Sonya Park: Design that starts from individual sensibilities

PingMag has been looking at how Hobonichi went about re-designing and launching its popular planner for the global market. In many ways translating the original Hobonichi Techo into something accessible worldwide seems a daunting task. But on the other hand, as creative director and stylist Sonya Park says, Japan is full of things that could potentially be worldwide hits if only the national language was English. Sonya was charged with re-inventing the Hobonichi Planner as an English product.

Born in Korea and growing up in Hawaii, her 20-some years in Japan put her in a unique position to take something so quintessentially Japanese, and with a delicate tweak, turn it into an international product.

sonya

You’ve just got back from Hawaii. Were you there on business?

My parents live there and I used to live there when I was younger. I was born in Korea but emigrated to America when I was twelve.

That must have been a big change?

Yes, it was. But as a child it was very exciting. This was at the time when America was accepting lots of Korean immigrants so there were many people moving there.

But this wasn’t just America, it was Hawaii, which is pretty different.

Yes. It’s not like the rest of America at all. Hawaii is Hawaii, not America. You don’t get the racial discrimination you get elsewhere. People don’t say, “Oh, that’s because you’re Asian” and so on. I have really fond memories of it, though at the time I couldn’t really see what was so good about it. I just thought that we’d moved from Seoul out to the middle of nowhere!

The climate is so nice there and the natural scenery is amazing.

Well, yes, but around that time I wasn’t interested in that so it was really dull for me. I just wanted to get away. About that time I had some Japanese friends so I really wanted to go to Tokyo. After all, Japan’s not so far.

When did you come to Japan?

When I was about 23.

So right after you graduated from college?

I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. My parents asked me what I was going to do so I asked to be allowed to go to Japan. I promised it would just be for two years. But before I knew it, some 20 years have gone by! [Laughs]

asSonya Park is the creative director of ARTS&SCIENCE, a select shop. It started with a store in Daikanyama in 2003 and now has seven branches in Tokyo and one in Paris. This is the Daikanyama store.

You went from being a stylist to being director of ARTS&SCIENCE. But just what is “styling”?

Well, you have people who decide on the clothes that people wear on the front covers of magazines, right? That’s a stylist’s job but I actually think of what I do as being like an editor. Usually you have to join a magazine company. I heard about freelance stylists about 20 years ago and thought I’d like to give that a try. In Europe and America there are lots of people working as “fashion editors”. In Japan too there have been some people who have this job title but it hasn’t really become well-established. What I really want to say is that a fashion editor doesn’t just bring along the clothes for the model to wear; they are the editor of that page. But in Japan it was easiest to understand if you call yourself a “stylist”.

Yes, in Japan the definition of “editor” is pretty broad. It can also include people doing more nitty-gritty work.

And in Japan the position of the “editor-in-chief” is also very different. Rather than planning what to do, they handle the business and management side of things. They tend to be pretty remote from the actual editorial workplace. That’s a really different way of thinking compared to America and Europe. Over there, the editor-in-chief is the person in charge who makes the magazine how they want.

They are like the overall person in charge. The buck stops with them. Their name is printed for all to see — this is the case with, say, the New York Times — and it’s up to them to choose which articles will go in the final issue of the magazine or newspaper. Their neck is on the line though their role also contributes to their status.

It seems to me looking at the system in Japan that there is a reluctance to give one person too much power. A magazine editor-in-chief doesn’t really assert his or herself. It’s the magazine itself that’s important; whoever’s doing the editing, the magazine doesn’t change. The editors and staff may well change, but the main idea of the magazine always survives. It’s not the people who are making it. This is really interesting. You can take out the individual and the magazine has become a kind of living creature. This is not the case in America, where it’s an individual doing it, so if that person changes, then the magazine changes too. In Japan, people don’t like this because they feel anxious if one individual possesses a lot of power.

Yes, you could be right there.

But which is the better system? In Japan the responsibility is collective. But then when something goes wrong, it’s not just one person’s responsibility, it’s the whole company’s — or even everyone in society’s. That was something I didn’t like when I first arrived in Japan, though recently I’ve been thinking that’s not such a bad idea.

Yes, this fuzzy Japanese way of doing things can be annoying at times, but in the end, that kind of system is also important.

Well, a compromise between the two would likely be the best. In Europe and America the emphasis on the individual can be too strong, while Japan thinks too much about keeping the overall balance of society and it can be a hard place to live if you’re a really exceptional person. But those are the kind of people we need to create interesting things and introduce new ideas. Without kinks, you don’t get innovation.

Well, perhaps we should turn to the matter at hand. We’re here to talk about the Hobonichi Planner. You were first involved in making a special cover for the Japanese version. How did things come to arrive at making an English-language edition?

