Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Tokyo subway’s humble duct-tape typographer (medium.com/chrisgaul)
508 points by timafuyc on July 28, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 70 comments

Living in Tokyo, I spotted one of these tapings lately. It’s unbelievable how accurate they look. Not perfect typography, but as a designer I immediately sensed craftsmanship. Thanks OP for picking this up.

Another Tokyo resident here.

I can't stress how much these things helped when I first moved to Japan long time ago. Nowadays, you can do real-time translation of kanji just by pointing your smartphone at the signs, but back then you had to copy those kanji by hand to your electronic dictionary, and wrong stroke order means the right character just won't show up.

These simple typography helped me guess the correct stroke order to understand where I was and where I am supposed to go.

The article's description of his process was a little hard to follow. A time lapse was much clearer:


I love seeing artists and designers overcome obstacles and the limits of their medium. In this case, the need for highly-visible, easily understandable signage and the use of duct-tape leads to some wonderful results. Although very different in both motivation and technique, I can't help but think of the "King of Kowloon", who's calligraphy has also been quite influential:


Amazing. Traditionally kanji characters (and most Eastern Asia glyphs ) have individual typesetting layouts (a lot of horizontal lines of different elevations, for example 一干十土士王田甲由中申)

Aligning the horizontal strokes seem controversial at first (makes characters deform from their “normal” look), but reduces a lot of noise, that you can probably subconsciously parse more at a time?

Yep, they are called radicals.

No. Neither elevation of horizontal lines or alignment of strokes are called radicals.

To clarify: Radicals are common kanji elements, which are used in dictionaries for looking up kanji. A common misconception is that every repeated element is a radical.

In either case, this is not what the parent post is talking about.

These are quite nice looking. Is it correct to say that making them in this fashion with a neat grid and precise measurements is sort of contrary to how Kanji are normally written (with sort of an artistic attention to stroke order and direction)?

It's a sans-serif typeface (called "gothic" typeface in Japanese), which is commonly used for signs, and stroke order/direction isn't so visible without serifs. But the design still implies stroke order in some cases, e.g. with round corners suggesting a single stroke, and sharp corners suggesting two strokes. Some of the signs are written in "round gothic" style where this distinction is dropped, but round gothic is still a normal style.

The strong alignment of the strokes to a grid is somewhat unusual, and the article explains how it's a result of the production technique. It's a good example of technical limitations fostering creativity. It reminds me of pixel art, where limited resolution forced development of new techniques that ended up being aesthetically appealing in their own right. The need to make clearly legible signs with limited equipment in a busy train station produced a distinctive style that wouldn't have happened without these constraints.

Kanji come in many forms, just as the Latin script has serif, sans-serif, slab serif, and various handwritten forms. Stroke order and direction are accentuated the most when Kanji is written with a brush on paper, which many computer fonts try to mimic. But the strokes can be made much less prominent when the letters are carved into stone or wood. You can even use a brush to flow all the strokes from several letters together into a long, virtually illegible squiggle [1]. Modern instruments like fountain pens produce different results, and pencils are still more different. There are different customs and standards of penmanship for each writing instrument.

The duct-tape typeface looks rather similar to seal script [2], an ancient style that is still commonly mimicked when, obviously, people carve seals (inkan).

[1] For example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhang_Xu

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_script

It's not similar to seal script at all. A lot of seal scripts are unintelligible to me, even when I know what Kanji it represent. This is mostly legiable.

I'm talking about the style of the strokes, not the structure of specific letters. The example shown on Wikipedia is thousands of years old, of course the letters looked different then.

While I can read all of the signs in the article, I think I wouldn't be able to if I don't know the context. Some characters are really distorted, and in many case character boundary are blurred.

I use 12x6 bitmap font with double width CJK characters. Many kanji are simply balls of pixels with fuzzy edges.

I remember when I was learning I did something to cause these characters to appear on screen in front of a Japanese friend (maybe cat'd an anki dump or something), and being absolutely blown away that he had zero trouble reading them.

I agree. This is a terrible font face. I see the artistic value of it, but using it as any kind of guidance is a failure. Especially in stations like Shimokitazawa where the platforms are extremely narrow in some cases. This would just be another hindrance to find my way around in an inherently complex public transport system.

