Tezzo Suzuki, a graduate from the prestigious Master’s course in Type & Media at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague (KABK) is part of an emerging generation of young graphic designers in Japan. Tezzo’s work makes him stand out amongst his cohort for its versatility – spanning from typography, lettering and logo design to illustration, web design and editorials – as much as for its delicacy which, as he explains, is a quality which permeates his life in many different ways.
His constant willingness to improve himself seems to drive his creative practice, and he seeks challenge and complexity in his work, whether client-based or personal, which often leads him to reflect on issues outside of his comfort zone. In this interview, Tezzo explains his decision to move from Tokyo to the Hague to complete his studies, explores his specialisation in typography and shares the philosophy underlying his holistic approach to design.
Can you start by explaining what you do?
I do graphic design in general. I’ve mostly worked on logos, visual identities and printed matter, and more recently, I’ve been working on books 1 and on signage as part of architectural projects (for example, door plates with room numbers for hotels). 2 I also do web design, but I can’t code so I work with someone else for that. 3 I’d like to broaden out my work as much as possible within the field of graphic design.
With regards to my background, I was a rōnin 4 for a year after graduating from high school, and then I joined the Tokyo University of the Arts’ Department of Design. 5 After finishing my degree, I worked part-time at a tempura 6 place, then at a curry place while doing some client work at the same time, and after a while, I joined Kengo Kuma & Associates 7 as a part-time graphic designer. I then went to the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) 8 in The Hague for a Master’s in Type and Media. Since graduating in 2015, I’ve been working as a freelance graphic designer.
Tezzo’s Education: From Design to Typography
Your work gives the impression that you’re a very well-rounded designer, and it looks like you would have had more than enough technical skill to pursue a career in fine arts. What made you choose design?
It feels like I was destined to go to an art school from the very beginning. When I had to choose a course, at first I thought oil painting would be a good idea, but I eventually chose design. That decision came very naturally to me – maybe because both of my parents are designers. I guess I was also influenced by the fact that oil paints are kind of annoying to prepare and make a lot of mess. But also, I thought that as a designer, I would be working more collaboratively, and so I’d be less vulnerable when it comes to criticism and less likely to become a hikikomori. 9
I’ve changed a lot since I was younger – I used to think that artists should stay in their own bubble and I used to be very solitary when working, so I thought I should look for a job that forced me to get involved with other people. I imagine my parents thought the same – in middle school, when I had to choose an extracurricular activity, I remember my dad telling me “whatever you choose, it’s important for you that you work with other people.”
I might have said this somewhere else already, 10 but when I was a kid (in the early nineties), I used to watch reports about the crimes committed by Tsutomu Miyazaki 11 and Aum Shinrikyo. 12 Even though I was only little, I could sort of empathise with people who suddenly do terrible things after keeping their own ideas shut up in their heads, without speaking to anyone else. That’s why I started thinking that if I didn’t put myself in a place where my ideas would be heard and criticised, I might go crazy – which for me, meant going into design and not fine arts.
Your graphic design practice is pretty versatile. Did your undergraduate studies in Design at the Tokyo University of the Arts have an impact on this?
When I went to Tokyo to study, I thought that I would just be doing graphic design, but unlike universities like the Tama Art University, 13 where you can take a specific Graphic Design course, Geidai 14 only has a ‘Department of Design’ where you produce many different types of coursework over four years. Because of working like that for so long, I didn’t use to think that a specialisation in a particular discipline would work for me. Also, even though I can draw and play with type, I can’t really do clean editorial work, and I have no clue about choosing the right paper or using any different methods of printing. I’m just doing what I can with the skills I have.
After graduating, you worked a few different jobs and then went to the Netherlands for a Master’s. Why did you want to study at the KABK?
