S P A C E | ‘Kiyoshi Inoue: a samurai designer’

Kiyoshi Inoue: a samurai designer of American corporate identities, from the era of hand-drawn logos

Editor’s note: This post was one of the most popular from our blog 2006-2013, which is no longer in our archives. It’s written by DK co-founder Akira Morita.

 

I WAS JUST WATCHING an interview footage of Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film director known for his penchant for wild cinematography, seemingly random, comic, plot-aside and kitschy, colorful sets (seen in titles such as “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill”).

Conversations about graphic design

In the interview, Suzuki talks about his good fortune of starting out in the shadows of the giants — Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa — with a healthy dose of “we are going to top them, some day!” kind of chutzpah.

I was reminded of a person with similar spirit, someone we met this year that really helped us coming into our own as graphic designers.

His name is Kiyoshi Inoue.

He is a self-taught businessman and a talented designer of corporate identities, whose work featured prominently in American Corporate Identity by Art Direction Book Company, among familiar logos such as Citicorp, DHL, Westin Hotels and Domino’s Pizza. Now retired, Kiyoshi lives with his wife Masako in Los Angeles.

How we met Kiyoshi Inoue

WE MET THE COUPLE through their daughter, who is a friend of us here in Seattle, and when we had an opportunity to travel to LA last October, we made sure to pay a visit for some inspirational stories.

And inspiration we got.

This is what we learned.

Kiyoshi and Masako came to America as young professionals in the 1960s. Masako to learn art, and Kiyoshi to learn advertising at Art Center College of Design “so he could start a school back in Japan.” Talk about visionary!

But Kiyoshi ended up getting a job here, and stayed on to do what he’d come to love: creating corporate identities.

He set up his own shop in 1982 with Masako, who had established herself as a interior designer, and as a team they would brand supermarkets and department stores. In his hay day, clients from Japan, America, Italy and beyond sought him out for his expertise and design skills.

He tells us of those times, laughing: “sometimes, when I get tired of those board meetings where they start to tell me what they think should change, ‘move this line over here’ and whatnot, I’d just get mad and walk out, and someone would run after me, begging me to stay and work with them.”

He understood the big picture: that the brand identity should be about who you are, and how you are different from others.

In his brochure for prospective clients, he states, “a good symbol is not only visually appealing, it makes a statement.”

At the time in the early 80s, Jack Trout and Al Ries’ Positioning (a modern classic on marketing) had just come out, and this fundamental idea of marketing for a pre-selected “audience” was pretty new and novel.

Also novel at the time, which Kiyoshi did not take to too much, was the idea of using computers for design. Apple would come out with the first Macintosh computers in 1984, and this changed the face of the industry for good. In short ten years that followed, Macs and Adobe’s suite of software became the standard de facto of graphic designers everywhere.

Kiyoshi was an old-school designer with rulers, pen and paper—all his drawings are painstakingly rendered by hand, including the custom typefaces he’d design for his clients—and as such, a project would sometimes take a year to complete.

He decided, rather than try and compete in the increasingly rapid-paced, crowded field of desk-top-publishing, to close his shop and enjoy his retirement.

‘A good symbol makes a statement’

WHEN WE MET UP in October, we couldn’t resist showing him our work and telling him what we were trying to do. We were anxious to hear what they thought, and very excited for the opportunity, but it was one of the most nerve-racking experience we had to date, too.

Here they were, a seasoned, celebrated masters of design, and we were showing them our work as if it was worth something! But Masako and Kiyoshi couldn’t be more encouraging.

“You guys are doing what we were doing years ago, and already you are doing great work!” Masako mused. Kiyoshi raved about our “attention to the details, the deep thinking behind each idea expressed.”

It was a milestone for Design Kompany, a turn whereupon we no longer needed justification or qualification for ourselves as designers.

As a Japanese immigrant, I also can’t help but to feel certain affinity, even kinship, and the notion that we are carrying some kind of torch being passed down generations of side-stepping, enterprising renegades.

It’s a very un-Japanese tradition, at least in a stereotypical way, but I now know that there’s lineage among my people! –Bicycle

Comments from original post…

  • Wow what an amazing story, it made me feel so good to read it and is so amazing that you had the opportunity to meet this man, that you think so highly of. I think it is always so amazing to know ones culture and heritage, where you come from I think that is something that is really very important in life.
  • Wow what an amazing story, it made me feel so good to read it and is so amazing that you had the opportunity to meet this man, that you think so highly of. I think it is always so amazing to know ones culture and heritage, where you come from I think that is something that is really very important in life.
  • I really liked the article. To teach yourself is really impressive,especially when you become great at what you do and everybody wants you to work with them. Great story.