The Energy Within The Empty Space

“Modes and Characters: Poetics of Graphic Design” at 21_21 Design Sight

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Kaoru Kasai was once asked in an interview if he considers Japanese characters to be an interesting and unique form of writing. In response, he said, “Japanese incorporates kanji and kana, and when combined with English letters, it becomes a rather complex system. I find this konzai (mixture) state to be particularly fascinating, and I enjoy observing cultural phenomena that arise from this blending.”

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現在東京六本木的21_21 Design Sight美術館,當期展覽「Modes and Characters: Poetics of Graphic Design」展出了自90年代至今,共60多位活躍在日本和海外的平面設計師與藝術家作品。

When talking about Kaoru Kasai, it is impossible not to recall the iconic Suntory Oolong Tea advertisement that he spearheaded. With its intriguing and captivating appeal, the advertisement revolutionized the Japanese habit of not consuming overnight tea and popularized bottled tea among the public.

The 21_21 Design Sight museum in Roppongi, Tokyo, is currently hosting an exhibition titled, Modes and Characters: Poetics of Graphic Design, which showcases the work of over 60 graphic designers and artists who have made a significant impact in Japan and worldwide from the 1990s to the present.




Japanese graphic is known for its diverse arrangement, capable of being both vertical and horizontal, and its ability to express pronunciation through the combination of text and images. This unique feature allows graphic design to be visually “heard”.

The essence of graphic design as a language lies in the designer’s attentive observation. Their agility in selecting, arranging, and transforming unique materials to create distinctive compositions defines the energy and relationship that exists between the content and empty space within the design.


“The Year-End Gift is Suntory” advertisement by Kaoru Kasai, 1983. (image credit: 東京広告協会)

在主展場旁邊連著一個小小空間,以「日本語の文字とデザインをめぐる断章(日本文字與設計的碎片)」為題(此區不能拍照但用日語能在網上搜索到某些作品)。當中葛西薫在1983年製作的那個廣告:「アイ ラブ ユー —— お歳暮は、サントリー(我 愛 你 —— 年終禮物 是三得利)」,手拿帽子的那個畫面,是只有手和帽子,他留白,卻讓人想像更多畫面以外的事,而廣告主的威士忌酒瓶仍然輕輕的極小的置放角落;或是浅葉克己在1982年創作的西武百貨廣告中,Woody Allen穿和服跪在榻榻米上寫著「おいしい生活(美味的生活)」日文書法那一幕。


街上一個廣告板或一幅海報,能映入人們眼內的常常只有一瞬間 —— 被觸動的瞬間,是人類很原始的感覺。即使現在看來,那時候這些作品想說的話,我們還是能聽見。好的設計會回到人身上,無分時間地域,會觸動也能改變人,在走出展場後一直殘留的,會一直記住。

Adjacent to the main exhibition area, there is a small section titled, Fragments of Japanese Characters and Design (日本語の文字とデザインをめぐる断章). Photography is not allowed in this area, but some of the works can be found online through Japanese searches. One of the exhibits is Kaoru Kasai’s 1983 advertisement titled I Love You – The Year-End Gift is Suntory (アイ ラブ ユー —— お歳暮は、サントリー). The advertisement features a hand holding a hat, with a tiny whisky bottle subtly placed in the corner. The use of empty space encourages viewers to imagine beyond the image. Another showcased piece is Katsumi Asaba’s 1982 advertisement for Seibu, a department store. The advertisement depicts Woody Allen dressed in a kimono, kneeling on a tatami mat, and writing “Delicious Life” (おいしい生活) in Japanese calligraphy.

Despite not understanding the Japanese used in these works, viewers might still be struck profoundly when gazing upon them.

Advertisements and posters on the streets can often evoke a fleeting yet impactful connection with people, touching them on a primal level. Even in the present day, we can still hear the messages these works intended to convey. Good design can transcend time and place, leaving a lasting impact on individuals and transforming them. The impressions left by these works will be remembered long after leaving the exhibition.

“Modes and Characters: Poetics of Graphic Design” Exhibition
November 23 , 2023 – March 10, 2024
21_21 Design Sight