There were a number of reasons. For one, as I mentioned before, at Geidai you can try a lot of different things but you never specialise. 15 There might be students there who teach themselves in a particular discipline, but even in the Master’s degree there isn’t a specialised design curriculum. It’s good to have a lot of freedom to explore while you’re studying, but the lack of specialisation can mean that after graduation, some students are left thinking that success has nothing to do with hard work and is just up to ‘natural talent’.
When I started applying for Master’s courses, I also looked at the Werkplaats Typografie programme 16 but the reason I wanted to do Type & Media at the KABK is that I had a real complex about my lack of expertise in type design, and the course there is very specialised. By contrast, the Werkplaats is really research-oriented and I’d heard that the teaching is quite loosely structured – similar to Geidai. In that way, the KABK was spot on for me, and I ended up getting rejected by the Werkplaats in any case.
Another reason that I decided to go to the KABK is just that I was interested in the Netherlands – in architectural firms like OMA 17 and MVRDV 18 or in the thinking behind Droog’s designs. 19 I felt like it was very far from the naivety which I dislike about myself and so I was curious to learn about visual design in that kind of environment.
How was the transition for you when you first started?
At the beginning, even though I seemed quite nerdy I wasn’t anything close to an expert on type, and I actually had no in-depth experience in any area. At the time, I’d look at my architect friends who I felt were properly qualified for what they did, with specialised knowledge, skills and certifications – I felt like they could look at objects in a way that no one else could, that architecture was a true ‘profession’ – and, compared to them, I’d feel really ashamed by what I was doing. And then, typography seemed to me like something that involved even more expertise than architecture, since type designers don’t work with wood or steel but with data.
Even though the KABK ended up being great, I was clearly under-prepared when I first started. I’d always wanted to work on type design but I had to begin without knowing some of the most important things, like how fonts are actually created. I used to feel like other type designers were mocking me when I’d talk about my interest in letters… I still feel that way today. But I decided to take control of the situation and become a credible type designer. In this way, my year at KABK was a massive challenge. The programme was only a year long so I could only learn the most fundamental elements, but I feel I got a really good grounding in type design.
What specifically did you learn about font-making at the KABK?
Before I started working with type, I didn’t think that anything so complicated as digital fonts could actually be made by humans. You type something, letters pop out and you can even print what you’ve typed – I couldn’t imagine how every single part of a font could be designed by somebody’s own hands. However, once I started getting into it, I realised how people fit in behind the work. I understood that in order to design fonts, you need huge amounts of knowledge – you need to think about ‘textures’ of type or how characters work together as a whole. As well as that, at the KABK I got a solid understanding of the engineering behind the production of fonts. It made me realise how basic my understanding of type design was until then.
Before I started working with type, I didn’t think that anything so complicated as digital fonts could actually be made by humans.
What did you think before?
I used to think that the fonts we see around us were the rare ones that had completed some kind of review or fulfilled certain standards, but ever since I’ve been studying fonts, I’ve started spotting faults in them and I’m realising that there are real people behind the fonts, who made these decisions about them. It’s not actually as simple as someone saying “if it’s like this, it’s okay to distribute” and I learnt that making a high quality product involves combining different ways of doing things.
I think this is important and it’s one of the ways that I’m gradually becoming less ignorant. It’s not the case for everything in the world, but a lot of the things that we see every day are designed and created by actual people and I’m beginning to realise that I am one of those people. So instead of just letting things happen when designing and hoping it works out, I believe that it should be the basic principle of any professional to remember that the quality of the end product is directly related to the work you put in when creating it.
Do you often reflect on the interaction between the font designer and the user when you’re working on a typeface?
Even when I do take this into account, I’m still quite inexperienced and I don’t know how to properly plan my work, so it doesn’t mean a lot... *laughs* When I was making fonts during my Master’s, I never really thought anything like “I’m going to sell this font, and I want everyone to use it!” I was mostly just trying to make it as beautiful as possible from my point of view and avoiding the type of things I don’t like – it was very personal. If anything, I’m so overwhelmed when I’m working that I’m probably not thinking much at all... *laughs* That’s why even though I was working super seriously, I’d often end up with strange fonts.
