Interview – Jerome Senaillat

Summer is on the way out here in Tokyo with nothing but rain for the last two weeks…
But, Autumn is something to look forward to in this city with the humidity clearing and seasonal colours coming in. We’re kicking it off with a great interview, Jerome Senaillat, a French graphic designer who has been living and working in Japan for almost 10 years.

Drawing on his impressive experience working at both Ultra Super New and more recently at the Google Brand Studio, Jerome shares with us some great insights into working in Japan, process, and working closely with Japanese agencies.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Jérôme Sénaillat and I am from France. I work as a Senior Designer at Google Japan’s Brand Studio. I have been living here [in Japan] since 2006.

What kind of work did you do before moving to Japan?

I worked mostly as an illustrator/web designer/art director, switching from print to digital depending on clients needs. I also spent some time in the gaming industry, crafting pixel art for devices with limited display abilities.

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

Both my grandfather and my father were in love with Japan, which they visited many times, so it felt quite natural for me to visit the country. I came here with a Working Holiday visa, and at the time I was only planning to stay one year. One thing lead to another and it will soon be ten years… There is something in the Japanese landscape, from street signs to food, that is very appealing for people with a visual sensibility, I guess this is one of the reasons why I stayed.

What did you think working in Japan would be like before moving here? Was it different to what it’s actually like?

I believe that accident, improvisation – are part of the creative process, and this is something that can be hard to find when working with a local team.

I had heard about the very different work ethics and the long work hours, but did not have much preconceptions before actually starting to work here. What struck me at first is the importance of the process aspect of a given project, which can be sometimes even more important than the result of the project itself. I believe that accident, improvisation – are part of the creative process, and this is something that can be hard to find when working with a local team. On the opposite side, the work culture is very inclusive, you can really feel that you are part of a team.

In Japan you have worked with both Japanese design studios and international design studios, what are the pros and cons to both?

My experience was that, as a foreigner, it might be difficult to actually reach a level where you have significant responsibilities in a Japanese company, since it relies as much on your social skills – going on nomikai, company trips, non-verbal communication etc. – than on your actual work skills. You have to be able to “read the air” (kuuki wo yomu) to anticipate the reactions of the people around you, avoid confrontation etc. – or sometimes do the exact opposite, since as a foreigner it might be precisely what is expected from you…
Another thing is that there aren’t many Japanese agencies which have a really integrated approach to design.
A project tends to be split between several layers of contractors, each responsible for a small part of the project. You end up with little sense of ownership on your work, especially on the lowest levels. International studios, especially if they brand themselves as international, tend to have more control on the creative process itself: fewer cooks in the kitchen.

How did you find working with a creative agency like Ultra Super New (USN)? What were some of the challenges of working with international brands in the Japanese market?

When I joined USN the company was really young (hence the name), and there was much of a startup vibe to it, which I really liked. We really had to create things from scratch, from our process to the way we chose to pitch ideas to potential clients.
As a young, mostly foreign agency, it can be difficult to compete directly with the local players, which have scale, a big network, and know the market very well. On the other hand, it could give you an edge when working with international clients : instead of having to go through several layers of contractors, you can communicate directly with your client, which they tend to appreciate (I understand that even better now I am on the client side). It is also easier to understand what they are trying to communicate and what they stand for.

You moved on to Google (we’re seriously jealous) in 2010. How do you find working with such an influential company?

I joined Google just when they decided to invest more in design and UX. At the time I remember wondering why they hired me (I even asked that during my interviews), since I had no engineering background and knew just enough to put myself into trouble. The first months were a bit chaotic, since there was no formal process to evaluate/assess design work, and I had to work with engineering tools more (hello, command line tool) often than not. It was also the first time in my life that I worked in a “big” company, with offices everywhere in the world. Since then things have been normalized a lot, and we now have a fully-functional, distributed, design team.
Although the company is big, the “Google way” tends to value independence and self-empowerment in their employees, which I really like. It means that if you actually want to do something, you just go and do it – then it’s up to you to manage to sell it internally.

Do you get much exposure to the global business while working in Japan? How do you find explaining the differences and challenges of the Japanese market to global interests?

I work on projects for the whole Asia Pacific region: Japan of course, but also Korea, Thailand, India, Philippines, Australia… It can be challenging sometimes, since all these countries speak different languages and have very different cultures and socio-economical backgrounds – In Europe there are also a bunch of different cultures and languages, but there is much more overlap, so you can often get away with simple localization. In Asia you often have to build totally different concepts from scratch for every locale, something that does not necessarily scale well. You also have to explain the local context to your stakeholders, each time, who might (or might not) understand it. Something like humor, for example, is really specific to a culture, and is very difficult to convey to someone who didn’t grow up in said context (or at least experienced it a bit).

