David Blecken
Oct 28, 2015

How playful design can build serious brands

Design can sometimes be taken for granted in the world of advertising, but Yukie Ogaki, an art director at ADK, believes it has a central role to play in forging a connection between brands and their audiences.

Ogaki: Conveying product through characters
Ogaki: Conveying product through characters

To be sure, Ogaki, who recently featured in Campaign Asia-Pacific’s 40 under 40, is an unusual case. Few people decide on a career of any sort before their late teens, but she has technically been a designer since the age of 12. It was 23 years ago that she entered and won a contest held by the airline ANA to decorate one of its planes.

Ogaki’s ‘Marine Jumbo’—a Boeing 747 decked out as a colourful whale, complete with a water spout—subsequently flew all over Japan, and made her name to the extent that her business card still bears an image of it. The acclaim that the ‘Jumbo’ received also made her realise that design could be a gateway to bigger things.

For 14 years prior to joining ADK, Ogaki worked independently, without giving much conscious thought to the business of advertising. Motivated by creating experiences (she bills herself as a “happiness designer”), she wrote and illustrated books, something she continues to do. Her influences are diverse, from Matisse to the graphic designer Kashiwa Sato, the industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, the composer Hiroshi Ishimaru, and the natural world:

“I love fishing,” she said. “Sometimes the fish I pull out of the water have incredibly unique designs, and this is an inspiration for my work as well.”

Ogaki's early 'Marine Jumbo' for ANA

But she also began applying her interests and energy to brands, continuing her relationship with ANA with the design of a hot air balloon, for example, and developing the imagery for tourism campaigns around the country. It was the desire to combine design and stories, as with her books, and expose that to a wider audience, that led her to the advertising industry.

In working for brands at ADK, Ogaki has managed to retain her own distinctive style, which is characterised by playfulness. A recent piece of work for a contact lens company, Menicon, features a kappa, a river-dwelling creature in Japanese folklore. Kappa traditionally have a saucer-shaped patch on the top of their heads that must be kept hydrated at all times in order for them to live. Moving a step further, Ogaki’s character, named Melsuke (pictured at the top of this article), throws Menicon contact lenses to people with dry contact lenses. It’s also yellow rather than the traditional green, she explained, “because it needed to have a more hygienic feel. Green might make people think of slime in riverbanks—I didn’t want people to think it came from polluted water”.

The concept might sound frivolous, but the aim of distilling dull or complex medical information into something lighter is valid, whether targeting children or adults, particularly in Japan.

“A contact lens package plan can be complicated to explain in an ad—that's why I decided to have a character with a story behind it,” Ogaki explained. “Melsuke’s hobby is to help people. If you lose your contacts, he’ll help; or with age your contacts may not fit: he’ll help there too. Whatever the situation is. The idea is to put all these difficult medical things into a fun context.”

Ogaki admits that Japan is saturated with corporate characters, but puts that down to the culture being “very visually oriented”. As with medical products, cities and have many complex factors that need to be edited into something visually appealing, simple and memorable, hence the multitude of cute (or sometimes not so cute) mascots representing destinations around Japan.

Of course, if badly thought out, such characters mean nothing and are a waste of money. They can play an important role, Ogaki says, but in order to work must have a clear message to communicate. She believes design can lead advertising, but in order for it to do so effectively, it must have a story behind it.

“If people enjoy a design and the story behind a product, it can help the product expand,” she noted. “A design should be something where you can immediately recognise the story behind it, so I always aim for symbolisation of the story, for a design that can encapsulate the story.”

An educational initiative for S&B Foods

With regard to characters or mascots, “it’s really about what you want to convey through a character,” she said. “How you can use it to have people come to an event, for example. It’s really necessary to have the character perform a function. It can’t just exist as a symbol per se. What I design is very conceptual and based on an objective rather than just a character.”

For S&B Foods, a large Japanese seasoning company, for example, Ogaki developed “spice and herb brothers” as a means of educating children about spices. These were brought to life on a website. “Many people think spices are difficult, but if you become familiar with them as a child it doesn’t seem so complicated,” she said.

At the same time, as a children’s book author, Ogaki has seen demand from brands for characters she created purely for stories. In one example, the retail chain Aeon approached her firstly to develop a textile featuring a flower design she created for a book. The company now sells a range of her designs in its stores in various formats. It has also invited her to conduct in-store workshops for children that involved designing their own characters.

Ultimately, Ogaki sees the business of advertising moving closer to product design. “Although I work in an agency, I do a lot of work that is not just ads. [Aeon] was looking to put art into everyday lives. The significance of the project was to make design from art and to create something that can be used in everyday life.”

Textile designs for Aeon based on Ogaki's storybook illustrations 


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