Thinking Beyond Type Design
Can you elaborate on what you mean by your design process being “very personal”?
What I think about when I’m designing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with design. In terms of typography, for example, I might be thinking of Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs 20 or about kanjis, 21 text and sets of characters. But I also reflect on my everyday life, what is or isn’t ‘modern’, what’s differentiating me from people of my generation or what is ‘stereotypical’.
When I do client work, it’s exciting because they will have concerns or ambitions for the project that I can’t always relate to. Every client is unique, too - you need to reflect on the individual specificities and needs of who you’re working with. Because of that, I try to put my personal interests to one side when I’m working with a client. Not everyone does this, but I think it’s essential.
Does that mean that you completely separate your client work from your own thoughts and interests?
I can’t work on stuff I’m not interested in so it’s not so clear cut. I find that two things that initially seem different can actually have many similarities – when you look at them from another perspective, after a while, you begin to see those two different, separate entities as one. So my work for clients and my own interests often seem very different, but converge in unusual ways.
I was taught that design should be conceptual, so, for example, when I was working with a Chinese entrepreneur on the visual identity of a restaurant’s brand, I approached it conceptually, by assigning a particular meaning to the brand and to my design, but to this client the concept made no sense. I consider working conceptually to be a kind of methodology in itself, so in any given scenario you can make decisions based on the concept. The client thought differently and told me “at the moment, since we have this we’ll use it, but only for now” and he ended up literally changing the core of the business. Also, he kept on marketing the business without any consideration for what the value, ideology or background to the organisation was, and to me, that made it really difficult to grasp what the core of their branding should be. I mean, it’s not that I couldn’t grasp it but it just didn’t exist at all, and that didn’t even seem like a problem to the client. It seemed like the entire business was based on a series of decisions responding to changing situations. In other words, as the client had no vision or identity for the business, the ‘base’ which is necessary to build up a conceptual idea for the brand was completely nonexistent.
In this kind of situation, the original intent to make a coherent brand becomes irrelevant – it’s world where a logo that I took time on could have a lifetime of only a few months, if that. And as logos in China might age completely differently compared to logos made in Europe, it made no sense to adopt an European design approach – designing using one font with a certain image – because it ends up as more of a burden on the designer. This raises the question of “what would be a non-European, China-friendly way to represent a brand identity through type design?” which not only means taking typographic issues into account but also combining this with awareness of the unique business environment in China.
It’s surprising to see a designer remain so positive in what you might call an unstable situation. Are you someone who enjoys these kinds of challenges?
I think so. I don’t get discouraged by these situations in themselves, only when I’m not able to find effective solutions. I feel privileged that I’m able to deal with these issues which are so unique to today’s interconnected world, and within a framework that allows me to take responsibility for what I create. Actually, graphic design and branding were originally imported to Japan and China from Europe and North America, in the hope that they would work for businesses in the East too, and even though these Western branding strategies have been implemented widely and well, people are only beginning now to realise that they’re just not as effective in these societies. So, instead of being like “China is such a strange country, they’re so random, you can’t really work with them”, realising that we live in a world where there are different value systems and schools of thought makes me feel very lucky to be able to reflect on such complex issues.
Why do you think it is that you enjoy that kind of scenario?
It might be to do with having read so many books by Rem Koolhaas, 22 who says that contemporary architects are designing in a old-fashioned way that hasn’t fundamentally changed since the days of architects working on cathedrals or large art museums. If these people looked at the current state of our world’s urban space with more honesty, they might be a little less idealistic in their practice. I think this also applies to designers – they don’t think that it’s their responsibility to work within contemporary reality, they find it grotesque. But this should be the best bit about what we do.