How does working in-house at a place like Google differ to working in an agency such as USN?

I was used to working in startups and small to medium companies, so obviously the scale is different. We have more tools and resources. Projects have more impact. On the downside, there are probably more office politics too… Not being in the same office, or even the same country, as the people making the strategic decisions also influences the way you work.
Moving from an agency to the client side gives you a bit of a different perspective. Suddenly you realize why the decision process is not always smooth, why deadlines are shifted, why budgets suddenly disappear – and sometimes reappear. It’s good to be able to see things both ways.

What can you tell us about the culture of the Tokyo/Japanese graphic design industry?
How does it compare to your home country?

There is a lot of subcontracting happening in the industry here. That could be frustrating sometimes, since you cannot always directly talk to your client, and a lot of the feedback gets lost – sometimes in translation too. There are super good designers here, but they are not always the best at selling their own work, and they do not necessarily get the credit that they deserve.
The language barrier, and the “hyper-insularity” of the country are still real things too, so there are fewer connections between local designers and their foreign colleagues – which can be a good thing too, in a globalized world where things tend to look the same everywhere you go.
I also appreciate the “artisan” mentality of Japanese creators, who often have a lot of humility despite the quality of their work.

Do you think there is anything that should change in the Japanese design industry?

I wish there would be more full-service, independent, small boutique agencies that were wishing to create crazy work and take more risks.

The way agencies work, with only two or three big agencies taking most of the work, and more and more concentration, tends to encourage uniformization of what is produced. I wish there would be more full-service, independent, small boutique agencies that were wishing to create crazy work and take more risks. There is definitely a market for that.
Also I’d like to see more quality digital work – not just visual design but interactive, engaging, ambitious works. Things are still pretty much focused on TV, with digital being a second thought.

How has the Japanese design industry changed since you first started?

I think that there is more interest towards design (in a wide sense) from the general population, with TV shows like Design-Ah on the NHK, that teaches design principles to young kids and their parents alike. Internet too, made design related things more accessible.
Another thing is that the country is becoming more and more international (well, at least in Tokyo). There are more discussions ongoing regarding the specifics of Japanese design, its places in the world, and what foreigners could contribute. Things are moving slowly, but they are moving!

Can you tell us your usual working day?

I usually start between 9 and 11am, depending on my schedule for the day. I work with different countries, so there might be some time difference, which means I sometimes have meetings at strange hours. My work is split between what we produce in-house – usually branding campaigns for one or several countries in the area, in tandem with local marketers – and support to local agencies: how to make things look and feel like Google, while keeping local cultural specifics intact. Lunch is often in the office, even if we try to get outside from time to time. I usually leave between 18 and 20h – except on friday when it’s TGIF 🙂

How has living and working in Tokyo influenced your work and you as a designer?

From a pure design perspective, I think it made my designs simpler, hopefully more to the point. I used to be into oil painting, with a lot of texture and crazy fauvist colors, now I like to work from much simpler shapes. But that will probably change again someday.
From a career perspective, I hope it has made me more of a team player 🙂 . Having to explain design decisions in a language that is not mine, to someone who has no idea of what is the context behind is also helpful to articulate things in a simpler way, and ultimately, to communicate better.

What advice can you offer to other designers who want to live and work in Japan.

This might sound obvious, but learn Japanese! Even if you are not fluent, it will be super helpful to communicate with folks around you, and find some clients. Many people speak English (even if they sometimes pretend they don’t), but feel more comfortable talking with you if they know you understand a bit of their language. As a friend of mine used to say, speaking Japanese in Japan is not an advantage, it’s a lack of inconvenience – so start by leveling up.
Other advice would be not to mimic the work of Japanese designers: your strong point is that you are *not* from here, have your own specific themes and sensibilities – that is going to be your selling point. When you have your own unique style, see how you could use it around themes that could speak to local people here.

Do you have any personal projects or anything else you would like to share with the TGD community?

There are couple of things I have been working on on the side.
The first one is a collection of street art pictures in the Tokyo area, called Tokyo Calling. With my friend Malo, we built a simple system to allow sending pictures by mail, and to add them on a map. The idea is to make a book of it when we have 1000 pictures. People interested to participate can drop us an email.
The second one is a small game project I’ve been toying with for a couple of weeks now. It is still in a very early phase, and not playable online yet, but any feedback is welcome.
Thank you!

Thank you Jerome! We hope to have you again on TGD!

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.

Be first to comment