JP-Design History Workshop in Tokyo

From hazy Shanghai Pudong to clear Tokyo Narita

From hazy Shanghai Pudong to clear Tokyo Narita

I have a long time interest in Japan. I remember writing my history paper in college about the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) and reading ‘Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan’. Also the aesthetics of Japan appeal to me. Tokyo is only 2.5 hours from Shanghai by airplane so I decided to go there, a holiday with some research for circa 10 days!

For my research I wanted to know more about the pictograms of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The revered Japanese design critic Masaru Katsumie influenced the graphic design of these games, and was involved with the design of the pictograms. A Japanse colleague of mine told me that Katsumies assistent–Michiyoshi–was still alive. He was perhaps the only person who had direct knowledge of the graphic design of Tokyo ’64.

This led to a very friendly invitation to visit Japan, interview Michiyoshi and speak at a meeting of the Design History Workshop–the society for Japanese design history–that was dedicated to the pictograms. To my great luck most of the Japanese design historians I met were reasonable English speakers, convenient since my Japanese is non existent! What struck me in particular during the meeting was how respectfully people treated each other, especially in regard to respect for elderly.

Also I was also able to interview the Yukio Ota, the famous dean of Japanese sign design. In the 1970s he designed the known well known ISO-emergency exit pictogram. Also he invented in 1964 LoCoS ( Lovers Communication System), a pictorial language to facilitate universal communication. A general overview of the development of signs–especially those in Japan– can be found in his book ‘Pictogram Design

Mr. Ota was very much interested in preserving and carrying on the legacy of LoCos. It was fascinating to hear that his interest in symbols was already stirred in his youth. His father traded in textiles. For this he needed to be aware of thousands of mons, Japanese family symbols that were depicted on the textiles. Symbols that Yukio saw on a daily basis

Wibo Bakker and Yukio Ota

Wibo Bakker and Yukio Ota

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Taiwanese edition of ‘A Clear Dream’ published

The Taiwanes edition of ‘A Clear Dream’ on top of the Dutch edition.

The Taiwanes edition of ‘A Clear Dream’ on top of the Dutch edition.


Two weeks ago the Taiwanese edition of my book ‘A Clear Dream’ (Droom van Helderheid) was published as part of the ‘Source series’. It is surprising to see such an interest in Taiwan in the history of Dutch visual identity, modernism and design agencies.

The ‘Source series” is an imprint of Taiwanese designer Wang Zhi-Hong facilitated by Faces Publications. Luckely the print quality of the book seems better then the Chinese edition published last year. It is fascinating to see how Zhi-Hong uses social media to generate interest: the book has already been seen by over 11.000 people on Behance (featured graphic design), and by many more on Tumbler, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The book features a nice cover and a carefully composed layout that to a large degree is based upon the Dutch edition, that was designed by Piet Gerards Ontwerpers. It is not clear whether Zhi-Hong takes note of this.

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New York & Fort Myers Beach > DOT-Symbol Research

Sketch for the DOT symbols by Cook & Shanosky (Smithsonian Design Museum). Ca. 1974.

Sketches for the DOT symbols by Cook & Shanosky (Smithsonian Design Museum). Ca. 1974.


New York was the starting place for 4 interviews and some crucial archive research into the DOT symbols. Perhaps the best interview I had was with Tom Geismar, one of the founding partners of Chermayeff & Geismar, a known US design agency of the 1960. They designed among others the Mobile, Chase, Xerox and National Geographic identity. Interestingly they have a connection with the Netherlands: In the 1960s Total Design, Chermayeff & Geismar and Pentagram co published a book with their logo’s. Continue reading

Research trip to the US

Approach to JFK Airport

Approach to JFK Airport, New York


Long time no see! It was a very busy November, after which I spent a just as busy December and January in the Netherlands. After a week in Shanghai for some departmental meetings I flew to the US for a 3 week research trip.

From XJTLU I received a small research grant to research the history of the DOT-symbols. These were jointly developed by the American Association of Graphic Designers (AIGA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). These symbols are among the best know public information symbols on the planet and were introduced from 1974 onwards. They are still an inspiration to symbol designers.

So what is on the menu during this trip? Among other things research in the archives of the DOT at the US National Archives in Washington, and research in the archives of the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Also I have planned interviews with a member of the working group that guided the development of these symbols: Tom Geismar in New York, and interviews with the actual designers; Rajie (Roger) Cook in Pensylvania and Don Shanosky in Florida.

