Interview: Sachiko Kuwabata

This month TGD interviews Sachiko Kuwabata. Sachiko has a broad design background across print, branding and digital.

She relocated to Seattle 10 years ago and has some great insights into the differences between working in Japan and the United States. Enjoy!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Sachi, I’m a visual communication consultant. Just about one month ago, I’ve been living in Seattle for about 10 years now.
I’ve worked at handful of different places as a designer in the past 12 years, both in Japan and Seattle, including small design agencies, non profit organizations (including TEDxTokyo through an agency in Tokyo called Eat Creative), IT/software development and e-commerce company (such Amazon). Projects within them vary quite a bit too, but if I make a chronography, I’ve started to work as graphic designer with branding and print projects for the first few years, then slowly transitioned toward the designs for digital format.

First few years after graduation, I was working for a small agency as a designer. There I learned a lot of how to be a designer here, from project kick off, concept creation, design execution, press check, presentation. I was the only designer there under the creative director, so I was his army and he taught me everything. It was such a great experience and I can not be happier. After that, I took a job at Microsoft gig as a contractor next few years. I worked on Windows Phone team, Fuse Labs, and MSN team. All different product but cross boundary team. It was a great experience to learn how to design for different platforms, Mobile, Tablet, and Web. Working with interaction designers, UX designers, and engineering team gave me a different perspective while designing UI/Visuals. How to communicate within those team is really critical as well.

Just recently, I started to work for a software product company in downtown Seattle to join a new and small design team to rebrand their B2B product completely. The product I will be re-branding will be a Project Portfolio Management software. So this is an exciting opportunity for me to be a part of long term brand development and deeply involved in Visual, Interaction, UX, as well as branding and user research and data analysis.

What work did you do before moving abroad?

I started my career as a promo/marketing coordinator for a interior/construction company right after the graduation. I was there to communicate with designers, photographers, branding/marketing company people to coordinate photoshoot of the projects, order brochures, banners and other print materials. I remember that I’ve always wanted to be on the other side and be the one who designs those. After 3 years, I made up my mind and quit the job, went to school to study graphic design and application. Since then, I have been working as a designer for both diverse application.

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

I have always enjoyed experiencing different cultures from around the world. And I guess I was simply curious how it’s like to be a part of their community and to be working within them while I have different cultural background. I wanted try and live and bring back and force each other’s cultural influences between where-ever I am at and my home Japan. I believe these experiences of working abroad itself would be a part of me and my skill as a designer.

Tell us about your experiences and challenges of working outside Japan as a designer.

Language: I have always been, and still am aware that English is not my first language and that is a really basic level to be catching up before professional skills.

You are expected to speak out your opinions.
In the USA, if you hold your opinions, no one will notice.

Cultural differences: I think the hardest part is the way to carry communications. You are expected to speak out your opinions. I know this could be a tricky part for Japanese people as we think it’s a cultural beauty to communicate emotions and opinions softly and indirectly. But here in the USA, if you hold your opinions, no one will notice.
This means you need to be ready to communicate your thoughts with reasons behind it to convince the team if you feel strongly about what’s right or not. On the other hand, the environment at work is quite flexible and relaxed. They take importance in “life” as much as they think about “work” so the balance of life/work is pretty great. Some people would come in to work at 6am in order to carpool with their partners or to avoid traffic etc.

Tell us about your typical day at work?

My day starts from grinding coffee beans, making myself a cup of pour over. I live within the city so I usually take a bus or if sunny, walk to work, which I really enjoy having less stress commuting to work. If you have the ability to chose where you live, I strongly suggest to live closer to where you work.
As Stefan Sagmeister said, long commute lowers the happiness in life!

At work, we usually start by having morning “stand ups” to catch up with everyone’s work status to keep everyone’s work visible, a common way software development team work as agile. After a set of stand ups, I start making iteration of designs and often I walk to the dev team’s desk and touch base as we go.
I leave around 6pm, usually by then the office is pretty empty. Everyone has time to go home and eat dinner with their family and relax, do personal projects etc this way.

What do you think about the culture of the American graphic design industry? How does it compare to the industry in Japan?

I feel that it’s largely dominated by what’s currently in style here in USA. Also, a lot of times, the design carries the cultural background behind it. For example, taking the jokes from the past or lyrics from particular song and make it into some sort of parody style in design, if that makes sense.

Especially in ads, humor can be really important to draw attentions it seems. But there’s a fundamental rules of “good” typography, the use of negative space, and also the wave of experimental wave as well. In one way, they break rules intentionally. But when it comes to that, Japanese graphic design is really creative and free. Japanese design also reflects the cultural scene of the era, but also there is always the history and customs that has been carried from hundreds and sou.

What would you like to change about the Japanese design industry?

I think Japanese graphic designs are really creative, concepts of the projects are really well put together and have interesting ideas behind their designs.

As an industry, I feel that it is sometimes a hard place to continue especially as you get older to keep the life/work balance. It is an interesting point to see to me, as I see agencies in USA and a lot of them, even when they are busy, they could maintain the balance of it a lot better.

Do you feel the Japanese design industry is different compared to when you left Japan?

I feel like a lot of designs are getting more sophisticated. So much cleaner, and also I see so many great custom Japanese fonts. This really pleases me.

Japanese designers are so great about creating unique and somewhat abstract kanji and hiragana typefaces for title/logo uses. Sometimes the shape and style of one character can speak the world of product and concept itself. I think it’s absolutely amazing and unique to the Japanese language. It feels new and contemporary but at the same time it feels classic.

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

It maybe just the exposure to the different culture, and to getting to know how people think, communicate, and feel in different countries. And by learning differences between Japan and America, I felt like I started to understand my own culture better.

Stepping outside allowed me to see where I was standing before clearly.Design is a way of communication, problem solving, so understanding these cultural matters and customs and behaviors of people really is a strength as a designer I think and that is what I gained.

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

Never be shy about asking. Even if you have to ask twice or three times. It is not an embarrassing thing to not know about something. It is more important to go with your curiosity, get excited about learning, be engaged and ask many questions.
Your passion will be communicated to the people around you and I am sure this will excite people around you.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

It would be fun if I could be working on some projects to create bridge between Japan and where I live. Project that helps people in Japan and outside to understand each other.

That is not to be limited within design, but more so, life and experience and cultural matters. My life and what I’ve learned and how I lived and what ideas I have reflects things I produce, regardless of if it’s design, or food, or friendship, or even my personality. If I could create something that helps people to gain new ideas, discovering new things, or connect themselves to something new and great, it would be my honor.

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

When weather is good, I spend time taking advantage of great Northwest. Going on hikes, swim in the lake near my apartment, have a picnic with friends.

Sometimes, I go walking down the street to go see galleries and small shops my friends run. There’s always someone there to chat and it’s good to feel connected and celebrate the community.

I also am into cooking in the last few years. When I think about cooking, I think about what’s the theme, what to cook, who to invite, how to decorate etc. I feel like the process of this has a similarity in the process of creating designs. Also cooking and dinner time is a really fun way to spend time with friends too.


Thank you Sachiko, we wish the best luck for your career and we hope to see you sometime in Tokyo to join TGD meet ups.

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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