Japanese Design Archive Survey


Designers & Creators

Koichi Sato

Graphic Designer


Date: June 24, 2020 10:30 - 12:00
Location: Tokyo Polytechnic University
Interviewees: Takahiro Eto, Takehiko Muramatsu
Interviewers: Keiko Kubota, Yasuko Seki
Author: Yasuko Seki



Koichi Sato

Graphic Designer

1944 Born in Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture.
1967 Graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts, Department of Crafts, majoring in visual design, and joined Shiseido's Advertising Department.
1971 Became independent and started freelance work.
1982 - 1987 Part-time lecturer at Tokyo University of the Arts.
1995 - 2015 Professor, Tama Art University.
2015 Professor Emeritus, Tama Art University.
2016 Passed away.

Koichi Sato



After Koichi Sato's death, the "Graphic Designer Koichi Sato Exhibition" held at the Takasaki Museum of Art in the fall of 2017 was a major retrospective organised by theme. Although most of the works were posters, I was overwhelmed by their expressive power, richness of ideas, message power, breadth of themes, and technical skills in expression, which emanated a mass like ‘art’. On my way home, I found a small textbook titled "Gakuseitachi ni Kakinokosu Hon" (A Book to Leave Behind for Students) in the museum shop and picked it up. It was edited for this exhibition by Takahiro Eto and Takehiko Muramatsu, his former assistants. The numerous messages written in a vigorous handwriting revealed Sato's passionate and sincere thoughts about design that he wanted to pass on to future generations, which I had never known before. I'd like to introduce one of the messages in lieu of a description.
"People think of design work as sensory work, but in fact it is more of a head job.
All successful designers' work is the result of deeper thought than others. But great individual pieces of work are not the result of long hours of thought. They are always images that were already there the moment they were conceived. These two things may seem contradictory, but they are very important when looking into the designer's consciousness.
In other words, it is important to have a high level of awareness from the beginning, and you have to be relaxed when conceiving your work. To be able to relax, confidence in one's skills is a prerequisite. The technique can be communicated, but how do you communicate awareness?"
It is like a passionate athlete competing in the art of design. For this issue, we interviewed Takahiro Eto and Takehiko Muramatsu.



Representative works

Poster "New Music Media" (1974), Cover "Record Collectors' Magazine", Music Magazine (1985), Poster for the movie "Likyu (Rikyu)" (1988), Poster for the establishment of the International Design Center "IdcN" (1996), Poster for "100 Years of Japanese Migration to Mexico" (1997), Poster "Mana Screen 25TH ANNIVERSARY" (2003), Poster "Tama Art University Doctoral Program Final Exhibition 2006" (2006), poster "21st Century Rimpa Posters" ginza graphic gallery (2015)


Main Publications

"KOICHI SATO", Rikuyosha (1990), "Graphic Design in the World 13: Koichi Sato", ginza graphic gallery (1994), "Sato Koichi: The Design World of Koichi Sato, a New Generation Graphic Designer", Hubei Art Publishing House (1999), "Koichi Sato's YES EYE SEE 1982-83", DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion (2011)


Major Awards

Mainichi Advertisement Design Competition 2nd Special Mention (1970); Tokyo ADC Grand Prize, Tokyo ADC Award (1985); First Prize in the New York Museum of Modern Art Poster Competition (1988); Mainichi Design Awards (1991); Tokyo ADC Hiromu Hara Prize (1994); Special Prize, Brno International Graphic Design Biennale (1994); Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Art Encouragement Prize, Fine Arts Division (1997); Highest Award, Moscow International Graphic Design Biennial (Golden Bee) (1996); Silver Prize, Mexico International Poster Biennial (2014)

Koichi Sato works



Isn't it necessary to have a stage where the deceased is memorialized before the archive?

Current Status of Design Archives

 I understand that Mr Eto and Mr Muramatsu have been organising lots of works and materials since the death of Koichi Sato in 2016. So today we would like to ask you about the current status of Mr Sato's design archive.


Eto Mr Muramatsu and I took the lead in organising them, consulting with the bereaved families. First, the posters were donated to the CCGA (Center for Contemporary Graphic Art) of Dai Nippon Printing, an organisation that collects posters, as well as to the Printing Museum of Toppan Printing, the Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design and the Takasaki City Museum of Art in his home town. It was difficult to find a suitable recipient for works and materials other than posters, but in the end they were acquired by the Art Archive Center of Tama Art University (hereafter AAC), where he was teaching.


