I had lunch with my Japanese friend today, and it turned into an unexpected, eye-opening typography/communication lesson. Let me explain…

With his usual enthusiasm, he proudly revealed his newly acquired Japanese book from the 50’s about Alaska, only to become sooooo sad when he realized I wasn’t in a position to fully share this treasure since I can’t read Japanese. But I am not so easily deterred, and immediately grabbed the book out of his hands…my designer mind finding TONS of treasures in the ultra-simple typography hierarchy, the oh-so-elegant covers, and in our animated conversation that followed.

We went from that book to a Japanese magazine, to a pocket pock, to his translating tools online…I even got excited about online vertical field forms. I was suddenly aware of the depth of our language differences and the opposite angles of our perceptions. But mostly I was absolutely impressed by the acrobatics of his brain, juggling without difficulty phonetic Japanese symbols (Hiragana & Katakana) and semantic Chinese symbols (Kanji), reading sometimes vertically from right to left in the traditional way, & sometimes reading left-to-right and top-to-bottom the same mixture of Asian symbols, all juxtaposed with the English alphabet. And all this in the same layout!

He mentioned he thought this chaos served design purposes. This being a new world to me, I did not have a ready opinion…but upon reflection I suspect it had its origins with politics, globalization, computer-friendly writing, and Internet coding, since design always serves a function. I read a bit more about it here: Explanation of the Japanese Writing System (Wikipedia).

Since I’m currently working on a social inclusion awareness campaign, this directly connected me to the countless layers of differences that surround us, enriching and strengthening our community. Thanks ????


1 comment

by eleanor

Great read Val! I once heard that babies who are strapped to their mother’s backs who work in fields become really good mechanics because they are used to seeing the world upside down (as the mom bends over the plants to baby is inverted!) I bet learning to read both up and down as well as left and right would have all sorts of interesting effects of the brain and someone’s strengths in comprehending the visual world.


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