While reading Jinnie’s comments on Rollbahn notebooks over at Three Staples (and, specifically, the German words on the cover), I was reminded of the differences between Asian and Western approaches to design – specifically, stationery design. You may have wondered yourself at one time or another about the nonsensical words often to be found on Asian stationery products.
Notebooks and other items produced in the West typically do not carry much textual information on the cover. The brand logo and product name are judiciously placed, and information judged to be essential is presented in a concise and pleasing manner, but otherwise the cover is kept free of clutter. When a text longer than a couple of words appears (witticisms in the line of “Keep Calm and Carry On”), it is almost always featured as the most prominent design element, and the rest of the notebook is designed around it.
In contrast, the Asian approach is neither here nor there. The cover carries some text, but which often has little bearing to the product at hand. This, I believe, is because Asian designers regard the Roman alphabet as not something to be used to transmit information but as a purely decorative design element. The name of the notebook (if it has one) has to go somewhere so that is not negotiable, but very often designers will feel more comfortable with several lines of small text underneath or in proximity to it. When I was working in Japan, I sometimes observed designers type in a line or two of random letters (xcnaspizmwepofh) in Illustrator or Photoshop, and then try to stretch and position it around the principal label; they would decide what words to put in only afterwards (which is where I came in).
This, in turn, means that any textual information on stationery products is not intended to be actually read; in fact, designers are counting on the fact that it will not be read but only looked at. This of course is the reason that such textual information is rarely presented in Japanese or Korean or any other local language – it will be exposed straightaway as the inanity that it is. Because Asians have to learn to read the Roman alphabet as a second script system, it takes more effort to read it, and text in English or any other European language rarely leaps to the eye. This problem seems particularly severe in Japan, where people are used to seeing foreign words transcribed for them in katakana.
However, English literacy is rising across Asia; hence the popularity of more exotic and visually chic languages such as French and German as a design tool. The point is that they are less likely to be read and understood, and therefore stay truer to their function as decorative elements. French boasts a set of elegant accents (à, é, ô); German has the umlaut (ü) and double s (ß), and the exciting possibility of using multiple capital letters within a sentence. Japan has always been much more Europhilic than either China or Korea, so that explains why we see much more of French and German on Japanese products (which unfortunately doesn’t translate into fluency in those languages).
Below are a couple of examples.
Schöpfer is a line of notebooks from LIFE. I have no idea what it means. I think the second line means something like “40 (pages of) heavenly joy”, but I’m not sure, and anyway that’s not the point. The point is that they wanted something, anything, to fill that space up, and those words serve that function. What I find more problematic is the lack of basic typographical skills.
Note the lack of spacing in “40sheets” and “Company,Limited”. This, more than anything, drives me nuts. Also, as you can see from the ugly text below the fountain pen nib logo, it is very, very hard to find good Roman alphabet typography in Asian stationery products. This is not to say that Asian designers lack the requisite skills; rather, this reminds you of just how difficult it is to acquire visual fluency in a foreign alphabet.
Here is one more example, from the notebook company Morning Glory of Korea.
Here, again, there is a block of text just to… place some weight on the lower right hand corner, I suppose. I used to cringe every time my eyes passed over stuff like this in the past. But mercifully someone seems to have proofread it this time!
Don’t get me wrong: I am not making fun of LIFE or Morning Glory (or any other company, for that matter). I love these notebooks, they contain some of the best paper for fountain pen use, and I will keep using them no matter what is on the cover. But I would just like to say to them: Leave well enough alone. Have the courage to leave spaces blank. And, if you must, fill it with colors, patterns, motifs, anything, but spare us this kind of nonsense!