Kashiwa Sato is the designer behind some of Japan’s most globally recognizable logos ― including Rakuten’s. In February, the branding guru opened an exhibition at Roppongi’s National Art Center, Tokyo, showcasing some of his most striking and iconic work and the history behind it.
Sato is also a longtime friend of Rakuten Chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani ― the pair have worked together for nearly two decades. In a special livestream, Sato gave Mikitani a tour of his exhibition and sat down to chat about Rakuten’s branding history and the future of technology and design.
“Rakuten wouldn’t be what it is today without Kashiwa Sato. You’re more than a creator, more than a designer. As a designer, your job is to express things, but it’s also to get rid of what is not necessary. Most people can’t do that second part. To be able to do that, you really need to be able to see and understand the fundamental workings of what you’re working on.”Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.
Designing for the digital age
Sato first became involved with Rakuten in 2003, when the company operated out of an office in Roppongi, Tokyo. “That was when we designed the logo with the Japanese characters.”
“I remember arguing with you about whether or not we needed to change the logo to English letters,” Mikitani laughs.
“Then one day you suddenly turned to me and said, Kashiwa-kun, let’s do baseball,” Sato recalls. “We soon realized all the ways we could use the Eagles for marketing, and within the space of a year we were a household name in Japan.”
“It was pretty sudden, wasn’t it?” Mikitani agrees. “We finished the project in about a month.”
Following Rakuten’s entry into Japan’s professional baseball league, Sato helped design the company’s new office spaces in Shinagawa, Tokyo, supported the creation of Rakuten Shugi, and helped launch Rakuten Ichiba’s first platform-wide sales. Rakuten Group went on to launch its first TV commercials featuring the high-energy Rakuten Card Man, and welcomed the much-loved Okaimono Panda character into the family.
“Rakuten Card Man was a good one,” Sato reminisces. “That wasn’t an approach anyone else was taking. But that’s what made it memorable.”
Today we’re living a lifestyle we never would have imagined, thanks to technology. By throwing design into the mix, we’re making that technology more visible, more accessible. Merging design and technology in turn improves society.Kashiwa Sato, art director and creative director of Samurai Inc.
The scope of Rakuten’s activities was expanding rapidly, and Sato and Mikitani were soon presented with a new branding challenge: With one company doing so many different things, how should Rakuten form its own identity?
“Shopping, travel, the credit card business ― how do we present each of these services in a way that people will want to use them?” Mikitani poses. “It’s easy to understand how unique designs are important for handbags or fashion, but for the world’s IT companies, everyone is putting a huge amount of effort into establishing a consistent identity. With Rakuten, however, our businesses are more diverse than any of these companies. We’re dealing in everything from dried fish to bitcoin.”
Today, Rakuten operates more than 70 different services in Japan alone. But if consistency and diversity are two potentially conflicting concepts, how do leading designers make them work together?
Now we have banking services, securities, travel, shopping, insurance, everything. Those need to be connected in a natural intuitive way in order for us to take on the global competition, to support our regional merchants and hotels and to make sure our end users feel comfortable and secure with any of our services.Mickey Mikitani
“As a designer, it’s my job to give a new perspective on things to the world,” Sato explains. “Rakuten is doing all sorts of exciting new things with technology, but I’m here to leverage the power of design to communicate those things in a way that’s accessible to everyone.”
“Stylish, but simple to understand. Classy, but approachable,” Mikitani expands. “Two more conflicting concepts.”
“You’re always getting me to design from contradictory ideas like that,” Sato jokes. “That’s why I chose to represent that in this logo behind us ― one R with so much going on inside it. But it was too much! I couldn’t fit it all in!”
“In the end it’s all about UX. Not just design,” Mikitani offers. “If you’re designing a car, you design it in its entirety. With a house, it’s the entire living space. The same things are important in the online realm.”
“When we first began with the Rakuten Ichiba marketplace, we had all these different designs in the same place,” he remembers. “Because there was so much variety on offer, we felt it represented the color and fun you’d experience at a traditional street market. But when online becomes central to our way of life, that’s no longer possible. Now we have banking services, securities, travel, shopping, insurance, everything. Those need to be connected in a natural intuitive way in order for us to take on the global competition, to support our regional merchants and hotels and to make sure our end users feel comfortable and secure with any of our services.”
“What do I want to do in the future? Well, I’m looking forward to seeing what Mickey Mikitani does next.”Kashiwa Sato
Kashiwa Sato has played a fundamental role in realizing this vision, Mikitani says, creating a design platform that allowed Rakuten to chase its goals of leveraging the power of the internet to empower society.
“Rakuten wouldn’t be what it is today without Kashiwa Sato,” he reveals. “You’re more than a creator, more than a designer. As a designer, your job is to express things, but it’s also to get rid of what is not necessary. Most people can’t do that second part. To be able to do that, you really need to be able to see and understand the fundamental workings of what you’re working on.”
In our tech-infused future, design will be more important than ever
Mikitani believes that while the rapid advance of technology is already driving a reevaluation of everyday services — the pandemic has accelerated this even further.
“We need to think about the value of each service. Take TV stations, for example. What’s the fundamental value that a TV station creates? We’ve come to a point where we need to rethink all of this,” he says. “Restaurants, for example ― in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, are they places you go to eat, or are they simply kitchens that create meals? What value will banks bring when physical cash no longer exists? These establishments and services that were created to manage a certain thing ― what happens when that thing goes online? Do we even need offices anymore? That’s become a topic of late. I feel like we’re experiencing the future now – everything has moved forward at warp speed because of the pandemic.”
“In the office design industry, people are saying work styles have suddenly jumped ahead ten years. We’d been talking about working remotely for a while already, and we had the tools. But now we’ve been forced to use them,” Sato remarks. “That said, knowing you for 18 years now certainly makes online easy: It’s like a long phone call with a friend.”
Sato sees design playing an increasingly essential role as technology becomes more and more central to our lives.
“Today we’re living a lifestyle we never would have imagined, thanks to technology,” he says. “By throwing design into the mix, we’re making that technology more visible, more accessible. Merging design and technology in turn improves society.”
Mikitani, meanwhile, reiterates that consistency in branding will be more important than ever.
“You can do just about anything in cyberspace. That’s why it’s so important to have a consistent identity, a consistent experience for users – so they feel comfortable with whose service they’re using or want to use or where they want to shop. Because there is so much information out there, it’s crucial that our design is consistent and that it’s not only stylish but also warm and friendly.”
A collaboration rollercoaster of design
“Society has changed significantly with the rise of the internet, the rise of smart devices and AI, and the information revolution,” says Mikitani when Sato asks him about his outlook for the future. “The Rakuten platform ― including our technology, our design philosophy, our entrepreneurship ― is a platform that we want to be something that makes Japan a better place, not just while I’m alive but long afterwards too.”
Mikitani’s ambitions are food for Sato’s creative impulses.
“These 18 years have been a non-stop series of surprises, as Mickey has come to me and said, let’s try this business, let’s do that business. But that’s something I look forward to every time. I never get bored, with so many things to do,” Sato admits. “What do I want to do in the future? Well, I’m looking forward to seeing what Mickey Mikitani does next.”