A Brief History of Digital Media and
Japanese Graphic Design
In his essay “Art and the Machine, ” Hermann Muthesius, one of the founders of the Deutscher Werkbund, wrote like this:
This machine aesthetics can only achieve its full persuasive power when the “target form” actually conforms to the “factory production method.”
(Dekorative Kunst, München, 1902, pp. 141–147)
There is no need to limit ourselves to modern design after the industrial revolution; in every age technology and design have proceeded side-by-side, ever since the invention of the wheel, the discovery of lenses, the development of printing, etc. The design of buildings and tools that directly affect daily life is no exception, nor is design that is meant to be visually appealing. Characters and icons have always been influenced by technology, and have influenced technology in turn, and not just in printing.
Contents made up of such “words and pictures” are inseparable from media, and media are inseparable from technology. To paraphrase Muthesius, digital aesthetics can only achieve its full persuasive power when it matches the computer’s “calculation method.”
This book documents the exhibition Digital Media and Japanese Graphic Design – Its Past and Future (below, the Digital Media Exhibition), which was organized by the Internet Committee of the Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA) and held at the Tokyo Midtown Design Hub from January 29 to February 14, 2016.
JAGDA’s Internet Committee has tried to formulate and evaluate the role of digital media in graphic design in response to the fact that the functions of graphic designers have expanded into the field of digital media, and today include web design, interface design, and so on. This exhibition was part of those activities.
If we think of graphic design as the design of visual information, its first encounter with digital media came surprisingly early. Visualization of Big Data is attracting a lot of attention these days, but even tiny amounts of data needed to be visualized in order to convey anything at all.
As the title of the Digital Media Exhibition explicitly stated, it dealt with “the past and the future.” The reason we left out the present was that we believed it was sufficient to refer to the real world around us to see what is happening now. Starting from the recent past of the 00s, the show traced the history of computer art in Japan backwards to its presumed origins in the 1960s, and ended with works that gives us a hint of the future.
While the time tunnel-like setup worked well in the exhibition itself, the works are presented in chronological order in this book. Commentaries to each work can be found in the captions that accompany the main text, so here I would instead like to review the historical relationship between digital media and graphic design, and focus on matters that could not be fully presented in the exhibition.
The Computer as a Paintbrush
The curved lines drawn with a cathode ray oscilloscope by Ben F. Laposky in 1952 are regarded as the first works of computer art. The images still exist, but only in the form of photographs and video recordings (tube radiographs) of the screen. It was the appearance of the XY plotter that made it possible to externalize the pictures drawn by the computer. Output devices have had a close relationship with expressions ever since.
The aesthetic philosopher Hiroshi Kawano used a line printer to print out series of Markov chain figures. These he combined with silk screen printing and hand coloring to create compositions with black lines and primary colors.
Kawano named the fundamental concept behind computer art “computational aesthetics,” and made the appeal that “in this way, works of art will be human-designed natural objects with a presence as intermediaries between ideal objects and real objects, but let us understand such artworks as signs.” (Geijutsujouhou no riron (“A Theory of Art Information”), Shin-yo-sha, 1972, p. 142)
Regarding design, Kawano said that “in artistic creation, design is essentially a matter of laying down the plans for the physical embodiment of the work’s compositional logic. - - - It follows that potentially or explicitly, there is a design for the work’s representational logic. - - - The source of this power of contemporary art lies in the manifestation of conscious design.” And since “design rationally systemizes a vision for life ... the ideal language to standardize design is mathematics.” (Geijutsu, kigou, jouhou (“Art, Symbols, Information”), Keiso Shobo, 1982, p. 126–127)
Back in the era when art and design were still undifferentiated in the expression of digital technology, this point of view of design as inherent in art was extremely discerning. I can’t help feeling that it was very fortunate that digital visualization in Japan was started by an aesthetician like Kawano.