How would this be a hindrance? If you read it, it helps. If you don’t read it, it’s not going to hinder anything.

If you have to spend a minute or more to read something which might or might not be useful, that's an annoyance, I would even say disturbance. Takes precious time to find the right information in a place where minutes or even seconds matter. If you never lived in Tokyo then you have no clue what I am talking about. If you did, you would exactly know what I am talking about.

Many thousands of people living in Tokyo right now disagree with your middlebrow Internet contrarianism.

This isn't an art protect, it's an actual part of the subway system that has been in place for a long time, providing ad hoc guidance in the face of sudden alterations due to construction in progress. Have their been complaints about how it has harmed anyone's ability to navigate?

I can only see two people here who disagrees with me. And many thousands of people agrees with me in Tokyo. Ha! Did you see what i did there? ;)

I've lived in Tokyo for many years and have no idea what you're talking about. The characters are very peculiar but completely legible at a glance, and the maps are incredibly informative.

And I was not even the one who said that it's distorted in the first place. It was the parent comment. Shall I explain that also to you?

So there is a illegible distorted text which seeks attention to occupy your view and you don't know what I am talking about? Have you heard of navigation?

Also the definition of distorted: "giving a misleading or false account or impression; misrepresented."

It seems I have to explain it to you then.

vinyl plotters are so fast an cheap they ended hand lettering as a trade, I wonder how hes spending hours on these without management pressure for faster and cheaper temporary signs?

>I wonder how hes spending hours on these without management pressure for faster and cheaper temporary signs

Some working places offer freedom and human values...

This is in Japan, of course, which is known for the inverse (highly managed corporations and overworking), but there are pockets of employee freedom and expression all over the world

There's 'salaryman' life, then there's the rest of Japan.

It's very much "not all Japanese".

You don't work yourself to death for the sport of it, and you can get by, own a home, take vacations (locally), and afford what you need without needing to be busy all the time or devote your life to your corporate sponsor.

> overworking

On average, Japanese work as much as Canadians or Spaniards and generally below the US.

Mexico has been on one of the top spots for years.


Isn't this distorted by the amount of unreported overtime? Anecdotally many of my friends in Japan work overtime but don't report it, or report a smaller overtime amount.

Having worked in Japan and USA, Japanese seem more dedicated to taking a holiday when they have one, also keeping working hours. All my jobs were academic though so I don't know for companies.

Probably varies by industry, in my experience man hours are treated as too precious for this. I worked in a sign shop and there were still old hand letterers in the industry but forced to use vinyl printers and plotters. Doing it by hand isn't even contemplated. Also construction companies don't usually value good graphic design. Hand lettering such nice temporary signs is so surprising.

I think 90% of the work is the design effort for each sign, a vinyl plotter won't make that faster. Also, a vinyl plotter and computer take up space and need a secure room.

> Also, a vinyl plotter and computer take up space and need a secure room.

They presumably already have these for their official signage, though. In most civic-infrastructure organizations, the bottleneck for producing signage is the design talent.

Print shops are a thing. I can order a large vinyl banner on the internet for under $50 here in the US. That has to be possible in Japan too.

>I think 90% of the work is the design effort for each sign, a vinyl plotter won't make that faster.

There wouldn't be any need for "design" if management was involved to expedite the process. Just put the ready made letters together with a couple of ready made vectors like arrows etc in a PC program, and send the file to the plotter.

>Also, a vinyl plotter and computer take up space and need a secure room.

You could order the sign from a print shop with a vinyl plotter and have it delivered in 1-2 hours.

To get each of the signs officially signed off with formal budgets and professional designers allocated, I would imagine the administrative red tape involved (in a large, old Japanese enterprise) would take long enough to make the sign obsolete by the time it got the OK from everyone. Sato just keeps making signs on the spot where he notices a need for them, and rips them off when they're no longer necessary.

>To get each of the signs officially signed off with formal budgets and professional designers allocated, I would imagine the administrative red tape involved

You don't need to get "each of the signs officially signed off with formal budgets and professional designers allocated".

You could expedite his current process, with just a series of templates made on an el cheapo design program (even Word) and a vinyl cutter.