Koolhaas has also commented on branding. Broadly speaking, he says that as making a logo involving a fixed image is less free, we need a more flexible branding method that takes into account different contradictions and changes that might take place. He says that the Anglophone branding method that has been widely used until now isn’t always appropriate anymore. 23 He wasn’t explicitly talking about typography but I do think it also applies to type.
Tezzo’s Unique Online Portfolio
When you present your work on your website, you always reveal your references and inspirations, which is very unique. 24 Is this your way of making your work as transparent as possible?
I’m not really trying to be transparent. I have to say, I’m ordinarily quite sceptical about how effective group brainstormings are for generating new ideas, because – and I know this contradicts what I said earlier about forming cults and being in your own head – I do feel like the way an idea is born should be kept mysterious. When I come up with something, that spark is most probably inspired by some kind of input, but what happens between the input and the output is completely private to me, something that no one else can know. And I don’t really know myself either to be honest – it’s like it’s all happening “in a grove”. 25
By showing my references on my website, at the beginning I was trying to challenge that and demonstrate that I am constantly confronting my own ideas with ‘the world outside’ and generating new ideas through doing that. But, thinking about it now, if I’m only showing the input and the output, maybe that just reveals how hidden my process is…
I’m an individual, and the references I choose to reveal reflect my upbringing, lifestyle and personality. [...] This shows that design is a human process – it’s not something that can be imitated by machines.
But is there a kind of satisfaction in revealing the start and end of your working process, without the steps in-between?
Exactly! I do get a slight feeling of satisfaction being able to say “I started with this, and I ended up with that. You couldn’t really do the same though, huh?” It’s not about my skills at all. I’m an individual, and the references I choose to reveal reflect my upbringing, lifestyle and personality – so does the process I take when designing. To me, this shows that design is a human process – it’s not something that can be imitated by machines or computer programmes. Who knows though? Maybe artificial intelligence will catch up soon...
As we’ve discussed, you’re a pretty versatile designer. Have you considered taking your design into different media?
I have been for a very long time. Especially when I was at university, I always thought that I was being superficial with my graphic design work. I feel much more down-to-earth when working with tangible objects, maybe that’s why I tend to trust and respect architects. I’d love to work with loads of different media in the future – fabric, 3D objects – as well as trying more ‘abstract’ things like writing or education. I can’t do it all on my own, but I’m interested in web design too.
Lastly, more generally speaking, is there anything you aspire to in the near future, or looking further ahead?
For a few years now, I’ve been really into fashion. When you work with a number of different projects independent to each other you can get easily distracted, but what I find appealing about the fashion industry is the idea of focusing on the relationship between the brand and its creative director, like Raf Simons with Dior before he left, 26 or Jonathan Anderson and Loewe 27. I’d love to try that out if I had the opportunity, even though as a graphic designer by discipline, I don’t really know what that would entail…
- Tezzo designed the cover of a Japanese manga by Natsuko Ishitsuyo published in January 2017 called Majutsushi A. ↩
- Tezzo recently contributed his design skills to a property located in Aoba-ku, Yokohama managed by MOKU-CHIN KIKAKU, a non-profit based in Tokyo. More photos available here. ↩
- Tezzo often collaborates with website designers Kai Ito and hydekick (Hideki Yoshimatsu). Tezzo and Kai, for example, worked together on kooo architects’ website. ↩
- In Japanese, a rōnin is someone who takes time out to study after high school, having been rejected from their top choice universities. While most take only one additional year to get accepted, some who are aiming to get into Japan’s best universities may decide to remain a rōnin for several years. ↩
- One of the few public art universities in Japan, the Tokyo University of the Arts is also amongst the most prestigious art schools in the country. It has nurtured some of Japan’s greatest talent, including composer Sakamoto Ryuichi and artists Tarō Okamoto and Takashi Murakami. ↩