From the generation following Kawano, we might mention CTG (the Computer Technique Group), which was formed around Masao Kohmura, who was majoring in product design at Tama Art University, and Haruki Tsuchiya, who was a graduate student at the University of Tokyo. Active during a 3-year period from 1966 to 1969, CTG was a group that practiced computer-based expression and they were the darlings of the day. Using an IBM7090 mainframe at IBM Japan and a CalComp563 plotter, they produced the Computer is a Good Illustrator series (commonly known as the “IBM posters”) and participated in the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity: the Computer and the Arts in London, 1968. Going back and forth between expression and engineering, they proved that the computer could be a tool for expression.
The year after their suspension of activities, the Expo 70 world fair was held in Osaka, and Japan suddenly became the country with the second most computers in the world.
The Age of Computer Graphics
The evolution from computer art using plotters and line printers to computer graphics (CG) using raster grids had to wait for the invention of the “pixel.” The first appearance of pixels was a 16-level grayscale block portrait of Abraham Lincoln created by Leon Harman at Bell Labs in 1971.
Pixels have position information and values in discrete units. The values are mainly used to represent colors and shadings. It was a technology to realize an analogy of Western-style painting by attempting to capture the world in gradated shades.
Ray tracing, which was devised in 1979, was a CG technique for tracing the path of light back to a certain viewpoint that made it possible to render shades. Shadows came slightly later. After that, the 1980s saw a fierce competition in the development of new drawing techniques.
CG research flourished in Japan as well, and among the people who made significant contributions in this period we might mention Yoichiro Kawaguchi, who is still one of the leading experts in the field, the “metaball” developer Koichi Omura, and Toshiaki Kato and Toshifumi Kawahara, who created an alphabet model using coordinate displacement.
JAGDA held a regular event called CG+ to introduce the latest developments from SIGGRAPH and elsewhere. SIGGRAPH is an international conference and exhibition by the American Computer Society’s CG committee that has been held every year since 1974, and it is the place where the latest technologies and research papers are presented.
Looking back, the media artist Masaki Fujihata, who worked with CG in the 80s, wrote like this;
In the history of computer graphics, the 1980s was a time when art suppliers/technicians worked in a jumble with painters/performers. Sometimes they would switch their titles in the middle of the work. Those days of rash technology and expression were a lot of fun.
(Computer Graphics no kiseki (“The Trajectory of Computer Graphics”), Masaki Fujihata, ed., JustSystems, 1998, p.205)
Meanwhile, the field of music had been quicker to go digital than the visual arts. Electronic pop music was a reality already in the 1970s, for example by the German group Kraftwerk, who had their roots in modern classical music, or Japan’s YMO, who came from a rock background. Art, design and other fields did their best to keep up with the music trends and adopt the latest technologies in their expressions.
Radical TV was a popular video performance unit formed in 1985 by Daizaburo Harada and Haruhiko Shono. Their audiovisual showcase TV War (with music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and based on a concept by Akira Asada) at the international science and technology exposition Expo ’85 in Tsukuba was presented on a giant 2000 inch (25 by 40 meter) SONY Jumbotron screen and was an unparalleled performance both in scale and level of perfection. Afterwards, both have gone on to develop a wide range of activities, Harada in the video field, including CG, music videos and concert projections, and Shono in the field of multimedia, which will be further discussed below.
The Arrival of DTP
In the second half of the 1980’s the computer took its place on the desk of graphic designers. Apple’s Macintosh 128K appeared in 1984, and Mac Plus, which came with a Japanese language front end processor (KanjiTalk 1.0 and 2.0 conversion), was released in 1986. The page description language PostScript (Adobe), the layout software PageMaker (Aldus), and Apple’s laser printer LaserWriter led to the proposal of desktop publishing (DTP), and the launch the following year of the 32-bit Macintosh II, which could display colors, became a turning point that completely transformed the graphic designer’s desktop. The development was further spurred by Adobe’s 3D Bezier curve-drawing software Illustrator 88 (ver. 1.6 was released in 1988; ver. 1.0 had been released in ’87). In just a few years in the late 1980s, Apple’s Macintosh and Adobe’s PostScript became the standard platforms for graphic design.
