Publishing in an age of pervasive design: An interview with IDEA magazine’s Kiyonori Muroga


Special To The Japan Times

In Japan, design is not what it seems. In colloquial Japanese, the loanword “dezain” (design) is used regularly in lieu of the two indigenous terms for the design process: “koan” (design conceptualization) and “zuan” (design actualization).

Kiyonori Muroga, the editor-in-chief of Tokyo-based IDEA Magazine — one of Japan’s foremost publications on graphic design — has been obsessed with exploring the implications of these two branches of design thinking since becoming an editor at IDEA in 2002.

“I find it fundamental to tread carefully regarding this,” Muroga says. “It is not self-evident in Japanese language, and thus the concept of what design actually is constantly changing.”

On Sept. 21, Muroga will lead three of Tokyo’s most intriguing design minds — designer Daijiro Ohara, writer and editor Toshiaki Koga and designer So Hashizume — in a symposium at the Tokyo Art Book Fair (TABF) titled “Designer As Publisher / Publisher as Designer.” It will be a exploration of the intertwined nature of much creative cultural activity in Japan today.

This intertwining is something Muroga explores with each issue of IDEA. The magazine offers rare insight into international and domestic designers and their work through historical analysis, criticism and examples of projects. In print since 1953, IDEA is the most significant forum on design criticism in Asia.

“Since the 2000s, the emergence of a postindustrial network society has remodeled the role of the graphic designer,” he says. “In reaction to this trend, there has been discourse on the designer as author, or the designer as producer, as it is known in the West. Meanwhile, as observed in the recent controversy surrounding the Olympic Emblem for Tokyo, one can recognize that the social role of the graphic designer in Japan is not as clearly defined. Simultaneously, many Japanese designers are highly active in terms of authorship — the goal of the symposium (at TABF) is to explore both this divide and simultaneity.”

When asked about his role as editor-in-chief at IDEA, Muroga insists upon the value of collaboration.

“Most of the main projects or features in the magazine since the 2000s are holistic collaborations with designers — from planning to designing. This collaborative methodology allows editorial contributions to be more comprehensive, akin to an autonomous project,” he says. “I often ask a designer to contribute an entire article inclusive of the writing, the editing and the actual designing.”

This approach to publishing requires contributors with a range of interests and abilities.

“Typically, printed publications are created by folks with specialized skills —designers, editors, writers or photographers,” Muroga says, adding, “We ask for more.”

Having contributed a number of such pieces to IDEA myself, I can say this type of project is incredibly daunting, but they are some of the most rewarding projects I have ever worked on related to design culture.

“This year, I am attempting to work with a different designer for every issue,” he says. “It is challenging, but we are getting really good results.”

The latest issue, IDEA 371, is an example. Subtitled “Ideapedia,” the IDEA editorial staff worked alongside Hashizume and Koga to produce a bilingual contemporary lexicon for design thinking, in terms of history, theory and practice. The issue is masterfully designed, filled with evocative writing, a barrage of printing types and assorted paper stocks.

Muroga’s generalist approach to publishing is not a suggestion that design is easy.

The increasing visual literacy of the public and the ubiquity of design software might suggest that now, more than ever, everyone is a designer. But Muroga disagrees.

“We have to remember that the basic cognitive ability of each human being is limited to the scale of a small tribal society,” he says. “You have to acquire reasoning power, knowledge and literacy to deal with a contemporary society empowered by technology and its invisible structure.”

When pressed further, Muroga says the claim that everyone is a designer can only be made “on a superficial level.”

“Mere familiarity with an application is not enough,” he says, “actual designers dwell in the realm of signs and signifiers. There is a meta-perspective that the layperson doesn’t have naturally that is necessary in order for design work to resonate culturally — it is something that is cultivated rather than innate.”

It is the conflation of cultural perspective, the synthesis of conceptual thinking and form-giving that makes for the very best designers, as well as for the best publications.

“A good publications is always made with a high sense of integration of the content and how it is designed — by editors and writers with sense of design, and also by designers with a keen sense of editing and writing,” he says.

It is this split, the thinking and the making, which comes together in a designed publication that fascinates Muroga.

Japanese culture at large believes that the ethos of design lives in goods and products, whereas Muroga is able to see the entire life cycle of designs.

“My interest is in exploring the multiple ways that culture expresses, interprets and understands design, its cultural history and the poetic aspect of it, as well.”

The Tokyo Art Book Fair runs through Sept. 21. For more information, visit Ian Lynam is a graphic designer and the author of “Parting It Out: Writings on Graphic Design” published by Wordshape.

The changing landscape of book-making

IDEA Editor-in-Chief Kiyonori Muroga highlights five essential publishers that are using new approaches to push the boundaries between design and publishing:

Unit Editions

The British publishing venture Unit Editions ( is a great example, run by Adrian Shaughnessy, formerly of the design studio Intro, and Tony Brook of the design studio Spin.

It publishes books that span the history of modern graphic design with an extremely clear vision and great execution.

Their dedication to their publications is phenomenal.

Read-Only Memory

A recent favorite in terms of publishing is the imprint Read-Only Memory, which is also from Britain.

Publisher Darren Wall’s integration of cultural research, publishing and design is incredibly impressive.

Its mantra to publish “high-quality books that document great moments in video game history” is as intriguing as it is entertaining. The quality of the books that ROM puts out is exceptional.


The transnational multi-disciplinary design collective Abake operates a highly innovative, quirkily genre-hopping publishing company called Dent-De-Leone. Its multifaceted design practice is neatly mirrored in the output of its published matter. In many ways, both their studio practice and their books defy easy categorization.

So-called publications from the studio include vinyl records, clothing and boxed collections of uncollated periodicals.


HeiQuiti Harata’s Tengocu imprint is impressive in that it pushes the boundaries of pure representation, as well as the possibilities and expectations of publishing. Beyond an inaugural preparatory issue in the 1980s, Tengocu has been perpetually “unfinished in advance” — the concept and sound of which I adore.

Edition Nord

Shin Akiyama’s Niigata-based publishing venture, Edition Nord, is notable for its radical methods of production and distribution. Publishing is often a very personal act against others — an art of decision and resignation. Publishers do not necessarily have to concern themselves with the visual literacy of the general public, but instead cater to a specific readership. This type of publishing, one of genuine literacy in a subject or topic is fascinating.