Here's a guy making custom signs nobody asked for. Why would a replacement for that include "formal budgets and professional designers"? One could leverage the same informal process and budget, and instead of duct tape and lots hours, just use a run-of-the-mill printing service (the kind that does photocopies)...

>Sato just keeps making signs on the spot where he notices a need for them, and rips them off when they're no longer necessary.

Sure, and that's just "write message, add arrows/icons, sent to plotter, stick, unstick" -- the same as today, minus the time to painfully create by hand.

Of course this way you also lose the artisty and quirkiness, but I'm only responding to whether this can be done.

And my answer is: it can be done, cheaper, faster, easier, and doesn't take much. Not any big budget (not much better than the duct tape budget), not "professional designers", nothing. You could keep the same unoficialness, and just use a printer and a PC to get the signs (you could even skip the plotter, and just e.g. stick A3/A2 signs with tape).

As for whether it should be done, I'd say no. His efforts, even if wasteful, make the world better and more quirky and charming, in a way that an automated replacement wouldn't.

I feel like this comment must me a satire of HN?

It's funny you mention this. Certain personality types just have a hard time understanding stuff like this. I guess it's due to being ultra-rational or maybe slightly autistic.

Reminds me of one of my coworkers. Extremely intelligent software dev. Take him to an art museum and nothing will interest him. Put some music on that's not in his genre and he'll always put on his headphones instead of trying to listen to something new. But start talking about one of his interests, and he'll carry the conversation forever. He just has a hard time understanding why other humans do what they do and like what they like, because he doesn't.

I think we all have him as colleague.

whats seems satirical about this? most construction companies just buy coroplast signs, I used to make them its why I was surprised hes spending hours on this as the article states.

It’s completely disrespectful to the artistry of the work.

It’s the same thing as that original response to Dropbox.

“For a Linux user, you can already build such a system yourself quite trivially by getting an FTP account, mounting it locally with curlftpfs, and then using SVN or CVS on the mounted filesystem. From Windows or Mac, this FTP account could be accessed through built-in software.”

>It’s completely disrespectful to the artistry of the work.

It's not about the artistry and never intended to be, it's about the end result (functionality wise) and whether you can get it for less effort. (In fact, I've less several other comments lauding the artistry aspect, e.g. notice my comment posted an hour before yours above:

"Sure. I prefer the uniqueness, and quirkiness myself. It's something different than the usual industrial approach. But I'm just responding to people who saying it couldn't be done in another way (have they ever been involved with sign making? of course it could) or that it wont save time to have it done another way, or that it would cost more...")

Literally no one thinks this can't be done another (automated) way. This is HN! This is a beautiful post about a true craftsman in another domain, as is appreciated here, and you really think no one has heard of laser cutters? We all know this.

Insight is also about calibrating ones response to the audience.

I think what is being reacted to though is that its being done in a business context. Construction companies do not typically value good graphic design or hand lettering. This is stomped out for efficiency, cheap coroplast and vinyl wayfinding signs are quickly churned out and discarded. Sato's signs are surprising to me because he hasn't been displaced.

People do think this can be automated- I do. The issue is that some commenters are putting down manual labor while somebody is doing something that benefits the greater population of their town.

I think you misread my Can't as Can...

No, no I didn't.

What exactly feels like satire to you? As your comment is content-less I can't tell.

This is how thousands of small businesses and organizations the world over produce signs. What seems bizarre to you?

It seems like satire because the story isn't, even on the surface, about the need for signs in subway stations. It's about a dedicated employee who, performing what many would consider a menial job, displayed care and dedication to his job and in the process revealed himself as something of a design savant.

Saying "but you can print signs for $50" is so wilfully blind to what makes this story charming that it seems like a parody of the literalness and complete lack of romance that one sometimes sees in HN comments.

It's the legendary 2007 Dropbox comment but with plotters instead of FTP.

Hmm, is the above supposed to be satire itself?

The Dropbox comment was about a startup making cross platform desktop/mobile sync easy, and a facile dismissal about being able to hack something similar together with FOSS tools which missed both the complexity of the domain and the main point which was convenience for the average Joe.