In Japan, DTP had its greatest influence on the print production process. The “P” in DTP was stunted from “publishing” to “prepress” and developed as a technological innovation in the printing industry. The result was that only the computer’s role in automation and as a labor-saving device were highlighted, while the vision of DTP was lost and the crucial computations were hidden in a black box. For that reason, we omitted the DTP field from the Digital Media Exhibition.
Of course there were noteworthy matters that approached the relationship between the intrinsic nature of computers and graphic design as well, for example Tsutomu Toda’s book Mori no shomotsu (“Documents found in the woods, ” GEGRAF, 1989), and Hajime Tachibana’s Application Tour (Korin Publishing, 1995; published in conjunction with his exhibition with the same name at P3, Tochoji Temple, Tokyo) and his Adobe Illustrator plug-in module SinYO Beta. Especially memorable was the exhibition Ape Call from Tokyo (held at the ADC Gallery, New York, 1990 with participation by Mitsuo Katsui, Masaki Fujihata, Hajime Tachibana, Eiji Takaoki and others), which was a rare example of the interaction between computation and Japanese graphic design. The poster designed by Hajime Tachibana won the Tokyo ADC Grand Prix the following year.
In that lineage was also John Maeda, who resided in Japan from 1992 to 1996 to get his PhD. While here, he created the Morisawa Poster Series (1996), the Reactive Book Series (Digitalogue, completed in 1998 after his move to MIT), etc. Since returning to the U.S., his publications include Design by Numbers, MIT Press 1999, and many others.
The Computer as a Medium
Symbolically speaking, the potential for desktop publishing in the near future is the vision of a single person publishing their own newspaper. However, there are many issues and problems with the current state of desktop publishing in Japan. These are not so much technological factors, as problems with the cultural climate associated with computers and the perspective built thereupon.
(Tsutomu Toda, Mori no shomotsu, p. 4)
Just as Toda had feared, DTP was a failure in Japan. However, the buds of publishing would sprout elsewhere.
Information can be expressed in units of bits. One bit is the amount of information in the choice between two options, 0 or 1. Eight repeated selections between two alternatives is 8 bits (=1 byte), or 256 options. Everything entered into a computer is handled in bits. Whether it is a picture, a text or speech, it is transformed into “information, ” a string of 0s and 1s, that is interchangeable. From there, the concept of “multimedia” was born.
The first foray into multimedia was Alice (Toshiba EMI, 1991), a collaboration between the musician Kazuhiko Kato and the painter Kuniyoshi Kaneko. Based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it was designed by Haruhiko Shono of Radical TV and published by Synergy, Inc. The game Gadget, which was released in 1993 and also created by Shono, Synergy and Toshiba EMI, was highly praised abroad, and Shono was listed as one of the “50 People who Create the Future” in the American magazine Newsweek (March, 1995).
Around that time, graphic designers began to enter the multimedia market, and many titles were created using the authoring software Director (Macromedia, 1987). Particularly well known among them are the activities of Digitalogue, which was jointly established by the art director Naomi Enami, the photographer Akira Gomi, and the graphic designer Neville Brody.
Digitalogue’s first work and magnum opus was Akira Gomi’s Yellows (1993), a physical documentation of Japanese bodies. However, since the photographs showed pubic hair, which was taboo at the time, it could not be published as an ordinary, printed photo book. Instead it was released as a digital photo album, something that was still a completely unknown quantity. Further volumes in the Yellows series were followed by Nobuyoshi Araki’s Arakitronics (1994, taken with a yet rare Kodak digital still camera), Tadayuki Naito’s Gardens in Kyoto (1998), and many others. Multimedia photo albums became Digitalogue’s strong point. They also made a major contribution as a bridge between the worlds of digital media and graphic design, planning and producing catalogues by artists like Katsuhiko Hibino and Tsunehisa Kimura, acting as the Japanese agent for the London-based experimental digital font magazine FUSE and the company FontShop, and supporting the creation of original fonts through their Font Pavilion collections.
