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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.

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.

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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.

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