- Tempura is a Japanese speciality which consists of deep frying ingredients, mostly vegetables or seafood. It is often served over soba (buckwheat noodles) as tempura soba or on top of a rice ball as tendon. For London-based tempura fans, the Koya Bar in Soho is a must-visit. ↩
- Kengo Kuma & Associates is an architectural studio established by world-renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, pictured below. Some of their most famous works include the Great Bamboo Wall Guest House in Beijing, the Nezu Museum in Tokyo and the Garden Terrace Hotel in Nagasaki. Kengo Kuma & Associates have also been selected to design the New National Stadium, the venue for track and field events at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. ↩
- The Royal Academy of Art, or Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (KABK) in Dutch, is a higher education institution in the Netherlands offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in art and design disciplines. It is renowned for its Master’s course in Type & Media. ↩
- Hikikomori, a social phenomenon originating in Japan, is defined by the Japanese Ministry of Health as “isolating yourself for more than six months in your own house without going to work or school and without any human interaction apart from with family.” The government estimated in 2010 that there were around 700,000 individuals living as hikikomori, with an average age of thirty-one. Social and cultural pressures from school and work are the reasons most often cited for this extreme form of self-isolation. This BBC Magazine article from 2013, available here, explains the phenomenon. ↩
- Tezzo was indeed recently interviewed by Idea magazine for their 377th issue, called 'Sprout of Japanese graphic design ─ Attitudes of 21 young designers'. As well as Tezzo's, we also love Tadashi Ueda, Toru Kase and Ryuto Miyake’s work, featured in the same issue. ↩
- Tsutomu Miyazaki is a Japanese man found guilty of the murder of four young girls aged between four and seven years old in the late eighties. His crimes were particularly gruesome – he was accused not only of homicide but also cannibalism and necrophilia. Following his arrest, he was sentenced to death and was hanged in June 2008. ↩
- Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese doomsday cult formed in 1984 by Shoko Asahara (pictured below) and dismantled in 2000. It was formally recognised as a terrorist organisation by several countries including the United States, Canada and Russia. One of their most notorious crimes, the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, remains the deadliest attack in Japan since the end of WWII, where members of the cult released a lethal gas on three tube lines during rush hour, killing thirteen people and injuring many more. The language, technology and communication tactics used by Aum Shinrikyo to attract people to the cause and brainwash its members is strikingly similar to the activities of ISIS today – even one of the cult’s most powerful former leaders, Fumihiro Joyu, made the comparison in a 2015 interview with the Tokyo Weekender. Using professional video production and storytelling to appeal to new recruits, Aum Shinrikyo even went as far as creating anime (as you can see in the opening scene below) to spread their message. ↩
- The Tama Art University, also known as Tamabi, is a private art university located in Japan. Illustrator Kazami Suzuki, who we have previously interviewed, is a recent graduate from Tamabi. ↩
- The Tokyo University of the Arts is often colloquially called Geidai. ↩
- Tezzo has lamented this lack of specialisation at the Tokyo University of the Arts in recent tweets; after attending the 2017 Department of Design graduation show, he tweeted “The Department of Design was the worst amongst all of the work. It hasn’t changed since I left.” ↩
- The Werkplaats Typografie is the name of a Master’s degree offered by the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts. It was founded by the famous Dutch graphic designer and typographer, Karel Martens. The Werkplaats also organises an annual summer school in collaboration with another design school, the ISIA in Urbino, Italy. ↩
- OMA, which stands for the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is an architectural firm based in Rotterdam, founded in 1975 by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas with the Greek architect Elia Zenghelis. Amongst their most renowned works are the Seattle Central Library, a concert hall in Porto called Casa da Música (pictured below), the China Central Television (CCTV) HQ, and the freshly relocated Design Museum in London. See below for an interview with Koolhaas where he describes his approach with OMA, his interest in Asia, his work for CCTV in Beijing and his past career as a journalist. ↩
