Working Pictures: Tokyo Metro’s Monthly Manner Posters

Great pictures work because they are designed to work. They don’t just happen by luck or by accident. In this Working Pictures series, elements and decisions of picture design are closely examined to better understand how images are made to “work.” 

Case in Point: Bunpei Yorifuji’s “Please Do It At Home”

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Background

“It doesn’t take a genius to realize that public spaces in Japan are filled with numerous audible and visual reminders about the importance of maintaining personal decorum.

Over the past year, some of the catchiest have been the “manner posters,” by graphic artist Bunpei Yorifuji, that appear in the 168 stations and the carriages that serve the nine lines of the Tokyo Metro subway system.

Since April of last year, the 35-year-old designer has produced a simple yellow-and-black image each month urging subway travelers to refrain from such generally discomfiting activities as applying makeup, falling down drunk, talking on mobile phones, occupying priority seats for the elderly, infirm or pregnant women or rushing to board as the doors are closing.

“People move at a fast pace through the subway system,” explains Yorifuji as he puffs on a cigarette and reclines on a sofa at Bunpei Ginza, a nine-person operation occupying a fifth-floor office near the Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo’s central Chuo Ward.

“So for the poster to be effective, it needs to have a catchy title, one that can be understood in a second, and it has to contain an illustration that is easy to recognize.”

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Yorifuji and his copywriter start the process with a perusal of common complaints received by the subway operator’s Customer Relations Center.

“There is no one problem that we are focusing on,” says Yuri Hitotsuyanagi, a representative of Tokyo Metro. “We would like to cover all cases by changing the design each month. Nothing is considered too big or too small.”

The posters — 700 of which are displayed in stations, and 3,300 in subway carriages — typically feature two recurring characters; a man with large glasses and a female (referred to by Yorifuji as the man’s wife), each of whom is being inconvenienced by the activity of an oblivious passenger — perhaps through an excessively large backpack or music blaring through headphones.

The concept will often depend on the season, so, for example, with Tokyo now in the midst of the annual rainy season, June’s edition features a man carelessly shaking an umbrella

Yorifuji, who regards his work as falling somewhere between art and manga, wants the catchphrase appearing at the top — usually some variation of “Please do it at home” — to convey the repressed frustration of the typical commuter.

“The glasses obfuscate the emotion and better reflect the discomfort,” he says of his male character. “People don’t explicitly express their feelings. So I am having people guess what is going on in his mind.”

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Born in 1973 in Nagano Prefecture, Yorifuji studied at Musashino Art University in Kodaira, western Tokyo. His company was formed in 2000 following a stint at an advertising firm. Much of his illustration and advertising output, which appears in books and magazines and on packages, has been inspired by American artist Edward Hopper and the ukiyo-e (woodblock print) work of Katsushika Hokusai.

Prior to the subway project, Yorifuji was probably most recognized for his stickers and bills for Japan Tobacco advising on smoking etiquette — a topic he is well versed in considering that amid his office’s collection of magazines, mock-up pages and computer screens are quite a few ashtrays.

The fact that Yorifuji is into his second year with Tokyo Metro, which started its “manner poster” campaign way back in 1974, can be considered an accomplishment, since most terms extend for only one year.

Tokyo Metro says that assessing the effectiveness of its poster campaigns is difficult. But given the many knock-offs appearing on the Internet, the popularity of Yorifuji s work is not in doubt. (One variation shows the designer’s bespectacled male vomiting below the catchphrase “Please do it at the pub.”)

The parodies do not bother Yorifuji, who instead believes they show that his work has reached the mainstream — a contrast to most public messages, that he views as having a top-down or condescending feel.

“Typical posters say ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that,’ ” says the designer. “I am saying, ‘Let’s do this,’ which I think is more positive.”  -Brett Bull, the Japan Times 

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Choices

Wisely chosen concepts wedded to artful images make for memorable and effective pictures. The communication success of an image is the result of the decisions made regarding these factors.  

 

1. Concepts  

-Propaganda is an art of persuasion and this image is designed to persuade subway passengers to be more aware of their bad behavior (and the effect it has on fellow passengers). The goal is to teach empathy and to change behavior. A crucial for success of propaganda is the acceptance of criticism. In this case, by the disturber, not the disturbed.

How did this designer succeed? By being humorous and by being mild with the criticism. Notice how the young music-listener is wearing headphones for private listening and is not rude looking at all.That’s because the designer wants to attract, not insult the target of the message. “I’m not such a bad guy” the viewer hopefully thinks, “but, I guess I’m like that guy…” Notice too, that the victim is not angry but victimized. Bad manners, these posters say, hurt average people not the stereotypically intolerant. The designer has created a poster which gently nudges, rather than a scolds, in an attempt to change in behavior. 

-The most basic pictorial choice, to use illustration instead of photography is a strategic one. Depicting people through drawing creates a buffer for the viewer. The characters are types instead of actuals. Drawings of people, like these; non specific, prevent dismissiveness by the viewer. “That’s not me”, the viewer could reason if it’s a photograph. However, with drawings, particularly strategically stylized ones like these can make for depictions of “everybody” and “nobody in particular.” That’s useful for delivering criticism. 

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2. Design

-Simplicity. These posters are designed to be seen in public spaces, by people on the go. The simplification of form, line, type and color aid the viewer by being easy to “get” visually and conceptually. As far as details go, this designer seems to have followed the adage “When in doubt, leave it out.” or Milton Glaser’s “Just enough is just enough”. 

-Repetition. This image (as well as the rest of the series) features a wonderful use of repetition. Notice how the figure on the left echos the figure on the right. They hold complimentary poses but contrasting moods. The shoulder strap on the left becomes a tie on the right. Above, a row of handles repeats across the page. The repetition is both fun and informative; it sets up a compare-and-contrast situation.

-Color. Only three colors, yellow, white and black are used for this poster (the halftone dots make grays which serve the image too.) But despite the limitations, these few colors serve the design by being strategic. By making the music-listener white, he sticks out in the picture; separating from the background and other character.This distinction gets us t look there first and tells us which person is being addressed by the headline. The music listener should ” Please do it at home.” Yellow, we can assume, was chosen because it is arresting to the viewer, calling the attention of passing commuters.

These are just a few of the elements that make this picture work. Future “Working Pictures” entries will explore successful pictures and their reasons for being so. 

Further Observation

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