Freelance State of Mind: Design lessons from Japan

In his column this month, freelancer Ben Tallon looks at how design-led Japanese retailers can be an inspiration to freelancers who he believes would benefit from considering how their own identity as a designer can be projected across everything they do.


I’m standing in Umeda Tsutaya, a book store in Osaka station, Japan, at the launch of the Japanese translation of my book Champagne and Wax Crayons.

I feel proud as it’s been given a full wall display, but also dismayed that many of our major retail stores are so far behind the Japanese ones. I’m here to create custom, hand-drawn signs to reach out in more personal fashion to a brand new audience. It is a refreshing change from how a book launch might work in the UK.

The design of the retail space is just as refreshing. Masterfully designed by British architects, Klein Lytham, it’s clear that this company knows its audience on many intrinsic levels, channelling this insight throughout their entire setup.

Design-led thinking

The layout of this branch is one swooping-crescent, which feels infinite as you explore not just a mind-boggling array of books but also a barber, a shoeshine store, an Apple Store and a full-blown restaurant and café area. Somehow, it all works. The outer walls are adorned with the work of up-and-coming local artists while the clean and polished feel attracts hoards of business professionals. Yet, parents and children can come here, relax, read, eat and drink, coexisting with hip students and designers. I could go on.

By the time I arrive home, photographs of me creating the signs are on two social media platforms. This, and everything that has happened at the store is down to its design-led approach. I’ve been digesting the enormity of that description since taking in Design Week’s Age Of Design documentary series, which pulls back the curtain on several design-led businesses including Airbnb and IKEA, harnessing the power of creativity to great effect from their very inception right through to relationships with clients. Seeing it here, first hand, it all makes total sense.

Design at the heart of Japanese businesses

For another official book-launch event, I am invited to Standard Bookstore in Japan. Tucked below street-level, this single-level, sprawling escape from the busy streets above is lit by moody bulbs, creating a romantic dusty old library feel. Interspersed among the piles of independent books, design magazines and high-shelves full of large hardbacks are art-prints, pottery, posters, tote bags by illustrators and many other attractive goods.

As I step into the event space, where I will talk in front of 25 or so local aspiring and professional designers, illustrators and students, to my left is a huge café and relaxation area where many people sketch, write, study and read. Only a few are on their phones. My grinning face on the wall, next to my book is one of several event posters.

I am very new to Japan, yet the event and book sell out. There is much method to the madness of the design-led approach here. From what I can see in Japan, design is not simply about typography, or agonising over logos, or kerning – it is a point of conversation between product and consumer and that takes on many forms, in both instances here, very successfully.


I’m left more certain than ever before that the failure of many of our high-street giants; HMV, Woolworths to name two, would have been preventable if they had acted to provide a user-experience that could not be attained online.There’s a strong waft of arrogance that seems to have prevented UK highstreet dinosaurs from lurching on any longer. If Amazon is about cheap and convenient, the high street has to provide more than browsing and buying at a higher price-point.

What this means for freelancers

Thinking about retail and design-led businesses has made me assess my own creative identity. Looking around, I see freelancers becoming multi-faceted, recognisable brands being taken seriously on a bigger level.

I knew that if I didn’t expand beyond simply providing one very specialist style of illustration, I would severely limit myself, risking my future when the inevitable quiet spells arrived. But in each of the ways I addressed that fear; a podcast, writing, lecturing and public speaking, it had to be design-led from the way it looked right through to what it offered my audience. It seems I’ve been leading with design subconsciously from day one, but to see how effectively these Japanese stores function symbiotically with engaged audiences, in the same way Airbnb and IKEA have showcased, has brought it to the forefront of my every activity, be it creative, admin or face-to-face interactions.

In the UK, it seems that the independent stores, freelancers and small businesses are adapting much faster than the creaky old behemoths we’ve become more accustomed to seeing on the high street over the years. Perhaps that familiarity has bred complacency or even a refusal to change with the times, relying on our trust in the recognised name at great cost.

If you’re a business of any size or if you’re a freelancer, implementing a strong design identity across everything you do will help you to thrive. Exciting times lie ahead for those who can see the wider role of creativity while those who remain blind to it face a volatile future.

Ben Tallon is a Design Week columnist, illustrator, art director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries.

He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.

You can follow him on Twitter at @bentallon and see his portfolio at

You can read his Freelance State of Mind columns here.

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