While living in Tokyo in the 1980s and early 90s, many of my friends were designers, or in design-related businesses. So publishing a newsletter about the professional world of Japanese design seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Since I had previously published a magazine with fairly high production values (WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing), an eight-page black-and-white newsletter was, by contrast, elementary. All I had to do was keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might be of interest to my subscribers, mainly design practices, big and small, in the U.S. and Europe. . . .
Making 283 Useful Ideas from Japan was an “information design” exercise, i.e. communicating a large body of information, in the shortest amount of readers’ time, with a high memory retention coefficient. Coming up with the design was easy. Pictorially representing the book’s diverse objects, situations, and concepts took a bit of thought. Eventually I ruled out photography because, in my experience, the likelihood of mass-producing truly engaging photographs was slim. Additionally, the logistics—assembling/coordinating the objects and environments, the stylist, the photographer, his/her assistant, etc.—would be complex and expensive. Illustration seemed the way to go. The following is what resulted, as later chronicled in 13 Books: Notes on the Design, Construction & Marketing of My Last . . . (2001).
“Illustrations were executed in an intentionally awkward Japanese graphic style called heta-uma (“bad-good”; “clumsy-tasty”). I had originally wanted to employ a U.S.-based illustrator who could draw in the straightforward, perfectly clear style then prevalent in the New York Times. But working with someone not currently living in Japan would, it seemed, present authenticity problems. The tiniest of details often differentiate things Japanese from Western. I would have had to present the illustrator with photographs of every conceivable object and/or explain at great length how things Japanese look. A lot of cliched visual information would sneak in anyway. Ultimately I selected Shack Mihara, a Tokyo-based illustrator who captured the peculiarities of his society with well-placed visual asides that made the book much more accurate and entertaining than it would have been otherwise.”