17 August 2011


1960s, Design Conference, Japan

World Design Conference in Tokyo 1960

1960 was a momentous year in the history of Japanese graphic design. Supported by the Japanese Government, Tokyo hosted the World Design Conference (WoDeCo, Sekai Dezain Kaigi) from May 11th to May 16th, introducing an enthusiastic group of Japanese designers, architects and industrial designers with their counterparts from Europe and the United States to discuss the theme “Total Image for the 20th Century”.

Following the lead of the Aspen Design Conference, which was already taking place annually since 1951, WoDeCo invited 80 speakers and 300 guests from 26 countries to share their viewpoints and intellectual ideas, particularly in the wake of technological and scientific advancement in industry. This large-scale international design conference helped launch modern Japanese graphic design to the international community.

One of the outcomes of the conference is World Design Conference 1960 in Tokyo (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1961).  Because the book presents in printed form the entire conference verbatim (in Japanese and English), it is a significant historical record.

The book reflects the WoDeCo schedule and is divided into the following sections: Opening Ceremony, Personality (topic), Practicality (topic), Possibility (topic), and Closing Ceremony. On the days focused on topics, the morning sessions consisted of three or four lectures, presented in their entirety in the book. For the afternoon sessions, simultaneous panels took place (divided into sub-topics) with several guests participating in roundtable discussions to broaden and deepen the questions raised during the morning session. Each guest’s comments, whether in agreement or opposition are recorded verbatim in the book.

All aspects of design were covered within the WoDeCo topics (architecture, industrial, environmental, education), including modernist architectural theories by Kenzo Tenge, Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn. Many of the graphic design speakers would go on to become design luminaries. A small sampling of the lectures include: Herbert Bayer (Designer’s Position in Society), Yusaku Kamekura (Katachi), Josef Müller-Brockmann (Education of a Graphic Designer), Saul Bass (Designer’s Responsibility for Visual Culture), Walter Landor (International Style), Tomas Maldonado (Visual Communication), Max Huber (Contemporary Graphic Design and Society) and Otl Aicher (Graphic Design in Advertising). 

Lecture highlights worth noting:

Computing machines will eventually substitute for printed matter by storing knowledge; they will have any and all desired information available and ready on short call when needed. This will be done quickly and more completely than research teams can, relieving and unburdening our brains from memory ballast.
– Herbert Bayer, Designer’s Position in Society

Contemporary graphic design has to be considered more and more as a real mean of communication, perfect, harmonious and –above all– understandable and comprehensive not to a few selected people only but to a larger sum of individuals that form our society.
– Max Huber, Contemporary Graphic Design and Society

I think it is important to make people feel something; not just dangle an image before their eyes, but to open up a successful communication, and if possible, to broaden or transform somebody’s attitude towards something.
– Saul Bass, Designer’s Responsibility for Visual Culture

I find it necessary, first of all, that the student realizes the object of his future profession, not to be an artist, but to fulfill the demands of the customer and practice with good taste.
– Josef Müller-Brockmann, Education of a Graphic Designer

For Müller-Brockmann in particular, WoDeCo was the beginning of his long relationship with Japan and Japanese design. It was his first visit to Japan, immediately following his departure from the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich. Müller-Brockmann had an affinity for Zen teachings, believing that objective design was closely related to Zen themes of empty space and the tension between the positive and negative. Shizuko Yoshikawa, artist and wife of Müller-Brockmann, worked at WoDeCo as a translator and would accompany him on subsequent trips to Tokyo and Osaka design schools. WoDeCo gave Müller-Brockmann an opportunity to meet and discuss his approach to graphic design with modernist Japanese designers, all of whom found a kindred spirit in the Swiss designer.

The branding of WoDeCo should also be noted for its historical significance because it represents Japanese designers emergence into the international arena. The logomark was designed by Takashi Kono, developed from the Japanese characters for ‘sun’ and ‘rising’. Other supporting printed materials such as posters, programs, reception and invitation cards, signs, badges and keepsake portfolios were all constructed by young Japanese designers who were members of the WoDeCo committee and the newly formed Nippon Design Center (1959). The result is a true collaboration between individual designers. Each piece stands on its own but seen together, they represent a larger concept at work. The overall effect is a completely universal design, accessible to participants from all over the world but yet still abstractly rooted in Japanese tradition.

WoDeCo, in both its design and resulting book, give us an idea of the types of problems, solutions, ideas, optimism and ambitions designers faced as they looked forward to the second half of the 20th century. Despite the difficulties and criticisms of language barriers, time constraints and the vastness of topics discussed, the conference was considered a success. Although it is not clear why WoDeCo did not continue after its initial conception, it brought great design innovators together to debate the current issues. The resulting book, World Design Conference 1960 in Tokyo was initially created to preserve the statements and discussions held at the conference and sent out to the participants. Today, over 60 years later into the 21st century, the book and WoDeCo design are landmarks of modern graphic design history.

Selected Sources:

World Design Conference 1960 in Tokyo. Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha, 1961.

Hara, Hiromu. “The World Graphic Design and Its Design Policy.” Graphic Design 3 (1960).

Purcell, Kerry William. Josef Müller-Brockmann. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2006.