Gento Matsumoto has been working with electronic media throughout his career, and is now with the electronic publishing service BCCKS (founded in 2007). In a panel discussion with Naomi Enami, he had this to say about the relationship between digital media and graphic design.
Matsumoto: Whether I’m making an application, a CD-ROM or some other digital thing, or creating a video, or like right now I’m working on an application called Pop Up Maker (ASK Kodansha), whatever I’m doing I’m really working on an extension of graphic design. Everything I’m saying here is speaking as a graphic designer.
Enami: Tracing the extension of graphic design, you naturally come across many things.
(“Extending Graphic Design” in Naomi Enami, Out of Design, Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1998, p. 171)
Another type of digital media was the Expanded Books released by the American e-book pioneers Voyager in 1991. Voyager Japan was established the following year, and the first expanded book in Japanese was published in 1993, Taruho Futurica, a collection of stories by the writer Taruho Inagaki. Voyager Japan went on to develop “Expanded Books II,” which could handle vertical text in the Japanese style, and the first e-book in that format was PC Genesis by Michio Tomita (1995), who in 1997 established the electronic library Aozora Bunko on the Internet. Shinchosha, a leading literary publisher, also released five expanded book titles, including Shinchosha bunko no 100 satsu (1995).
The Great Wave of the Internet
The web browser Mosaic and HTML version 1.0 were released in 1993. The same year, the (former) Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication approved commercial use of the Internet, and the curtain went up for the Age of the Internet in Japan. Multimedia, which had slowly been gaining public acceptance, was swallowed up by this big wave and disappeared.
Three years later, in 1996, the Internet 1996 World Exposition (IWE ’96) was held, an event for the popularization of the Internet on the initiative of the United States. The Japan theme pavilion was called Sensorium. It was centered around Project Taos, led by the cultural anthropologist Shinichi Takemura, who had gathered a colorful group of members around him, including Ichiro Higashiizumi and Yoshiaki Nishimura. After the end of IWE they continued their activities as an organic project on websites and in other forms. Sensorium won the Golden Nica Award in the .net section at Prix Ars Electronica in 1997.
Takemura wrote that “the Internet is not just concerned with mass media, surfing, or virtual shopping (or virtual anything else). The Internet has the potential to give rise to a new human common sense: an enhanced and pluralistic sensorium and nervous system that can be shared by all” and posited the question “Are we ready then to realize a true post-Gutenberg multimedia society, not only in terms of technology, but also in respect to our cultural and sensory experiences?”
(1996, www.sensorium.org/faqs/person/takecomment.html, accessed 2016.12.11)
Technically immature as it might have been, I believe that IWE exhausted the expressive possibilities of Web 1.0. The people who went on to drive web design were more or less involved in this event.
Those who participated in web design in the 90s came from graphic design or video fields, and they were successful in their own way, but around the year 2000 so-called “web natives” began to appear, people who had started their careers from web design. They were the ones who created the wave of online advertising in the 00s.
Websites are media that are basically free to browse, and for Google, Facebook, etc. advertising is the backbone of their business models. Advertising is indispensible for web businesses, and Japan is no exception. The Internet Advertising Promotion Council (now named Japan Interactive Advertising Association (JIAA)) was established in 1999. It sponsored the Tokyo Interactive Ad Award to boost the industry. (In 2014, this event was transferred to the All Japan Radio & Television Commercial Confederation (ACC).) In 2004, ecotonoha by NEC and Yugo Nakamura was awarded the Cannes Cyber Lion Grand Prix in the Internet section. It was the first time a Japanese company had won the prize, and it became the trigger for the high reputation of Japanese online ads at international festivals.
