(7) My struggle as a Japanese art student in America

My storyTomoko Maruyama4 Comments

One thing I discovered during my time as an art student is that my design style was very unique compared to the norm in the class. It was not necessarily good for my academic performance because it was clear that some teachers had a hard time giving me positive feedback about my work. They thought that my design style and the selection of colors I used was more appropriate for a children audience rather than an adult one. Even though my work might have looked cute, I couldn't understand why they thought it was meant only for children.

In Japan, where I grew up, one could find many cute designs everywhere including designs by companies considered to be very serious and respectable. I remember seeing a cute mascot character on many products. These characters were often part of the core marketing material. In my art, I liked to add smiling faces on inanimate objects so it looked like they had a life of their own. I liked to use pastel colors. They were not meant to be for children only and now I understand this came from my cultural upbringing. Growing in Japan, I developed a unique design style and I couldn’t change it easily.

One day, we had to create a poster for a performance at a nearby theater. They told us that only the work of one student would be selected. I designed a poster that was very colorful and had many smiling faces on selected objects including foods and furniture. It caught the attention of many students because they liked to see a fresh style. It was the most popular based on how students voted. I was very happy about it. However, the teacher selected a different poster at the end. I was sad. I felt that some teachers were just happy to form students with the same plain and ordinary style. This may be better suited to start a job at a local firm after graduation. I now understand that most companies do not necessarily want someone with a distinct style. They may need a graduate who can quickly meet their design needs. This often means modifying existing design templates rather than creating new work. In fact, I struggled a bit when I worked as a graphic designer in a company after I graduated. I was told, again, that my design concepts were more tailored to the children market. I disagreed.

During my time at school, I had moments where I lost confidence in my work. However, this experience taught me to have confidence on my art. When working at a company, I felt bad that my design couldn’t meet the company needs and I still couldn’t see how to do it correctly. Sometimes, I felt like I was trying to kill my natural Japanese style so it could fit into the company culture. But then, I remembered what one of my teachers told me. He said “You have a very whimsical style. You should do something with this talent”. He told me that while looking over my design portfolio. I took it as a compliment and it was the first time someone made me realize that I have very special design style.

I then learned that there are many ways people can see at a piece of art. Art teachers and experienced designers may have one way to see things while younger people may see it differently. One may like your design while another one does not. It doesn’t mean that your design is wrong. And it definitely doesn’t mean that you should follow their advice either because they have more experience than you. This was the mistake I made when I was a student. I felt that I was so inexperienced, which was true at the time, that I had to take everybody’s advice and correct everything the way they told me to do. It became someone else’s art but not mine. I think school is where you learn the techniques but it’s up to you to define your style freely.  

In the end, I decided to look for an opportunity where people would appreciate my own style. And I found it.