 Other than the posters, what else did you find?


Muramatsu These include original drawings and prints used for posters, hanging scroll works, small graphics such as brochures and flyers, books and magazines handwritten sketches and notes, photographs, letters, airbrushes, pens and other tools. The photographs and letters were checked for content by the family.


 Do you have a list of those?


Muramatsu We have a list of the major posters, but nothing else, and many of the materials donated to the AAC do not have details. In fact, we don't have no clue about his works when he was still young and did not have an assistant.


 Was his work mainly posters?


Eto Posters are his main focus, and I think editorial design works will come next. He did a lot of magazine work for Kobunsha, such as "JJ" and "CLASSY.". He also worked on fashion magazines, art books, photo books, exhibition catalogues, and corporate PR magazines, such as Shiseido's "Beauty Study", Imperial Hotel's "Imperial", and the Sogetsu Publishing Department's "Sogetsu Quarterly Magazine". He also did a lot of work related to the theatre, including the Seibu Theater's PR magazine "Gekijo" and posters for the Seinenza Theater Company and Ongakuza Musical.


 In what condition was it when it was donated to the AAC?


Muramatsu The collection was roughly categorised during his lifetime, and it took another two years to organise it into two sets of posters and one set of other items, which were delivered in two separate deliveries in 2018. As there is currently no official data on the works and materials, the AAC, led by professors, staff and pupils, will first digitally photograph the collection and then compile a list from this.


Koichi Sato works

Sato‘s archives stored in AAC



 What is the total number of archives?


Muramatsu I don't know how many there were, but in terms of mass, I think they occupied about 5 x 3 x 7 metres in the office warehouse. The book collection was gradually reduced by selling, giving away or disposing of books whenever the office moved. Not all of the books he designed have survived.


 Did it include his collections or tastes?


Muramatsu He did not have a particular collection, but he did collect printed matter from around the world and postcards as samples. He also had some soy sauce jugs from Kiyoken, but he was not what you would call a collector.


Eto We are his students from his later years, and we would like to record not only his works and materials, but also the stories of the staffs and other people who were involved before us.


Muramatsu After his death, when we were organising the works, we had a meeting with the staff members of the past generation, and we looked at the works together while talking about episodes. I hope to eventually collect such testimonies and convert them into text.


 Please make it happen.


Eto I believe that a design archive is meaningless unless it goes beyond the preservation and organisation of works and materials to the stage where something can be read from them and utilised in the future. Each time we talked about his work from our own perspectives, a new image of Sato emerged, and it was a very happy time for me, even though I was sad. I felt that by reading through the remaining archives, we can bring the artist back to life again and again.


Muramatsu I see archiving and organising artworks as part of the process of memorialising the deceased. In reality, there is a lot of unseen stuff that has to be cleared away through the works and materials. Personally, the word 'archive' seems very pragmatic to me, and I feel a gap between what I have done.


 The word "archive" implies that objectivity is important, and in this sense, people may have a matter-of-fact sense of the word. However, I believe that archives are also an important way to pass on the works and ideas of the deceased to future generations.


Eto At his request, after delivering a set of posters to all the museums, we distributed the remaining posters to his students at Tama Art University. We gave priority to the international students, but it was great to be able to spread his message around the world through the posters.


Muramatsu It may have been his hope to see the future of design through the eyes of his students, rather than just storing his works in one place as an archive.


 It is a very typical episode of Koichi Sato. The book "Gakuseitachi ni Kakinokosu Hon" (A Book to Leave Behind for Students) that I bought at the shop of Takasaki Museum of Art is also wonderful with its message to the future generations of designers.


Koichi Sato works Koichi Sato works

From the book "Gakuseitachi ni Kakinokosu Hon"



Who is the designer, Koichi Sato?


 Now, I'd like to ask you about Koichi Sato, the designer for both of you.


