Mitsuo Sato: Design Secrets from Madame Figaro and Pen

I came to know Mitsuo Sato through an unexpected turn of events. The art director is head of Sankakusha, which has handled graphic design for a clutch of major Japanese magazines, including Madame Figaro, and the recently launched Kinfolk.

But when I met him he was holding a glass of Guinness in one hand and watching the Japanese national football team. “I’m one year younger than [Japan national team manager] Alberto Zaccheroni,” he told me. So… he was born in 1954? Despite then some thirty-five years of experience in magazine design under his belt, until now Sato has rarely spoken much about his work. PingMag decided to learn the secret treasures of editorial design that Sato has been hoarding all this time.

To start with, tell us about when you started your company.

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I was a freelance designer until around 1984, a year before my child was born. I was always very busy, working different jobs during the daytime and night. My main project was Popeye but there was a shortage of designers, so I worked on mail order catalogs and fashion brand catalogs, as well as doing store logos and menus. Then I was asked by an older peer to help at the newly launched Penthouse. It was at this time that advertising graphic designers started doing general magazine design. I got really busy to the point where the volume of work was too much for one person, and I thought if I continued like this for two or three years, I’d die. Ten years was unthinkable. In the year or so until my child was born I quit work and thought about all kinds of things. I started Sankakusha with the mentality of working in a different way. The first half-year I had no real work so I just casually passed each day as it came. And then magazine layout jobs started to come in bit by bit. I have ended up doing magazine design as my main field for thirty-five years and currently employ a staff of just under twenty.

Where did the name Sankakusha come from?

Yes, normally people found a company with their own name. But “Mitsuo Sato Design Office” didn’t feel so ambitious professionally and I thought I didn’t have the talent to get work just through my name, plus in the company there was going to be design that I wouldn’t directly handle myself. “Sankakusha” means “participation company”. It’s not about projects that I’m planning and putting together, but taking part in projects with other people.

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We could call it organic. You installed the true vocation of the designer as your company name. How did you become the art director for Madame Figaro magazine?

It was around 1990 I got asked by Masahiro Shintani, who handles art direction for Anan, Popeye, Brutus and Olive. “The Madame Figaro editor asked me if I know anyone and you’re the only one who seems to have the time to help out,” he told me. [Laughs] Although I don’t think this is because I was doing the design, but when we started — two years after launch — it had fallen to a print run of 25,000 and then by the time I left as art director, it had climbed to about 250,000. Since it switched to twice monthly, this was the opportunity for us to change to DTP and install ten Mac computers. Around that time Pen was also launched. I was asked to do both Pen and Madame Figaro with another internal art director, but for various reasons we ended up dropping Figaro and just doing Pen. And then after a few years we went back to Figaro. Today my company is still doing design for both Madame Figaro and Pen.

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Wow, what’s the secret to increasing Madame Figaro’s sales ten times in two and a half years?

The reason that the magazine started to sell was not because the design changed, but because the design could express the ideas of the editor-in-chief well. Magazines give readers dreams, a feeling of something being shared. The reader gets excited when they see new things. A small idea adds something to that. For example, in Madame Figaro we put in little maps on pages introducing an overseas store or restaurant. When the reader sees that they feel like they can go abroad and visit the place. It makes them want to go there one day, so they don’t throw the magazine away but keep it. Recently it has become the norm to use Google Maps but what we did for these pages in women’s fashion magazines was to add the small maps in boxes and area maps. At the time we’d really go all out to make the maps, adding around ten tiny photos the size of stamps for a spread. This kind of detail was what I learnt to do at Popeye. But no matter how detailed we’d make it, the design fee for a page didn’t change. On the contrary, it was also the same fee for then using just one photo for a whole page, so it balanced out overall. Design that alternates per page is fun for the reader, and then the designer is also happy.

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Are there any other secrets?

I don’t think design is something where you have to do it like this or that; it’s more like seasoning. It’s not about making or killing pages, or whether the special edition title is interesting. You have to make it interesting. We can’t design anything if we don’t have inspiration. It’s like when you get given an interesting-seeming title at a meeting with the editor and he says, “This is what’s new.” You have to then get excited about it together and work on it, or otherwise it’s not possible to make anything interesting. You can’t make sushi with fish that isn’t fresh, right? Like the magazines that credit card companies have. They look nice but I’d never think to pay money for them even if they were lined up on a shelf in a bookstore. With magazines, it’s all about selling them. If you’re making something that doesn’t sell, it’s mere self-indulgence. Unless you have the chance for lots of people to know your work, then it’s just boring.

And is there design that sells magazines?

I don’t really like reading text in a magazine. Unless I’m interested in it, I won’t read something that’s hard to read. My tastes are a bit unique. I tell everyone in my company that it’s just about making the subheadings into pausing points. Sankakusha’s design is all like this, for Madame Figaro and Pen — you indent the first character of the subheading, and this makes it easier to read. Almost all magazines will line up the subheadings with the main text, but I just don’t think it looks elegant, it’s not neat. It’s just kind of looks unbalanced and big. It probably depends on the software you use, but when we were using QuarkXPress as our desktop publishing software, it was really tricky to set up this kind of indent. Subheadings are like quarter rests in a musical score. If you look at it you can generally understand the content and if you just scan down the subheadings, then you feel like you’ve read the article. This alone won’t make a magazine sell but it has its charms.

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This isn’t really about design but in this sense, the captions you use are really important. People don’t read the main text but they will look at the captions, so you have to make the captions interesting. There’s a talent to doing it. In one magazine, whether it’s a headline, photo, illustration or subheading, if there are two things that hook you in, then I think people buy the magazine. I have a few magazines from way back. Even today if I look at Heibon Punch or Anan from the Sixties or the start of the Seventies, the design is still interesting. In 1976, a newspaper released a “catalog magazine” called Made in U.S.A. catalog, where an editor, writer and photographer went around America. Reading these kinds of magazines left an imprint of me when I was young. I looked at them and then went on to do the design for Popeye with the people who made them.

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What designs have you been working on recently?

The great freelance editor Hisashi Terasaki, who worked on Made in U.S.A. catalog, Heibon Punch, Popeye and Brutus, passed away. A few of us then got together and we wanted to make a book with pages that everyone once worked on. Now it’s turned into an enormous resource. There are lots of articles and serial articles, but the text is interesting enough that even I want to read it properly! It is planned for released by Magazine House in the autumn so please look out for it.

What’s good about magazine design?

Magazines are actually a pretty open world compared to advertising. But that’s precisely why the design side is also always looking forward to what the next issue holds. I mean, you might do the design for the magazine but you won’t get buckets of royalties. So at the very least you should make it fun for everyone.

Thank you, Mitsuo Sato!

If you want to see Mitsuo Sato and his team’s design work, go and get your hands on a copy of Madame Figaro or Pen — and be sure to check out the indents in the subheadings!