Japanese design

When you eat characters…

BBC has spotted a new trend: creating food faces. But the trend is not just about creating food-faces for your own amusement or to persuade kids to eat their dinner. People are theming their Instagram accounts to share photos of food-faces. And where does this trend boom? – in Asia of course and Japan in particular. It’s so kawaii!


A Google search on Character Bento gives you a surprisingly creative and colorful result. A bento box is a Japanese lunch box usually containing a homecooked meal of rice, meat, fish and vegetables. Often carefully arranged to look appetizing. The food face trend is taking this tradition to a new level.

And yes food that looks like characters is common in Japan, and a lot of other places:


Me eating cake in Tokyo.


Character macarons

But it’s not a new thing to combine food and faces – and publishing the result. In the renaissance the Italian artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo specialised in the same concept when he excelled in painting faces made out of fruit, vegetables etc.

archimboldo arcimboldo

When we are seeing faces in the food like that, artists and foodies are relying on a phenomenon called pareidolia.

Wikipedia defines pareidolia as:  a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.


This is not a gif-animation of a face talking – it is a gif-animation of two fried eggs!



And so this trend is yet another example of how obsessed we are with faces and how powerful the face is as an archetypical image. We simply can’t help seeing the  familiar pattern of the face. It is almost compulsive.

And of course a lot of food branding is relying on the combination of food and faces


Mel the Milk-Bite from Kraft


Heinz Tomato man


Why do the Japanese love Irma?


Japan is far away from  Denmark.You can’t – almost – get any further away. As a child I always wondered why the Japanese didn’t fall of the face of the earth; I imagined that they must be standing with their heads down on the other side of earth – because clearly my head was up.

In many ways Japan is far away from Denmark and Danish culture. Just think about language, food, behavior etc. So do we have anything in common at all?

Well yes, we do! A girl called Irma!


For several years the Japanese has been in love with Irma. It has been reported how tourists ask for the local Irma-stores when visiting Copenhagen – and how they are buying stuff with her image on. Especially canvas totes.

Irma (called the Irma-girl or Irma-pigen in Danish) is an icon in Danish marketing and something that is regarded almost like national heritage i Denmark. She is the mascot of the supermarket chain Irma, that has anorganic focus and specializes in high quality products.

Irma is 108 years old and has been re-designed to her current look several times during her life.



And now here in November 2015 the Irma chain is making a promotion in Japan selling Irma and Irma-girl-accessories.


But if the Japanese are so different from us, why do they love our Irma?


When you visit Japan you can’t help noticing that they are crazy about characters – especially brand characters. Much more than we are used to in Denmark. It seems like every region, bigger city, tourist attraction has a mascot (which is a concept called yuru-chara) but also food brands, restaurants and many many products in general has a brand character.

The concept of kawaii (= cute) is japanese. They are experts in cuteness and are celebrating the childish and youthful.

A common image in Japanese anime culture and cosplay is the schoolgirl look.


And the Japanese love to wear these cute characters – so accessoires (teddy bears, prints, pins etc) are big business is Japan.

Japanese also celebrate classic minimalistic Scandinavian design – they for example adore Danish furniture design. Scandinavian design and classic Japanese design has very much in common in the formal style language.

Japanese love Irma because:

Irma is a young girl. She is innocent, a bit shy, and looking away from us.

Irma is stylish; she is simple, but elegant. She is classic in her colours and her clothes – without being old fashioned. Irma is Scandinavian in her style.

And you can buy totes, biscuit tins etc (japanese love sweet stuff) with her image on.

She is everything a Japanese girl could dream of.


The blessing of a new book


Last week a new book was delievered at my desk – and what a thrill. There are so few publications about character design in branding, but my new book is, and even better it is about one of my favourite subjects: japanese characters.

Title: Character design now. Effective characters in advertising, promotional tool, packages and logos.

My reaction must have been strong, because my colleague remarked: ‘It has been a long time since I’ve seen a person being so happy about a book’


Gif seen on Etlen

Flicking through the book gave many experiences. In Japan they are really very fund of characters. There is a character for every occation and brand.




And I can’t even read the book since it is written in japanese (luckily it mostly consists of pictures), but that left me wondering very much about what is going on in this last picture. Detail below:


Good vibes from the past – notes on nostalgia


Nostalgia is a term that keeps popping up when reading about character design. It seems to be important on several levels.

Nostalgia is originally a greek word and equals the term homesick – but it is also broader defined as a sentimental yearning after earlier and simpler times – often (but not always) it is a longing for childhood.

We love to recognize and revive positive experiences from the past – because it makes us feel good. Human beings do have selective memories and thrives better when focusing on the happy and positive.