- MVRDV is an architectural firm based in Rotterdam, founded in 1993 by Nathalie de Vries with Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs, both of whom worked at OMA before leaving to create their own firm. Well-known MVRDV works include the Dutch Pavilion at the 2000 Hannover World Exhibition Expo (pictured above), the Matsudai Cultural Centre in Niigata Prefecture, and an unusual ‘market hall’, combining housing and shopping into a monumental arch in Rotterdam. See below for a video of MVRDV’s partners talking about their approach to their architectural work. ↩
- Droog is a Dutch design company founded in 1993 and located in Amsterdam, which collaborates with independent designers to create products, projects, exhibitions and events. They stand out for their conceptual approach, with designs that are inspired by subjective ideas and stories. See below for a video where Droog explains this unique design philosophy. ↩
- Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a French philosopher who influenced the development of different schools of thought such as structuralism, semiotics and post-structuralism in the late fifties and early sixties. After being challenged by peers including Jacques Derrida, Barthes travelled to Japan in search of what he thought of as the limitations of signs and symbols, but also to contemplate the Western dependence on constancy. Barthes compiled his thoughts and ideas from his time in Japan in Empire of Signs, first published in 1970. Another seminal work by Barthes is Camera Lucida, first published in 1980, a classic for photographers in which Barthes theorised the nature and essence of photography. ↩
- The Japanese writing system consists of three different scripts: hiragana, katakana and kanji. While hiraganas and katakanas are both made up of forty-five to fifty characters, kanjis officially contains around 50,000 characters – though only about 3000 of these are commonly used. ↩
- Rem Koolhaas (born November 1944) is a Dutch architect and a founding member of Rotterdam-based architectural firm OMA (for more information about OMA, refer to the 17th footnote). He also co-founded the architectural magazine, Volume. Tezzo read S,M,L,XL written by Koolhaas with Canadian designer Bruce Mau. He also read The Construction of Merveilles, about Koolhaas and OMA, which was written by Roberto Gargiani. Tezzo also finds Koolhaas’s suggestions about architecture in China, as explained in this talk, very interesting, especially his idea for the Prada store in Shanghai. ↩
- Tezzo showed us a 2014 article by Koolhaas from the Architectural Review, where he writes that “The Anglo-Saxon version of branding means you try to reduce something to its essence and then ram that essence down everyone’s throat. And at a certain time, that essence becomes a prison and you cannot change anything. But maybe there are also more subtle forms of branding that are based on contradiction or unpredictability.” ↩
- Take a look at Tezzo’s website to find out what we mean. As you’ll see, for each project, Tezzo lists his references and inspirations in the right-hand column. All of the references Tezzo uses are compiled in this Tumblr. ↩
- The popular Japanese expression ‘in a grove’ (yabu no naka, or 藪の中) refers to a short story written by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, a famous Japanese writer who lived in the early twentieth century. Along with Rashōmon, In a Grove is one of Akutagawa’s best known works, and the short story’s name has been adopted into the Japanese language, used to indicate a situation where the truth is hidden. The short story, which describes in three differing accounts the murder of a samurai, is renowned for the way in which each section gradually complicates the reader’s knowledge of events, casting doubt on the idea of objective truths. ↩
- Raf Simons is a Belgian fashion designer, well-known for his work at German fashion house Jil Sander up until 2012, when he left to become Creative Director at Christian Dior, staying until 2015. Today, he runs his eponymous fashion label which he launched in 1995, as well as working for Calvin Klein, where he was appointed Chief Creative Officer in August 2016. See below for Simons’ first collection for Dior, Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2012. ↩
- Jonathan Anderson is creative director of Loewe, a Spanish fashion house, since 2013. Born in Northern Ireland, he studied menswear at the London College of Fashion. He also has his own brand, J.W. Anderson, which he established in 2008. See below for a video of the designer discussing his work with Loewe. ↩
This interview was posted on 17 May 2017 and was originally conducted in Japanese.
Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Translation (Japanese to English):
Translation (English to Japanese):
Special Thanks to Calum Bowen.