Eto I entered Tama Art University in 2001 and started taking classes with Mr Sato in my third year, and was his assistant for four years from 2006 to 2010, so I have known him for about ten years. During that time, I think I was more like a student than a staff member at the office.
The encounter was shocking. At the end of the second year at Tama Art University, the professor in charge gives an orientation on the content of the third year classes, and Mr Sato suddenly said, "Please don't choose my class. Only those who aim to become world-class designers should take the course". The point is that he screens students first, but I was, on the contrary, fiercely attracted to the idea.
The class spends the first 15 weeks of the first semester creating posters. In the first week, we were briefed on the assignment to make an announcement poster for our own exhibition, and in the second week I completed a B1 size poster, even printed it out full-size, and brought it to the class in high spirits. Naturally, I was expecting to hear "Wow!". But the result was a 40-minute sermon in which I was theoretically analysed on what was wrong with the poster. At that time, I couldn't understand a single thing he was saying, and I froze as if I had an accident. But I was not sad or frustrated at all, and I was overcome with joy that I had met someone who was serious about something I didn't know. It was a kind of baptism that affected me afterwards.


 Did you know about Mr Sato before?


Eto Yes, I knew him from my prep school days. However, from the narrow perspective of a prep school student, I could only recognise that his style was difficult to apply to two-dimensional composition. Moreover, many of his posters make use of the principles of printing, but unfortunately this is not reproduced in his books or yearbooks. When I began to learn from him directly, I was able to see the actual posters and truly experience the beauty of his work.


 What kind of work do you like?


Eto Works such as "100 Years of Japanese Emigration to Mexico" and "IdcN" appear to be finished in a very simple manner. These works are not based on so-called superlative techniques such as gradation expression, but can be reproduced by anyone if you break them down into individual elements, which is why I find them amazing. By combining things that anyone can do, or by composing common motifs and modeling elements, he creates fresh images and deep communication that we have never seen before. In other words, even if it is simple, the idea has depth as a picture. For example, anyone could come up with a combination of the Japanese flag and a cactus. However, the fact that the cactus' thorns also grow out of the sun's circle is the depth of the idea, and makes this poster extraordinary. I was told that this thorn was adopted when he was making a rough cut-out drawing and the thorn happened to fall on the Japanese flag.
Not only in this work, but also when I was an assistant, I often encountered the moment when I scooped up more ideas while making a picture. This is the driving force behind the leap from anyone's idea to Koichi Sato's one-off work.
I also like his poster with fans, a work from his later years. In addition to Mr Sato, Katsumi Asaba, Yukimasa Okumura, Kaoru Kasai, Mitsuo Katsui, Kazumasa Nagai, Masayoshi Nakajo, Kazunari Hattori, Kenya Hara, and Shin Matsunaga participated in the "21st Century Rimpa Posters" organised by ginza graphic gallery to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Rimpa School. I heard from Mr Muramatsu that it took only 40 minutes to complete the design, which was a repeated arrangement of fans. It was kitschy, but at the same time dignified, generous, but also precise. Not only this work, but it is a rare example of a work that combines contradictory qualities at the same time.


Muramatsu I was one year below Mr Eto at Tama Art University, where he taught me in my third and fourth years. After graduation, I worked for another company and then worked for Mr Sato as a staff member from 2010 to 2016, and remained at his office for a while after he passed away.
When I was a sophomore, I was shocked when I first heard him speak at an open critique class at an open campus. I was so conflicted about whether I wanted to take the course or not that I had trouble falling asleep. In the class explanation, he talked about "how to make flowers bloom for you" by combining HANA, i.e. flower with nose, edge and the Korean word "hana". The students applauded, so it was very different from when Mr Eto was there.
In class, I showed him a picture I had drawn of dentures in fluorescent colours, and he responded with a flurry of enthusiasm. Mr Sato had a lot of knowledge and know-how about kitsch, which overturned my image of him as a designer of tranquil, Japanese-style paintings. I hardly remember being scolded in the third year, and I think I was only taught how to do things like this to make it look even cool. I like the cover of "Record Collectors Magazine", which was made when he was young. It's made roughly like the "Haigra"(haiku and graphic) of his later years, but it is more powerful or stiff than "Haigra", and maybe that is what attracts me to it. Also, compared to other posters of the same period, they seem to have been created with a sense of mischief. When I saw the cover of "Sogetsu Quarterly Magazine" in a second-hand bookstore, which simply had a sheet of seaweed on it, I thought I was going to lose my mind. Such nonsense works are not taken up as his representative works, but they give me a sense of Mr Sato's personality.
I would also like to mention "Tama Art University Doctoral Program Final Exhibition 2006". I remember seeing that poster on the campus on the day of my graduation ceremony and standing there. The poster was a reminder that interesting things were about to begin at this school, but I had to leave. That regret might have been the motivation for me to become Mr Sato's assistant.
In each case, I am impressed simply by the fact that there is an image in front of me that I have never seen before, and the free mind that creates it, and the way he really seems to enjoy designing.


