The Japanese Web Design Aesthetic


Is good web design universal? Or do you need to redesign or re-conceptualise a site for a Japanese audience? This is probably not something that Japanese web designers who design Japanese sites think about. However, for international companies who might have a main site in English or another European language and are looking to produce a Japanese version or even for Japanese designers redesigning a site in English, this is a question that inevitably comes up.

Simply related to the language and character sets there are some fundamental differences between English and Japanese web sites – Japanese takes up from about 30% to 50% less space than English so more can be expressed in fewer characters. A case in point is Twitter where 140 characters of Japanese is a LOT less restrictive than 140 English characters. So a site with exactly the same content will look comparatively empty in the Japanese version next to the English version.

An observation of a lot of westerners is that Japanese web design is very busy – why have white space when you can fill it with another banner or animated gif? Part of this is purely perception – Chinese characters just look more dense – especially if you can’t read them. However, taking a look at virtually any shop on Rakuten and you will see densely packed information and graphics that wouldn’t be acceptable in an English web site. Most of these sites make Myspace pages look restrained in comparison. However, it’s difficult to define this as a universal Japanese aesthetic – minimalism and simplicity are a hallmark of Japanese design from Zen Gardens through to ceramics. Also the simple, clean design of Apple products is hugely popular in Japan. This dense web aesthetic does also surface in printed magazines, TV variety shows and even manga so it would seem that it is related specifically to the presentation and consumption of information.

One factor that I’m sure has had some impact is web infrastructure – whereas western designers were punished for content heavy web sites due to slow internet connections, Japan has had fast widespread broadband internet for close to 10 years so there is less pressure to be lean.

So the question is, what is the psychology or emotional response from this dense presentation of information and is this essential for the success of my site or business? As I haven’t done any detailed research into this, I can only speculate, but I suspect it has something to with perceptions of scale. Japanese society is very much based around personal networks of trust, influence and patronage. Without these direct personal connections to a web site, my main measure of whether I can trust the site will likely be based on the perceived scale of the company behind it. Denseness and variety of information gives a feeling of scale which makes the content more believable and increases my feeling of trust. I’m sure this is only a small piece of the puzzle though.

Questions of the dense aesthetic aside, I’m a strong believer that a designer who designs in a foreign language needs to have an excellent grasp of that language. An English speaking designer who designs in Japanese but doesn’t have a good understanding of Japanese or a Japanese designer who designs in English but doesn’t understand English well will inevitably see the other language as ‘icons’ and be incapable of understanding the intrinsic meaning or be able to utilise appropriate typography. You need to look no further than ‘Engrish’ t-shirt designs worn by Japanese or those awful Chinese character tattoos in the west – neither group knows the meaning of these and neither particularly cares. So ideally, a Japanese designer should be given the freedom to re-interpret the international brand for a local audience. In practice, budgets and a desire to keep a cohesive global brand means that this isn’t always possible.

These are just my interpretations. I would love to hear some insights from Japanese (or non Japanese) designers and web producers in the comments.