are often used to create the outline of the kimonos, lacquer boxes, chests, screens and some ceramics. Curves and circles arc represent intuition and inspiration.

5. Typography

Japanese typography is much more complex than the Western alphabet with over 2,000 characters to write and three different scripts. No wonder calligraphy plays such a huge role in Japanese design—drawing letters is an art form in itself.

Japanese tea bag package
Japanese tea bag package by zelda zgonck
Japanese logo Ichibi design
Logo design for Ichibi by Stephen ┌( ಠ_ಠ)┘ Ahoy!
Japanse
Japanse “kanji” design. Bar Logo Design by Ham-Egg.
Japanese logo for a co-working space
Logo for a co-working space by camells
Yum yum hibachi logo
Yum yum hibachi by trinitiff
Tapioca Tea Japanese Logo
Tapioca Tea Logo by extrafin

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three basic scripts: Kanji  (Chinese ideographic symbols ) and Hiragana and Katakana  (phonetic symbols). Because of that, Japanese has a limited amount of fonts, and it’s very common to customize typography for any design project.

6. Symbolism

Japanese folklore says that all things have its own spirit—even things that are inanimate like a stone or a box. That’s why it’s common to add faces and human-like qualities to products. You’ll see this widely used in advertisements, posters, packages and branding.

Logo Design for Miya Company
Logo Design for Miya Company by Stephen ┌( ಠ_ಠ)┘ Ahoy!
AdSumo logo
AdSumo, the culmination of size and speed by Sava Stoic
Logo design for a restaurant by cadina
Logo design for Best Beer Japan
Logo design for Best Beer Japan by Yokaona
Japanese inspired girls baby pattern
Japanese inspired girls baby pattern by Fe Melo
Oriental Uniform logo design
OU monogram Design by R28
Kinana Chocolate Logo
Kinana Chocolate Logo by babybund™
Japanese style logo for a luxury green tea
Japanese style logo for a luxury green tea by _fra_
Kyoto Lantern Parade Logo
Kyoto Lantern Parade Logo by Fe Melo

Traditions have infused themselves into Japanese design. Don’t be surprised to see lots of images of Mount Fuji, the Rising Sun, Lucky Cats or Sumo Wrestlers. Symbols have, too. Clouds mean elegance and high status. Mountains represent the unmoving. Water symbolizes power and resilience.

7. Japanese illustration

Manga is a Japanese comic or graphic novel. Compared to American comics, manga is more visual and contains fewer words. Manga also has a wide range of genres that appeal to a larger demographic.

Anime is a Japanese cartoon (usually based on a manga, but that’s not a rule) that’s famous for its distinct graphic characteristics, like huge eyes, “doll” faces and cute characters. Anime is a broad term for a larger spectrum of genres that appeal to all ages.

Japanese wine label design
Wine label design by jillmargitneitzel
Illustration and Business Card T-Go Animation Studio
Illustration and Business Card T-Go Animation Studio by bubupanda
Wall Art / Mural illustration - Mugen Noodle Bar
Wall Art / Mural illustration – Mugen Noodle Bar by bubupanda
Skinny Matcha logo Design
Skinny Matcha logo Design by Mieko
Skinny Matcha logo Design
Skinny Matcha logo Design by Fe Melo
Ramen and Coffee illustration
Ramen and Coffee illustration by Mr.Sain
Shabu Shabu restaurant aerial skier Japanese manga theme
Shabu Shabu restaurant aerial skier Japanese manga theme by R28
Tattooed Cat illustration
Tattooed Cat illustration by Andreask84
Justice Lady Illustration
Justice Lady Illustration by KEIMADNESS
My Neighbor Totoro design
Minimal Poster by MachinaDesign
Neon Puppy Spirit Illustration
Neon Puppy Spirit Illustration by kaleEVA

To draw a lot of attention, especially from a younger crowd, designers use manga and anime in all sorts of ways.

8. Patterns

From the shiburi art to woodblock prints, geometric and floral patterns abound in Japanese design.

Summer edition marijuana ice cream logo & package design
Summer edition ice cream logo & package design by GoodEnergy
Japanese packaging design
Design by GoodEnergy
Milk black and white packaging
Milk black and white packaging design by Szs
Matcha tea label design
Matcha tea label design by Fe Melo
Beer design for Asakusa Craft Beer Farm
Beer design for Asakusa Craft Beer Farm by cynemes

Hanakotoba is the study of flowers and how each flower has a spiritual meaning. According to Japanese tradition, pink symbolizes healing, red symbolizes love, and white symbolizes virtue.

9. Food

From ramen to sushi and more, Japanese food is loved all over the world. Design and food even come together in kaiseki, or Japanese High Cuisine, a multiple course meal that celebrates the seasons using local, seasonal ingredients.

Whale logo for Yotin Inc.
Ramen Fueled Whale! – Yotin Inc. by bubupanda
Logo concept for KOZU restaurant
Logo concept for KOZU restaurant by martinez
Snap A Roll Japanese logo
Snap A Roll logo by P + C Graphx Design
Kuma Sushi Bar
Kuma Sushi Bar by Sava Stoic
ITAME Japanese Logo Design
ITAME Logo Design by jbdoncel

Bring Japanese design into your own creations!

Japanese design has countless different styles and visual techniques, and it’s impossible to name them all. They each have something very fluid and natural about them, which means the rules can always be bent. That’s why Japanese art continues to influence design today. Try to mix and match the styles to discover something truly unique!