Japanese Emblems & UI Design

One of the interesting things you tend to notice while living in Japan is the predominance of monshou (紋章) everywhere around you, whether it’s in art, media, architecture, and even everyday objects. It could be an advertisement in a train station or the cover of a book you’re flipping through, the predominance of iconic family seals is a treat for people who enjoy artistic flair in their everyday routine.

As a fan of embellished and ornate mundane objects, I particularly like this aspect of Japanese aesthetics. On a more practical level, monshou, and more specifically, kamon (家紋) have a particular advantage due to the conventions surrounding their format and applications. Similar to the Western coat of arms, monshou in Japan have traditionally been used to represent a family or clan. Nowadays, they are also used to identify a company, an organization, and sometimes, even an individual. Part of what makes them so iconic is that most of them follow a specific design language. They tend to be circular in design, monochromatic and must be designed for maintaining fidelity when scaled down.

These features provide many advantages for placement and swift identification, but they also pose a challenge to creators due to the restrictions they impose. The design process is further complicated by the fact that these emblems are designed with the aim of applying them to a wide variety of materials such as fabrics, paper, stone, and wood to name a few - whether it’s roof tiles or kimono sleeves, they have to be versatile in their scalability.

These limitations force the designer of the emblem to make a design that is both simple enough to appreciate on different materials yet interesting enough to stand out. Additionally, they are designed to be monochromatic, although, on rare occasions, you can see them multi-colored, this is a more contemporary phenomenon. As for carved out monshou, the sculptor has room for creativity by being able to add depth and texture to the different shapes by including tapered shapes or have an alternation of rough and smooth textures.

When compared to a Western coat of arms like the one below, monshou can seem rather muted and simplistic in design, which goes to show how much the medium in which the design is placed on influences form, composition, and the amount of detail in the design.

Monshou can be found just about anywhere in Japan and add flair to otherwise dull reading materials, notices, and even advertisements. Something worth noting is that monshous are not regulated, which compounded with a long history of combining elements, it’s not surprising why they’re so prominent everywhere as a means for establishing business and group identity.

A surprising feature that stands out is the modern taste some of these old emblems have through the use of geometric shapes and the illusion of depth.

Many of these design practices are very similar to design trends found in today’s major smartphone apps’ branding as they have slowly moved from a skeuomorphic design language to brighter, minimalistic designs that pop and provide a cleaner, less noisy visual experience. A good example of this is the changes Instagram made when they rebranded.

When trends in UI design shifted to this direction, I couldn’t help but feel relief from the busyness and realism that had been predominant in earlier to mid-smartphone era. I believe this is a sign that users are relating to their favorite apps differently than before – a shift from practical usage to relating to the identity of the company and the experience they provide. Both monshou and modern app icons share two common elements previously mentioned before – limited space and scalability, whether it’s on a kimono sleeve or your app folder.