The Creative Life

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2002

Online 'zine Shift creates order out of the Web's chaos and keeps Tokyo's trendy new media designers connected to the world.

by Craig Mod

BUSINESS TYPES MAY THINK of Japan as living in a gray funk of recession, but when it comes to the design world, Japan is still definitely cool -- and colorful. Designer, photographer, writer and J@pan Inc's summer intern Craig Mod turns us on to the hippest of Japan's online design sites and spends a little time hanging out with the folks that help put Japan's design scene on the map.

It's 11 a.m. on Thursday and Shinzi opens his eyes. He lights a cigarette before getting out of bed and the smoke dances in the late morning light flowing into his small apartment near Shibuya. He mentally checks off client projects and before he gets out of bed an idea comes to him for a new motion graphic idea to video jockey this coming weekend.

He slides out from under the sheets and over to the computer, the cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. Inhale, turn on monitor, remove cigarette, exhale, ash. A rhythmic tapping on the mouse brings an email application to the foreground. Sitting there in his boxers he sifts through pornographic junk mail, replies to some new client inquiries and fits in a quick IM session.

On the other side of Tokyo, Eco sits in a half-dilapidated, cushy office chair. Her desk is a modern still life of papers and pens and empty beer cans. A tiny webcam with arms hugs the corner of her monitor. Her ashtray is full of the remnants of a long night of work.

Years of photographic experimentation hand-drawn art and design posters cover her walls. There are partially printed photos of sleeping lovers with jagged edges, hypercolor robots and abstract architectural prints. A bookcase towers over the far right wall. The whole top shelf is a collection of comics called Feeling Groovy. A book of photography lies on the floor, open to an image of a naked woman in the tub smoking a cigarette. Bathed in harsh light, her face barely floats about the grey water. Eco has drawn a red mustache on her.

Hunching over her chair, Eco zooms in on a T-shirt design she has been working on all night. Her thick brown hair floats past her eyes. She quickly blows it out of the way and pushes a strand behind her ear. An instant message pops up on her screen from Shinzi: "Ohayou."

Eco and Shinzi are new media freelancers and members of the close-knit Tokyo design community. Their schedules are haphazard and work is not always reliable. They may focus intensely on a single project for three weeks straight -- constantly pulling all-nighters and consuming caffeine -- and then have a week to relax. But regardless of the volatility, they love their jobs and the freedom that freelancing affords them.

This vast network of individual designers is connected digitally to their work, clients and fellow designers. Through instant messaging software they keep in close and constant contact, exchanging ideas and sharing links. In taking advantage of each other's specialties -- be it motion design, 3D animation, photographic manipulation or Web design -- and community resources, they are able to dynamically form mini "collectives" to tackle freelance work of varying sizes.

"Right now I've got nothing to work on," Shinzi calmly stated over a beer at an izakaya in Shibuya. But the 28-year-old designer, sporting a goatee and a buzz cut, just finished a big motion design project for an upcoming PS2 video game, so he's not too worried.

But when there's no business to be had, many of these designers hone their skills with personal projects such as experimentation in interface paradigms, programming reactive design playtoys and creating algorithms for modulating sounds. Still others design their own quirky typography. The range of knowledge involved in new media design goes well beyond being able to follow a Swiss grid layout in Quark or make a simple vector graphic in Illustrator. Which is why when they crack a problem or want feedback, they'll post a message to one of dozens of design-related message boards on the Web.

One of the more popular spots on the Web for these new media freelancers is Shift, an online magazine based in Sapporo boasting over 1 million page views a month. Shift is a prominent voice in Japanese new media design and it's quickly finding that it has a global voice as well. Founded in 1996 by its current editor in chief, Taketo Oguchi, Shift has managed to remain constantly fresh, with solid content and updates on design events in major cities around the world.

Taketo is certainly no stranger to technology and design. Born in 1968, he attended night classes at the Hokkaido Institute of Design. Shortly after graduating and obtaining a master's degree, he moved between working in a design production firm to helping found one of the first Internet providers in Sapporo. In 1994, when the Internet was still just a baby, Taketo began collecting links to interesting home pages that were exploiting the Web in new and bizarre ways. "I guessed that valuable information might have sunk into obscurity with the increase of Web sites," he says. He began to edit and organize this collection on the Web in the form of a magazine that eventually evolved into Shift.

Shift in its modern form has cover designs, interviews, monthly features and special sections, all of which are centered on creative expression through design and investigations into the motivations of designers. However, the true essence of Shift lies in the sub-context of international information exchange. Published in both Japanese and English, Shift is one of the singularly most important design-information hubs between Japan and the rest of the world. "[We are] an online magazine which translates international information to Japan, and Japanese information overseas," says Taketo.

Over two-thirds of Shift's one million monthly hits come from abroad. With all that foreign traffic, bizarre and quirky Japanese designs that would have otherwise never seen light in the West gain instant exposure. Just how widely viewed Shift is by foreigners is evident in the amount of buzz it generates on international design sites. US and European based design sites such as k10k (, ThreeOh ( and Newstoday ( are read daily -- even obsessed over -- by English-speaking designers looking for the latest fix in new media design-related news. These sites never fail to include a prominent link to Shift when a new issue surfaces.

Through interviews with foreign designers and firms -- both well-known and obscure -- Shift exposes Japanese readers to a broad range of design trends and stories, providing access to information otherwise obscured by linguistic barriers. They've covered the likes of London-based The Designers Republic and Tomato, Sweden-based 24HR and France-based Trafik. The group or individual being interviewed produces the current month's cover page; the design ranges from simple static graphics to interactive 3D interfaces to pastel-colored vector animations. The interview then delves into the meaning behind and process of making the cover.

One quirky monthly section Shift has featured consistently since December 1999 is called the "Tokyo Cutie Girls." Every month, Shinzi hits the streets of Harajuku and Shibuya, armed with a digital camera, searching for the most bizarre and hip female fashions. The result is a veritable archive of the evolution of Tokyo style. Viewed chronologically, the girls' clothing oscillates between 80s Madonna gaud to oxymoronic minimalist punk rock. In the winter months they are wrapped in layers of cloth and scarves and thick wool hats. And in the summer they sport sleeveless shirts and blonde, hairspray-laden head-top sculptures, sometimes so intricate you wonder how much global warming that person is responsible for. But while Shinzi's intentions are purely artistic, he sometimes runs into resistance. "They often think I'm trying to pick them up," Shinzi remarks. Not that that would ever deter his efforts. @

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