I thought before that if Japan was an Anglophone country, something really amazing would be taking place here. In some ways, it’s a shame because if Japanese people were making more magazines in English I think they would sell really well. This planner is popular in Japan so it’s not the case that we particularly had to make a version in another language like English, but since English can be understood by people all over the world — Japanese people or people from anywhere — in this way I wanted to make a planner that anyone can use. And the folks at Hobonichi had also been thinking about doing an English-language version for ages so we were thought “Let’s give it a shot.”

hobonichiplannner_J hobonichiplanner_EThe Japanese (top) and English (bottom) editions of the Hobonichi Planner. They are similar but if you look closely, you’ll spot that there are several places where the design has been customized for the English edition.

Comparing it with the Japanese version, there are some differences. For example, with the hours in the margin, you only have “12″ in the English-language version. This is interesting since you can tell it’s for the time because it’s “12″. If it was “7″ you wouldn’t know what it stood for.

It was actually just my choice about where to put the “12″, but the idea is to make the afternoon section bigger since people in cities are busy at night. If you just focus on making a product that everyone can use then you tend to end up with something which isn’t very interesting. So I wanted to give it character and make something that I myself would most want to use. I feel a bit bad about that! Of course, it should then evolve a lot from there but it has to start with someone, one person with a strong individuality, trying to make something.

But even so, you’re someone whose work and experiences have taken you to different countries. In a way, we might say you’re almost “stateless” and so in this sense, even though you make things according to your own personal yardstick, it ends up being pretty accessible. If you set out to make something that you want to use, it will also be something that lots of other people can also use. Do planners have a special meaning for you?

I was always looking for something where I could use one page per day but I just couldn’t seem to find the right one. I’ve kept all my planners ever since I started working. It helps me recall what I was doing if I glance through them. It’s the same with the Hobonichi Planner. I wanted to make something where you could line them up, glance at the 2014 planner — and then what you’d been doing would come back to life. You don’t need to note down how you felt but you should be able to remember what you had been doing at a certain point. I want a planner to be like your own personal archive, or like an encyclopedia.

hobonichiplannner

A mini encyclopedia. That’s a cute idea. But if you’re making an English-language version there is the issue of language. On the other hand, it seems that these days people know more about Japan in other countries. It doesn’t feel so remote now. People in America, Europe and Asia know about Japan more than Japanese people think.

But there are always going to be things that only the Koreans can understand or only the Japanese. For example, it took me ages before I could really appreciate the taste of white rice. I’m not joking. I might eat sashimi but I couldn’t tell if it was good sashimi or not. And especially dashi, it took me many years. If you eat something for ten years, you’re then the equivalent of a ten-year-old child, right? I’ve been eating Japanese food for twenty-plus years now so I can probably say I can appreciate the taste. But there are bound to be other things like this that you can’t just understand straightaway. I don’t think you can understand Japan after studying for only two or three years. That’s why it’s really important to have people like you, Tom, who act as cultural ambassadors between Japan and overseas so people around the world can communicate.

The Hobonichi Planner is the same thing. It’s an ambassador. It’s been completely translated and it can be understood around the globe now. The Hobonichi Planner is created originally with Japanese text but I think its sensibility is universal. There are people in tune with that all over the world. So translating the language isn’t the problem. Where the problem lies is in translating the feeling of the original, the worldview. This necessitates a translation that fully conveys the nuances. And then your “design translation” is also something different. It feels like you’ve taken a step back from Hobonichi’s world. You’ve maintained Hobonichi’s all-important essence, while also adding your own sensibility. I don’t think the Hobonichi folk could have made this just by themselves.

Yes, that was something I was being careful about. The Japanese version of the planner is very dense and I didn’t want to lose that, but then it’s not important just to make something which everyone likes. Instead, it was more like making something that people like us will also enjoy. At first glance, you might not realize it’s a Japanese product, and it’s interesting how one created in Japan can here become a sort of international standard.

Yes, at a glance you wouldn’t be able to tell where it’s from, but looking closely, you can see in the details that particular essence, that Japanese regard for making quality products.

There was this journalist who saw my brand name was ARTS&SCIENCE and didn’t know where I was from. They said that my work had this really “Japanese” feel to it. The clothes are, of course, western but they said it feels really “Japan”. I’m not consciously doing this but how you live and think will definitely come out when you’re making things.

Things “tell” you something?

Yes, and they never lie. They can’t. When you’ve had trouble making something you can see it there in the final result. And the ones you really want to sell also have that look about them.

The Hobonichi Planner has come about through this marriage of the Hobonichi essence with your own individuality. What does the future hold?

It’s possible that in five years’ time I will look back at what I’m doing now and think that it was so callow. In five years the planner is going to have developed in quite a special way, though it might actually already be more or less complete as it is now. Things change with time and so we have to think how to evolve what we make. I don’t know now. I will also change. You need to consider trying the things you wouldn’t normally do.

Thank you, Sonya Park!

  • James Dean

    I don’t know if it’s relevant any longer, but there’s a typo in the first paragraph, where “population planner” likely means “popular planner.”

  • PingMag

    @James Dean

    Thanks. Now fixed!