This is about a guy making subway signs for route changes and other such situations with duct tape working for half a day or more to produce one, and a suggestion that the same job could be more easily have been done much faster (and at a similar cost) with some desktop software (even Word would do it) and a plotter or a simpler laser printer.

The second suggestion is not just not outlandish, but also how such signs are done in tons of businesses and organizations all around the world.

Dropbox case: Complex domain, difficult to simplify, main selling point being "works out of the box" -> Suggestion of a nerdy, ad-hoc process, that needs elaborate setup maintenance

This case: Trivial domain, done in a labor intensive personal manner with lots of needless manual labor -> Suggestion of a much simpler, most common way businesses/orgs do it

You could argue that doing it with printing misses the quirkiness, personal touch, uniqueness of the process, and I totally agree.

But not that this process can't be automated and replaced with a simple PC+printing for less manual labor and low cost.

I've done it for a couple organizations I've worked at, and it's trivial. You can print black and white A0 and larger signs for a dollar (and color for $10 depending on size, up to A0 which is 33.1 x 46.8 in).

In fact the whole point of the article about this Tokyo subway guy, is that it's a unique case because this (duct tape and hours of manual labour) is NOT the way such things are usually done.

But the thing is that everyone knows it can be done cheaper and faster, it’s not a surprise to anyone.

But mentioning that such action exists in an article about craftsmanship comes out as discrediting their work. No matter how one says it.

I'm sorry man, but this tape sign guy is a fucking idiot and all the hubbub is retarded too

He's using the wrong tools to poorly do a menial job slowly. If you can't see that, I don't know what's wrong with you

Maybe next week there'll be an article about a dedicated salaryman who masterfully scrubs trains with a toothbrush

seriously...it's like the HN Drinking Game in here

But then you wouldn't get the free publicity from all the people interested in your unique hand-made signs.

Sure. I prefer the uniqueness, and quirkiness myself. It's something different than the usual industrial approach.

But I'm just responding to people who saying it couldn't be done in another way (have they ever been involved with sign making? of course it could) or that it wont save time to have it done another way, or that it would cost more...

There is no management pressure. The article mentions that the artist took it upon himself to start making the signs. So I'm under the impression he does so within his free time.

The mystery is whether he does this during downtime at work, or overtime after work.

Due to the medium, he must be doing the laborious work onsite.

I suppose if the job is helping direct people, he will have his hands full during rush hour and have all day in between to contemplate the signage needed most.

The mystery to me is how he's allowed to block off large sections of floor/wall for hours to make them. You'd think management would be cross about that, at least.

It's his job to direct traffic through the space, I'm sure they understand that he knows best when and how to do the work.

His management is thoughtful! Plotters are cheap, but the entire chain of events leading to an effective sign being installed is almost certainly higher than this one guy spending a few hours on a sign.

It would literally take less than 10 minutes to make a crappy looking sign like that on a vinyl plotter, from laying it out on a laptop to cutting and sticking it.

So you would need somebodey who go onsite, but has no idea about the situation, this guy has to draw an example. But because this guy has no idea about the situation, he would need one or two worker from the site to help him.

So he design it .. the other guys have to say ok, produce the sign, deliver the sign, somebody has to recieve it, entry check for bill, somebody has to hang it up .. and it better is the correct size .. and has no error. And just for a little change the hole thing again.

I'm pretty sure if you have a worker who can do it onsite with tape (and keep it simple) .. there is no competition.

Remind me on this. The Super Micro CEO made an Ad by himself.


Most of these are in spaces too rough or temporary for the cost of vinyl stickers.

As a Japanese language learner, I must say I have no trouble at all reading Sato's kanjis. Surprisingly enough! I live in Tokyo and I use the Nippori station at least once a month. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see Sato's work, so far :( I'll be aware.

I find the 'ro' in his katakana completely illegible:


I guess they can't all be winners.

Does this guy take commissioned work? It's probably out of my budget but damn it would make for a cool piece of wall art.

I really like typefaces optimized for readability. For road and train signs, this property is of great importance (obviously), but they usually also end up aesthetically pleasing.

Car designs used to be done with tape drawings (as part of the process, of course) https://youtu.be/PuZJO2jGGe0

Applications are open for YC Winter 2023

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact