Interview – Mike Sheetal

Founder and Director of innovative Creative Agency, UltraSuperNew K.K.

We are proud to present the first interview of TGD!
Mike Sheetal – Founder and CEO of UltraSuperNew K.K. Tokyo!
Based in Japan since 2002, his career has spanned design, animation,
television, digital media, advertising and art.

My name is Mike Sheetal, Founder and CEO (Representative Director) of UltraSuperNew K.K., a creative agency founded in Tokyo in 2007.

I have been in Japan since 2002 after growing up in Australia, most recently, Sydney.

What work did you do before moving to Japan?

I worked in the animation Industry running a motion capture studio producing animation for TV Commercials, Games, films and interactive content.
I also kept busy by creating art (digital, installation), VJing and producing film clips.

What main reasons made you want to live and work in Japan?

The idea of the challenge of something new.
Ever since working on a series of Japanese TV Commercials for Toyota back in 1998, I had a feeling that the oddness of Japanese communication was something I needed to investigate more.
After traveling to Japan in 2000, I experienced a feeling of freedom in being enveloped in new ways of doing and new ways of seeing the world.

Everything you learn in the West in design and culture needs to be reconsidered for Japan.

Tell us about your experiences and challenges of working in Tokyo.

I have been very lucky to fall into some great learning experiences and then being able to implement what I learnt.
My early years in Japan were spent getting experience in a number of different areas, from TV programs, to VJing at night clubs, to web design, and art.
What it taught me is that
1) Everything you learn in the West in design and culture needs to be reconsidered for Japan.
2) What you learn in the West, can actually have some value for being different.
3) Don’t try to design in a Japanese way, you will always be playing catch up… better to learn how to add some new touches to your design approach to make it relevant in Japan.

What do you feel about the culture of Tokyo’s/Japan’s graphic design industry? How does it compare to the industry in your home country?

Japan has a more structured approach to design. Seniority is important and value is placed on output rather than ideas. That’s not to say that Japanese design is without ideas, there are some absolutely amazing designers at the top level, its just getting paid at the idea level is not how the Industry is structured.

What would you like to change about the Japanese design industry?
Do you feel is different compared to 13 years ago?

I think we try to do what we can to change the Industry already at UltraSuperNew. Focus on the idea more, give responsibility based on skills rather than seniority, and have an eye on the rest of the world to bring in inspiration.

Since 13 years ago when I arrived, the technologies used have evolved a bit but the Industry seems much the same.

The biggest difference can probably be seen with the awareness that Japanese design and advertising can be appreciated outside Japan or by incoming tourists, meaning the global awareness is improving. This is likely because of the upcoming Olympics and the increasee in tourism due to the weak yen, especially from China.

Japanese design industry behaviours are changing, just few days ago I had chance to listen to a talk from the CEO of a Japanese startup saying they embrace the european culture of “not working overtime”. He believe people need to commit into the established working time. What do you think about that, will the Japanese word “Zangyou”
(Japanese for “working overtime”) disappear from their vocabulary?

It’s a difficult balance in Japan to try to achieve an office without zangyou. Zangyou is somewhat based in a built in attitude of responsibility (a trait to be admired) and difficulty in saying no to a Japanese client if you want to keep the work.
Japan also has a long standing culture of spending social time around work relationships, which we don’t have as strong in the west, which we can’t discount as part of the long hours.

How has working in Tokyo influenced you as a Designer? What new skills and insights have you gained from working here?

Actually, I don’t design so much these days since I have a team who is better than I ever was, but I have developed strong views on aspects of design for the Japanese market. At the heart of it all, gaining insights is critical to any design or creative, and everything we do starts with that.

“Don’t get stuck doing something you are not happy doing.”

What advice can you give to other designers who want to live and work in Japan. What do you wish you knew about working in Japan before you moved here?

The same advice I would give to anyone looking to make any decision.
Ask yourself, “will I learn something new?”, “will I see new places?” and “am I excited about that?” When the answer to all 3 is Yes, you should do everything you can to do it earlier than later.
Practically, living in Japan isn’t free, so you will need work. But its also not as expensive as you may have thought. Come with some savings.
And finally, don’t get stuck doing something you are not happy doing. If you can’t get the full time job straight away, design in your spare time freelance or personal projects.

I agree. Last two questions.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Hopefully my company is a little bigger and still doing great work.

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any personal projects you would like to share with the community?

My personal projects are my two daughters, and they take most of my spare time. And that’s not a bad way to spend time off. I am getting really good with crayons again.
My work, I am able to express through my day at the office, our company website is a mark of pride for me for all the great projects we have made over 8+ years.
Apart from that, I am an obsessive learner. Recently I have been teaching myself Unity.

Do you have anything else you would like to share?

Japan has some amazing technologists… they are some of the most inspiring in the world.
Eg. Ochiai-san sound wave levitation

Thank you so much for your time Mike, it’s definitely an interesting contribution for people who aim to move here!

Have a look of UltraSuperNew K.K. website to understand how incredible is the work they do and eventually check out their recruit page 😉

Good job Mike, hope to talk you soon again!

Riccardo Parenti

Italian. Art Director, interaction design enthusiast, occasionally photographer. Riccardo is the founder the TGD community, starting the LinkedIn group when he first moved to Japan in 2010. He is also a volunteer for Behance Tokyo. He loves to spend his free time seeking and exploring abandoned buildings in the Japanese countryside.

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