Graphic Designers Part Two: Technical Aspirations
There are many types of creative agencies in Japan, ranging from 5-person job shops through to full-service outfits of 100 people or more. Most of these companies operate under the iron rule of the founder and come across as sweat-shops of the old world. As such, they are often no fun to work for and don't have much use for foreign designers in any case.
But there is one subset that is worth looking at, and that is web companies , i.e. those companies that have a B-to-C business comprising a shopping comparison site, a web search site, a recruiting site, an auction site, or something similar. These companies come in two variations: ad agencies that are building a B-to-C business out of their profits, and those that have received Venture Capital. The difference between the two is that the organically growing firms are more likely to last long-term.
Web companies are typically run by the founder, not a salaryman CEO. They are fast growing, hoping to do an IPO, and are filled with energetic staff motivated by stock options. In such an environment, the values of the company are still strong and can infuse the workplace with creative freedom. These sorts of companies are quite demanding physically (read, all-nighters), but are satisfying to work for and are often working on unique and interesting projects.
The opportunity in a Web company for a foreign designer is for someone who bridges the creative and technology worlds. Budget and deadlines are tight, and managers are looking for graphic designers who can also do some coding (PHP, Perl), set up a database (MySQL, Postgres, MS-SQL Server), and/or optimize the site for search engines. They want people that are able to take a project from start-to-finish without down-time, cross-training, or project hand-over delays. If the project is for a client, this capability can make all the difference because it allows a picky customer to be able to ask for a new form or site feature and have it done and ready for testing in just a couple of days. Customers pay for such responsiveness and account managers know it.
Of course it helps if you can speak Japanese, but I find that the language capability for designer/engineering staff is less of a requirement than for other positions. What matters is that you can provide both refreshing and balanced design work and a turn-key data-handling solution. In my years in Japan I have met a number of foreign designers who don't read Japanese, but who have adapted to the flow and feel of Japanese typography, especially the need to cram little pockets of information into a screen. They compensate for language inability by having a native speaker check to make sure that the line-breaks and relative text elements make sense.
But while not being bilingual can be covered if you have sufficient technical skills, the main problem is how to get into this type of firm when you are unable to sweet-talk the CEO. From what I have seen, the best way is to have a friend working on the creative staff, to introduce you and help with language in the initial interview. At the end of the day, your portfolio and technical skills will speak for themselves, and providing you are willing to compromise a bit on salary, you have a reasonable chance of getting in. There are not zillions of these types of jobs, but they do exist.