Keisuke Nagatomo: A graphic design veteran speaks

Fifty years. That’s how long Keisuke Nagatomo has been active in the graphic design world. Yes, half a century! Before founding his own design agency K2 in 1969, he worked for five years at the Nippon Design Center. Over his career he has handled art direction for such major magazines as GORO, Shukan Asahi, Shukan Gendai and many more.

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Keisuke Nagatomo, just how many things have you designed?!

Well, I’ve never counted since I did so much editorial design work. For some ten years there were months of always designing 2,000 pages. My first editorial design work was as art director for the cover of the Heibon Punch in 1964, using illustration by Ayumi Ohashi. At the time I was an assistant designer at the Nippon Design Center. My design teacher drew a sketch and I would recreate it, or take a cameraman and go out on site somewhere. To be honest, I don’t really remember why I was asked to do it. In those days there wasn’t really such a job as an editorial designer.

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Covers for Heibon Punch

You did something pretty singular, then. What were the Heibon Punch cover designs like?

Well, we had Ohashi’s illustrations, so it was just about being charming with that. We made the cover with the illustration and the logo. Probably the issue title was in there as well. Young people would take Heibon Punch around with them, it was a social phenomenon.

It still feels fresh even today.

After Heibon Punch I worked on covers for GORO magazine. Here I wanted to use typography rather than illustration or photography. I would fill the cover with words. And to help it stand out on the shelves in the store, I’d add a fluorescent red to the logo. And then other magazines started to copy this.

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GORO magazine

Things change as the times change. You’ve had such a long career. What is particularly memorable?

In 1980 I had the feeling that camera magazines were stagnating. So I got together with the photographer Kishin Shinoyama, the critic Koji Taki, and someone from Shogakukan, and we founded the magazine Sharaku. It featured photographs taken in a studio, snaps of children taken by parents, photos taken under a microscope — everything and anything that could make photography fun. In the magazine we had Kishin Shinoyama’s photographs of John Lennon and Yoko Ono — who had just started working again — and then after that John Lennon died. We had wire services from all over the world asking to use the photo. I don’t want to talk about someone else’s money but actually, Shinoyama got a huge fee for that photo. Well, that could happen because it was the analog era. And how it started was also a bit unique to the times. Shinoyama and Ono were old friends, and she called him from New York. All of a sudden they had some time so she asked him to come the next day. He flew straight out and did the shoot for one or two days. Today people don’t do that sort of thing.

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Sharaku magazine

This is changing the subject a bit, but the poster for which you won a Nissen award has a curious color. Why is that?

If you print white ink onto orange fluorescent paper, you get that kind of gray color. The paper was the kind they use in supermarkets for sales. I just wondered what would it be like to use it for a poster.

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Now we make colors on a computer but long ago, you used to discover colors by chance during the process. I use this big table in my office to do work — the paint stains have turned into really beautiful colors. This is a very analog discovery. Color suffuses into the body.

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What have you been designing recently?

I like business card design and so sometimes I make them. With business cards, when you’re asked to make one for a friend, you can’t get hundreds of thousand of yen, right? However, you still have to put in the same amount of effort as when designing anything else. What’s interesting about them is that no matter how good I think the design might be, it’s all up to whether the owner likes it or not. When he or she does, then the design comes alive. You need to know how the business card will be used. Is it for sales? To tell other people about you? Just to give someone your email address and phone number? Is it for work or personal use? I have to do a kind of medical interview. Sometimes you may meet with the client many times to talk it over.

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Yes, you have to do a “check-up” before you start designing. Is there a business card design that gave you a lot of trouble?

Well, I wasn’t really rushed but there is one I finished recently that took around a year to do. It’s the business card for Yasumichi Morita, an interior designer. He’s both an artist and designer, so the front is in the shape of the “A” from artist, while the back is a “D” for designer. When I had finished the design and gave it to him, he was super surprised. I mean, just because it’s a business card doesn’t mean it has to be rectangular, right?

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Business card for Yasumichi Morita

This isn’t design but recently I’ve been writing stuff. I’ve been writing a column on regional gifts and doing illustrations in the ANA inflight magazine Tsubasa no oukoku for about five years.

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Column for ANA’s Tsubasa no oukoku (Kingdom of Wings) magazine

And you don’t just write (and draw) about the gifts, but also the places and the people you meet there. What interesting places have you visited so far in your travels?

I like markets and shopping streets. The markets at Kitakyushu and Kanazawa were nice. It’s easy to understand about a place at a market. There used to be something special about station plazas but now the same kind of companies are there, so it’s all a bit similar. But a market is still run by local people. There are lots of shopping streets full of closed shops, but the arcade at Akashi is still vibrant like long ago. And book shops also have a local “smell”.

Finally, what does design mean to you?

Around three years ago I did the design for a Japanese confectionary store in Kyoto called Fumonan. For the logo I used a Otafuku motif and then asked Kuroda [illustrator and K2 co-founder, Seitaro Kuroda] to draw something fun. I also designed the paper lanterns and display for the shop.

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For me, getting asked to do this by a confectionary store owner really meant that design had come of age. I could see it in my ad work for Osaka Seibu Department Store too — I get unexpected requests after they see my work in unexpected places. This is why you can’t cut corners on any job. I also talk to people from the shopping streets in Ebisubashi in Osaka and Roppongi. I’m interested in leaflet design and designing environments like shopping streets. For example, just by making all the store flags and banners the same you can create a sense of identity for the shopping street. This doesn’t have to be so complicated but I’ve started to believe in the power of design. This is why I’m glad I became a designer. It’s a good profession — you can talk with old guys in shopping arcades, you can communicate with all kinds of people through design.

Thank you, Keisuke Nagatomo!

Nagatomo is also the chief editor of the magazine Crineta, which looks at design in a way that regular design magazines don’t. The 2013 spring issue was a special about art director Masayoshi Nakajo, and the new issue (below) looks at how handwriting reflects your style and character.

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