Links to research trip:
Washington & The National Archives
New York & Fort Myers Beach > DOT Symbol Research
New York: Being There

Approach to Pudong, Shanghai

Approach to Pudong, Shanghai

Slight snow blanket over the carefully planned farmland of the Noordoostpolder, The Netherlands

Slight snow blanket over the carefully planned farmland of the Noordoostpolder, The Netherlands

Pictogram workshop at Tsinghua, Beijing

Me and Zhao Jian

Me and Zhao Jian

Early in 2014, Zhao Jian, head of the Department of Visual Communication Design at Tsinghua University, Beijing, invited me to give a workshop about pictogram design for two weeks. Convenient timing, since the Chinese translation of my book about Dutch visual identity was about to be published too. Continue reading

7 Pictogram links you cant do without

Searching for pictograms on the internet usually delivers a bad collection of Olympic symbol reviews. Here 7 websites dedicated to pictograms & symbols, about standards, sharing, beauty and function.

1. The Noun Project.
‘The Noun Project collects, organises and adds to the highly recognisable symbols that form the world’s visual language, so we may share them in a fun and meaningful way’. Classy downloadable symbols that look like they are imported straight from the nineteen seventies. But than from now. And with a name that reminds me of the Dharma Initiative. Highly recommended.

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2. Isotype symbols by Gerd Arntzt
Isotype symbols can be watched in their full glory at at website dedicated to their creator Gerd Arntzt. The website was developed by design agency Ontwerpwerk that earlier on also published books dedicated to Arntzt and ‘Lovely Language’. Nice books but they have the disadvantage that they give the impression that this symbol thing–so popular these days–was all Neurath’s idea. Which it wasn’t, no matter how beautiful this stuff is.

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4. Catalogue of Aicher pictograms at ERCO
The sports symbols of the Münich ’72 olympics–designed by Otl Aicher and Gerhard Joksch– are world renowned. Lighting manufacturer ERCO owns the rights to these symbols and more, and licences them via dedicated webshop. Here all pictograms Aicher was involved with can be admired. Designed in that typical ster style with texts in Aicher’s Rotis typeface.

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3. Lance Wyman’s work for Mexico ’68 and more
The symbols for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City are less appreciated then Aicher’s. Too bad. I find Lance Wyman’s symbols to be more ‘human’. The Mexico design scheme is bursting with ideas, culture and colour. Wyman’s website shows his symbol galaxy with much more beautiful symbols.

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5. The U.S. DOT standard for pedestrians/passengers
The American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) offers 50 ‘symbols signs’ for pedestrians and passengers for download. They were produced in the nineteen seventies by a collaboration between the U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) and AIGA. Because of their high quality and their government ‘approval’ they are used by many organisations.

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6. Official ISO standards for graphical symbols
International Standards for graphical symbols are covered by Technical Committee 145 (TC 145) of the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO). TC 145’s Subcommittee 1 (SC 1) is responsible for ISO 7001:2007 ‘Public information symbols’. Nothing to see here but an ISO standards index of the most thoroughly tested symbols and procedures for testing them. They are good. They gave us A4.

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7. Road signs of the world
Road signs must be among the most extensively used symbols in the world. Wiki offers a remarkable simple and colourful catalogue for these signs, showing them for over two dozen countries. All in svg format too. But wether these are official digitizations is doubtful.

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Let me know. What do you think are the best pictogram links?

Why is there no interest in Rudolf Modley?

Page from ‘A Pictographic History of War’ by Modley, 1944

Page from A history of the war, in maps, in pictographs, in words by Modley, 1943


Helped by the rising interest in infographics, Neuraths’ Isotype has become popular in the Netherlands lately. Characteristic of this interest was a large exhibition held at the Central Museum in Utrecht in 2008. It prominently featured Isotype as a starting point for the development of a ‘visual language’.
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Book names: Modern Man in the Making / Creating the Modern Man

Creating-the-Modern-Man

A study in contrasts? Searching for Neurath’s Modern Man in the Making on Google also brings up Pendergast’s Creating the Modern Man : American Magazines and Consumer Culture : 1900-1950.

Neuraths title neutrally suggest the development of mankind as shared project. It is clear that in his view modernity-accept for the heavy toll of war–is a positive development, made possible by the progress of science. People are abstract, quantifiable and can be expressed in visual statistics.

Pendergast writes about the creation of idea’s about masculinity between 1900 and 1950. Interestingly the title Creating (…) suggest a creator. It is tempting to think that Pendergast refers to ‘creation’ of ideas by corporate consumer capitalism. Instead he suggests a process that is positive in nature, in which everybody participates.

Two ideas of looking at, and studying men, one contemporary, one in retrospect. Both resulting in a similar book title and a very different cover. I am thinking about this. I can’t remember Neurath dealing with cultural issues in his statistics?

  • Thomas D. Pendergast, Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture: 1900-1950, University of Missouri Press, Columbia 2000.
  • Otto Neurath, Modern Man in the Making, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1939.