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The No-Brand: 11 Brilliant Ads From The Early Days Of Muji

The graphic design great Ikko Tanaka, who died in 2002, defined Muji's anti-branding. Now, his work is getting an exhibition.

  • <p>1980: The first 40 products are listed by reason for their affordable prices (material selection, production process elimination, packaging simplification).</p>
  • <p>1981: Having just added baby goods and clothing, Muji now carried 99 in a range of categories. This Muji poster explains how items of good quality are reasonably priced by eliminating unnecessary frills.</p>
  • <p>1983: There is much to smile at in the natural world. Humans have always made a game of finding the profiles of faces in the shapes of mountains and seeing animals in the clouds in the sky. This poster is designed to convey this playful Muji spirit with a touch of humor in the way the child’s hat resembles the planet Saturn.</p>
  • <p>Animals and people. Plants and people. The world is an enormous school where we live being taught and teaching, a place where Muji is learning to make its products from everyday life.</p>
  • <p>1990: Muji has learned from old traditions but also places importance on including the new. This poster introduced the grains in breakfast cereals and their characteristics, which were not really popular in Japan at the time.</p>
  • <p>1990: Muji believes that commonly used cotton is a basic clothing staple. The poster models are master practitioners of kakunori (square log rolling), a historied traditional performance with its roots in Edo-era lumberyards.</p>
  • <p>1991: It was in 1991 that Muji first made its way to customers outside of Japan. The copy for this poster highlights the importance of taking time in creating a product. We illustrated this using the process of making soy sauce, expressing Muji’s desire for simple, careful manufacturing that adds nothing extraneous to the process.</p>
  • <p>1997: Sweet potato chips. Introducing products that make the most of original flavors and appearance.</p>
  • <p>1998: The color of undyed, unbleached natural fibers is called kinari in Japanese. Muji cherishes the colors and characteristics of raw materials, so the poster connects the color of ripe grains with the kinari color through the copy “kinari shokuhin” (kinari foods).</p>
  • <p>1999: This poster shows the first time Muji released a line of baby clothing, following up on the previous year’s introduction of children’s and maternity clothes. The line, which was developed with the input of mothers working at Muji, features simple designs that have become a Muji staple.</p>
  • <p>2000: This poster is one of a three-part series reflecting Muji’s history for its 20th anniversary. The copy for this poster explains that, since its 1991 London debut, Muji has advanced into major cites around the world with 14 stores in the U.K. and five in France.</p>
  • 01 /11

    1980: The first 40 products are listed by reason for their affordable prices (material selection, production process elimination, packaging simplification).

  • 02 /11

    1981: Having just added baby goods and clothing, Muji now carried 99 in a range of categories. This Muji poster explains how items of good quality are reasonably priced by eliminating unnecessary frills.

  • 03 /11

    1983: There is much to smile at in the natural world. Humans have always made a game of finding the profiles of faces in the shapes of mountains and seeing animals in the clouds in the sky. This poster is designed to convey this playful Muji spirit with a touch of humor in the way the child’s hat resembles the planet Saturn.

  • 04 /11

    Animals and people. Plants and people. The world is an enormous school where we live being taught and teaching, a place where Muji is learning to make its products from everyday life.

  • 05 /11

    1990: Muji has learned from old traditions but also places importance on including the new. This poster introduced the grains in breakfast cereals and their characteristics, which were not really popular in Japan at the time.

  • 06 /11

    1990: Muji believes that commonly used cotton is a basic clothing staple. The poster models are master practitioners of kakunori (square log rolling), a historied traditional performance with its roots in Edo-era lumberyards.

  • 07 /11

    1991: It was in 1991 that Muji first made its way to customers outside of Japan. The copy for this poster highlights the importance of taking time in creating a product. We illustrated this using the process of making soy sauce, expressing Muji’s desire for simple, careful manufacturing that adds nothing extraneous to the process.

  • 08 /11

    1997: Sweet potato chips. Introducing products that make the most of original flavors and appearance.

  • 09 /11

    1998: The color of undyed, unbleached natural fibers is called kinari in Japanese. Muji cherishes the colors and characteristics of raw materials, so the poster connects the color of ripe grains with the kinari color through the copy “kinari shokuhin” (kinari foods).

  • 10 /11

    1999: This poster shows the first time Muji released a line of baby clothing, following up on the previous year’s introduction of children’s and maternity clothes. The line, which was developed with the input of mothers working at Muji, features simple designs that have become a Muji staple.

  • 11 /11

    2000: This poster is one of a three-part series reflecting Muji’s history for its 20th anniversary. The copy for this poster explains that, since its 1991 London debut, Muji has advanced into major cites around the world with 14 stores in the U.K. and five in France.

One December day in 1980, the readers of one daily newspaper in Japan opened it up to discover a simple one-page ad, featuring a thick, monochrome line drawing of a hand, holding a name tag for a new brand: Mujirushi Ryohin, or "No-Brand Superior Items." Although the Mujirushi Ryohin started by selling humble items like canned salmon and dried mushrooms, today it is known by a more familiar name, Muji—a worldwide phenomenon that specializes in selling items that convey a traditional Japanese aesthetic by emphasizing the utmost richness of plain, simple design.

But back to the ad. It was created by Ikko Tanaka, a Nara City-born graphic designer, who followed up this ad with dozens of others, which would ultimately do just as much to convey the philosophy of the Muji brand to customers as its products itself. These prints have now been collected and will be on display in London and Milan through November, in honor of Muji's 25th European anniversary.

According to Motoki Koketsu, the curator of the exhibition, Tanaka's influence on the Muji brand was hardly limited to its print ads. "[His] visionary ideas for the brand, beginning with monochromatic packaging, have remained at the core of Muji’s product design, packaging, and marketing—really Muji’s entire identity."

For example, as a reaction to the excessive packaging design of Japanese products in the 1980s, it was Tanaka's idea to package Muji's products in recycled paper. By not bleaching the paper, Tanaka was able to simplify its manufacturing processes and lower costs, while simultaneously drawing attention to the beauty of the raw, natural product. Designed with this paper in mind, Tanaka also created the Muji logo, specifically choosing its dark red color for the way it interplayed with this parcel-colored packaging.

But in Muji's earliest days, print advertisements were especially important in conveying the brand's look and feel. The two earliest ads in the exhibition—the ad mentioned above, "Lower Priced for a Reason" (1980), and "The Whole Salmon is Salmon" (1981), a paean to canned fish—did this by pairing simple, bold graphics with coherent block lettering. Not only was this style unique at the time in the frenetic world of Japanese graphic design, but it was integral in conveying Muji's ultimate brand message: that there is pleasure to be found in the sincerity of a simple lifestyle.

Another way Tanaka's ads for Muji were different from the competition? They tended to focus on just a single product, and its characteristics. For example, Tanaka's ad for Muji's bibs attempted to emphasize the fact that the cotton had been carefully selected for its texture against a baby's skin by pairing it with a gentle line drawing of a baby done in India Ink, along with an equally simple tag line: "Love doesn't beautify."

Though Tanaka died in 2002, his influence on the Muji brand is so comprehensive that it can still be felt. His graphic design language and branding choices are still embraced by the brand today. It's a synergy, argues Koketsu, that is impossible to overstate. "Muji is Ikko Tanaka, and Ikko Tanaka is Muji," he says. Check out some of his greatest ads in the slide show above.

[All Photos: ©Ikko Tanaka/licensed by DNPartcom]

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