On Design—Shin Gyo So, Formal Informal

The lanterns standing outside this stone mason’s workshop in Wajima display a full range of formal and informal styles.
Formal Informal
In the creative arts in Japan there are what are known as kata.  It can mean a mould or a pattern or a style or type and even a convention or a stereotype.  On occasions it is simply a shape.  Most of these words in English refer to real things—“to pour lead into a mould”.  In other cases the words describe situations—“there is a pattern in his behaviour”.  The word can even be used to describe nothing more than a size—“I’d like to buy a large fridge”.  From a design and creative arts point of view, kata is taken as a convention, a form or arrangement to be followed, representing something almost as if it were a universal code that the Japanese especially recognise as having significance.

A very informal almost rustic style of lantern 
that corresponds to the So from Shin Gyo So
Such conventions, too, can be found in various aspects of society.  If you are going to play golf in Japan you need to be wearing the “right” clothes.  This phenomena is, of course, not exclusively a Japanese trait.  Since the success of the British cycling team at the 2012 London Olympics, the roads in the countryside where I live have become racetracks or training courses for those who would aspire to follow their heroes.  They all have the “right” cycling wear and are well equipped with light weight racing bicycles and helmets, too.  This is not a jibe as such behaviour.  It is simply evidence of just how committed this new breed of cyclists are, and the same is true in Japan.  The would-be golfer is similarly passionate and anxious to look the part.

A page from a character manual shows the “true” Shin rendering at the top right of each block and the So writing in the lower lefthand corner.  From Kakikata Jiten (A Dictionary of How to Write Characters) published by Nobarasha, Tokyo, 1978.
But how do these conventions work in design?  Taking just one of them let’s consider Shin Gyo So, which for simplicity’s sake can be translated as Formal-Informal.  The expression is often used to describe three styles of writing, or a gradual transition from a formal style through to a more relaxed and flowing style of calligraphy.

An example of formal through to informal arrangements of stones.  From Nihon no Toshikukan (Urban Design in Japan) by Teiji Ito and others, published by Shokokusha, Tokyo (www.shokokusha.co.jp).
Although not exactly, this transition could be likened to the difference between very precisely hand written copper plate English script through a more fluid style, which finally becomes a quite loosely written and characterful handwriting.

A range of soup bows from the lacquerware workshops of Tohachi in Wajima.  All display a very formal, elegant character.
This kind of transition can be seen in the way garden features are arranged or expressed.  It is also evident in some forms of poetry and even in styles of swimming particular to Japan.

An example of a very informal, hand painted soup bowl lid from the archive of the Local History Museum in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture.
The stones of a garden path might be rigidly arranged and therefore seen as formal.  Using the same stones but in a far less rigid layout would be seen as informal and therefore verging on the rustic.

Hand painted in a very informal way, this soup bowl too comes from the archive of the Local History Museum in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture.
Having such kata as a guide when designing something could, I suppose, be likened to the way a composer has different keys at his disposal when writing a piece of music—a minor key to create a melancholic atmosphere, a major key for a happier passage.  However such conventions are used each one can be part of the designers palette of features and design devices through which to express style and atmosphere.  It could be done through a lantern, a piece of lacquerware or even with a garden path.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright except where noted.

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