A study found that repressing embarassing memories for long enough can lead to us erasing them completely

The Daily Telegraph on Selective memories

So if a brand character succeeds in beeing able to give us that positive vibe from the past, we will love and trust them. And therefore characters that continuously are reinvented and re-introduced in successful ways can have a very long life.


The Michelin man is for example 121 years old.


And this girl might at first sight seem young, but Matilde, who is the mascot of Arla’s drinking chocolate is 45 years old. And although she is middle aged, she has just been center of attention for young girls in a very popular social media campaign asking danish people to find girls looking like Matilde. For all of us who grew up with Matilde on the shelves in the supermarket and drikning the chocolate at birthday parties and for breakfast at weekends she is a nostalgic item.

And in the future Matilde will most likely also be present in the memories of all the girls participating in the competition:


Matilde look-alikes summer 2015  from the competion Jagten på Matildepigen on Instagram  #matildepigen

Nostalgia will favorably affect spokes-character trust

Niedrich, R. W.,Spokes-Characters: Creating trust and positive Brand attitudes

But there are other aspects linking nostalgia to brand characters. Last week I was discussing how cute characters affects us in my blogpost The power of kawaii! – and I established that seeing cute stuff makes us happy.

Yesterday I read an article (Russell, L., T., M., A socio-marketing analysis of the concept of cute and its consumer culture implications – 2014 Journal of Consumer Culture) and the article suggests  that there is a kind of escapism from real life in the widespread and growing attraction to and celebration of cuteness. Scientists who have studied the land of the cute (yes I’m talking about Japan) and the spreading of cuteness to the rest of the world say that:

Cute products attests to a rapidly expanding desire for cute, cuddly, reassuring comsumption experinces.

We seek out cute things when we need reassurance during stress

So cuteness is comforting us when the world is demanding. And how is this related to nostalgia? well dealing with the cute and celebrating it in an efford to partake some of the childhood’s simplicity, happiness and emotional warmth.

And taking it futher: ‘rebelllion from society in Japanese youth culture has developed into a rebellion from adulthood’  p.79. Japanese stay young by being cute.


Taking nostalgia to it’s logical conclusion: Adoring cuteness could very well be linked to this ‘moratorium mentality’ – a lack of desire to grow up!

The power of kawaii!


Kawaii? Say what?  – You might respond. And what’s up with the puppy?

Don’t worry – it all makes sense. I’m only trying to make you feel better.

Kawaii is japanese and it means cute. And the concept of cuteness is an essential part of japanese culture. Originally kawaii is referring to the image of a radiant og blushing face. And can also be translated into:  to be loved.

The icon of cuteness is Hello Kitty – and this year she has been 40 years in the business of kawaii! And she stronger than ever – because of her cuteness. Looking at Kitty (or other kawaii images) makes you feel good.


But why is all this talk about kawaii relevant in this context?

If you take a look over the landscape of brand characters you will meet cuteness everywhere. It is often the very essence of characterdesign. But why?

Cute things produce positive feelings

The tenderness elicited by cute images is more than just a positive feeling state. It can make people more physically tender in in their motor behavior and narrows attentional focus

Nittono, H. et al.: The Power of kawaii, PLoS one 2012


A immensely cute brand character is Danbo. He represents Amazon – he isa  sort of robot made from the company’s delivery boxes.


Or Zendiums toothpaste’s new characters called Zymerne


Or Yummo Yogurts penguin

When is something percieved to be cute?

Cute objects are assumed to be characterized by baby schema: A large head relative to the body size, a high and protruding forehead and large eyes.

This idea that cuteness in babies is a part of evolution that ensures that adults take care of their children was first described by the austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz in the 1970’s



 If a picture wasn’t going very well, I’d put a puppy in it.

Norman Rockwell

Being japanese in Paris

When I ask myself what is typical french or parisian seen from a visual point of view – my background in art history  supplies me with images and different genres of architectural styles that pops up in my head.

For me classic parisian style is a collage of stuff like:




Sofisticated elegance might be words that sums it up.



One of the elegant places in Paris is the department store Printemps. which among other things is famous for its art nouveau ornaments and glass domed ceiling in the centre of the building. Printemps turned 150 years in March and to celebrate that occation a mascot was designed.

Meet Rose. She is designed by the japanese 3D character designer Hiroshi Yoshii



Yoshii has a big family of characters in his portfolio and his style is a good example of the impact from japanese manga and kawaii style in character design.


What is interesting in relation to my project is that Rose is as an example of the influence of japanese visual culture in a western context for example in the use of characters in branding.

Printemps going kawaii – that is worth noting!

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