Ikko Tanaka Typography Posters

When talking about Ikko Tanaka’s work, it would be impossible to not recognize the significant portion of his design that was composed of and dedicated to typography.

In an article written in 2016, the editor of the Association Typographique Internationale sought to give context to Tanaka’s type work, writing that, “Applying the Western definition, typography started in Japan only in the late 19th century. After almost 250 years of systematic isolation from foreign influences, Japan recognized the urgent need to catch up with the international development in [technology]… In the 1930s, a subtle but aesthetically strong movement in graphic design became visible. However, this was soon interrupted and used as a tool of propaganda in context of the Second World War. Tanaka belonged to the first generation of post-war designers.”

The biography explored the broad expanse of work Tanaka handled, from books to business identities to exhibition designs. Although all of these feel like very separate areas of graphic design, typography weaves a common thread through each area. In this portion of the biography, I’d like to focus on what I consider some of his more experimental type work in his poster series.

Ikko Tanaka – Typography Poster – https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/poster-picks-steven-heller-on-5-top-ikko-tanaka-designs/

This first poster from 1985, titled simply “Typographic Poster”, is one of Tanaka’s first works that is almost entirely composed of typography- in this case specifically, deconstructed Japanese characters. Each shape is one stroke from “Katakana”, one of the three styles of writing characters in Japanese. Here, he uses the strokes more as independent geometric forms that create a sense of a loose grid and hierarchy.

The horizontal strokes with a pyramid-like shape at the end give the appearance of an obtuse ladder that other shapes seem to align themselves to. In contrast, it’s easy to perceive that the shapes could also be slowly falling, due to the nature of the strokes being angled towards the left, right, and bottom edges of the poster. Of this poster specifically, AIGA states that “Although he was known for his geometric precision, this poster shows fluidity with form. He uses the Japanese characters in a balletic and eclectic manner.”

Ikko Tanaka – Typography Poster – http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2017/09/20/ikko-tanaka/

Plenty of his work leaned on typography, but not each example was so deconstructed. When the display of type had to be more rigid, Tanaka allowed the geometry of shapes in the background, as well as careful manipulation of color, to express his elegant and playful sense of design. Here, each character sits in the foreground, equidistant from another, as if set in a three-by-three grid. The backdrop flows more independently, as if their general placement was set in the same grid, but allowed to flow together and spill over into other blocks of the grid.

Ikko Tanaka – Kanze No Theater Performing Arts Poster – http://www.thisisdisplay.org/collection/ikko_tanaka_sankei_kanze_no_theatre_performing_arts_poster

In talking about Tanaka’s typography work, it would be impossible to exclude the Kanze No Theatre Performing Arts Poster. Created in 1963, this poster came shortly after the genesis of the iconic Noh-themed posters. The structure seen here is incredibly rigid; the type is set just as it would be read off of a magazine or a page of a book. The magic infused here, instead, is the rhythm of color. A single white character indicates the beginning of a new line of information, and every character after it is patterned with color in such a way that the type almost seems like it’s caught in a kaleidoscope.

Ultimately, Tanaka’s work in typography is just as powerful and significant as his Noh posters. There’s undoubtedly a powerful message in using almost exclusively Japanese characters to create striking and modern visuals, on par with work created by the Bauhaus and Swiss type designers, proclaiming to the rest of the world that Japan was an artistic force to be reckoned with.