One of the characteristics of online ads in the 00s was the interaction with the body and the environment. As Shinichi Nakamura had already pointed out in his abovementioned Sensorium message, “the Inter-net is nothing but a metaphor for the Inner-net”; this was a trend that could not be swept aside as merely a fad for physical computing (mechanisms for computer input through natural human behavior, rather than via a mouse or keyboard).
Beyond the Singularity
In 2012, the University of Toronto overwhelmingly won the ImageNet Large Scale Image Recognition Challenge (ILSVRC), which is a worldwide competition for AI-based image recognition. The victory of the first-time participants was thanks to a new machine learning method called Deep Learning, developed by Professor Geoffrey Hinton and others. Deep Learning is a form of representational learning using a neural network computer, and can be understood as “a mechanism for the AI to work things out by itself.” In other words, the amount of human assistance (human data input) is dramatically reduced. Artificial Intelligence has entered the age of self-study.
Sooner or later, AI will surely begin suggesting new AI technologies, and may even invent new computers. When that happens, human beings will no longer be able to forecast the development of human society. This critical point is called the Singularity. In his book The Singularity is Near (2005), Ray Kurzweil predicts that the growth of computational power will make the Singularity occur around the year 2045, hence it is also sometimes referred to as the “2045 problem.”
This has been a rather long introduction, but when we thought about what point in time to set as “the future” for the Digital Media Exhibition, the year 2045 came to mind. At first it was just a joke in our discussions, but it definitely points to a “future beyond humankind.”
Among the works we selected for this section, none were by professional designers. They were all done by universities or other research projects.
Furnished Fluid by Akira Wakita, who is Professor at Keio University SFC, is a work that uses fluid simulation technology to visualize humanly imperceptible air flows created by artifacts. Since the artifacts he uses are famous chairs from the 20th century, the work is also a commentary on the act of designing.
The ARTSAT Project is a collaboration between Tama Art University and the University of Tokyo and is an attempt to create the world’s first art satellite. Two satellites have been successfully launched, and the data they send back from space are utilized in poetry, sculpture, and other artistic activities.
Jun Rekimoto is Professor at the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, University of Tokyo, and also Deputy Director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories. His lab is researching “augmented humans,” the future where humans are integrated with computers and AI. This is also a project targeting an area way beyond our current perceptions.
One of the leaders of the ARTSAT Project, Akihiro Kubota of Tama Art University, has the following to say about the future of design with reference to the current de facto standard of “human-centered design”:
For humans to do post-human-centered design is not the same thing as humans doing human-centered design. It is humans designing for super-beings beyond humanity. The question is then whether it is possible for humans to design something that humans cannot experience, or inversely, whether it is possible for something other than humans to do human-centered design. These are isomorphic questions with the same degree of difficulty.
(“A Good Theory is a Prophecy” in Helen Armstrong (ed.), Mirai wo kizuku design no shisou, BNN, 2016, p. 13)
Graphic design has connected human beings with each other, and human beings with various manmade objects, but there will come a time when humans will need to communicate with things not made by humans. It might be the result of the evolution of AI, or some natural wonder, or perhaps an unknown civilization.
Let me conclude with a few more words about the Digital Media Exhibition.
As you will have noticed by reading all the way to this point, this exhibition featured works born out of the relationship between technology and media expression over half a century, as well as projects looking to the future. Many of the works from each era can only be reproduced using the technology of that time, and as a result the exhibition also had an aspect of a “Hall of Fondly Remembered Old Machines.”
There were programs that only run on machines and operating systems from that era, of course, but there were also many interesting discoveries such as the fact that video works made in the 1980s look much better on an old Sony Trinitron cathode ray monitor than on current LCD displays. Multimedia titles from the 90s made for machines that could only display 256 colors were cleverly devised to make optimal use of that 256 color palette. We also had to consider inaccurate operations due to the completely different processing speed of current computers. Technology and expressions are inseparable in that respect too.
After this lengthy introduction about the difficulties of archiving digital media, let us set off on our journey through the world of digital media and graphic design.