 What was it about Mr Eto's poster that bothered Mr Sato compared to Mr Muramatsu's?


Eto The posters that were preached about were designed by arranging their drawings from workshops with children. In hindsight, I wonder if it was a bad idea to not play with my own loincloth, but to take the children's drawings and say, "This is good, isn't it?". I think that was a bad mentality. In addition to that, I think it was the lack of basic ideas, the lack of information transfer, the handling of typography, and everything else from the centre to the edges.


 What was it like for you at work?


Muramatsu I still remember that in the evening he drank beer, but he served it to me as well as to himself. I once heard that in the old days there used to be a bottle under the desk. When he was younger, he couldn't drink at all. We only saw him in the last ten years of his long career. Not only about drinking, but also about his work and his work ethic, which is only a small part of what we can really talk about.


Eto At the university, he was strict and I was very nervous, but I remember that in the office he was very relaxed and always in a good mood. Incidentally, in my and Mr Muramatsu's time there were no full-time staff, and we worked as staff with a business card, but we went to the office two or three times a week.


 How did he get the job done?


Eto When I went to the office at around 11am, I found his sketches and instructions on the desk and I was working on the PC. He came in a little after noon and we each sit down back to back and start working. After a while, he sat down on my right side and started designing on the monitor, but he would touch the monitor, so I had prepared a tortillon (a tool used for drawing with pastels and charcoal) for him to use. In Mr Muramatsu's case, he had prepared rape chopsticks.


 So he never worked with PCs himself?


Eto Yes. But when we were using Photoshop, he knew the principles of the brush tool, tone curves, etc., and gave us precise instructions. I feel like we learnt more from him about how to use them and the possibilities of expression.


 When I worked with Mr Sato before, and I was impressed by his numerical instructions in the print proofs, such as "increase cyan by a percentage" and "decrease magenta by a percentage". I still remember being surprised at the precision of Mr Sato's instructions, whereas most designers would use vague expressions such as "increase slightly" or "make it a little darker".


Eto When he gave instructions in red on the proof print, he didn't write in a vague way. I think he was familiar with what could be done in print and had the experience to give specific instructions.


 His precise instructions to you two are the same as those to the printing company.


Eto Considering that Photoshop is a digital version of photographic darkroom work and plate-making, we believe that his experience of using an airbrush and working in the darkroom when he was young was fundamental to his graphic work. Because of the knowledge he gained from his experience, he gave us precise instructions rather than forcing us to do something unreasonable, and if he didn't agree with our predictions, he immediately showed us other possibilities, so we never felt burdened or frustrated in our work.


Muramatsu I learned the principles of tone curves from him. Tone curves adjust colour tones by shifting the curves of colour channel such as cyan and magenta, but he applied the principle of gradation and had a good understanding of how it works. I think it was through the accumulation of rational and concrete understanding that he was able to picture the finished product in his mind.


 The people of Mr Sato's generation have a base of wisdom that they learnt through their bodies, so they were able to apply it to their designs even when the design tools changed from pens and airbrushes to PCs. The PC generation suddenly designs using tone curves in Photoshop. Do you think there are differences in work and ideas between the two generations?


Eto There will be. He was designing based on some degree of prediction of what would happen if he did this, but our generation, including myself, often make design decisions while moving shapes around on a PC. It is possible to proceed without precise plans or aims, or. In a sense, it could be said that our own intentions take a back seat. We are always trying to work out what we want to do, but we are not always able to make it stick, and sometimes we end up in a maze.


 According to a former staff member of Yusaku Kamekura, Mr Kamekura gave a lot of thought to the design before deciding on it, but once he decided on it, he never revised or changed it more than once.


Muramatsu I think Mr Sato was working from a clear concept.


 What did you do after you had finished your day's work?


Muramatsu When we have finished our work we make a printout. While we were away, Mr Sato would cut, paste and add corrections to the printouts and make improvements. We would then process them again, repeating the analogue and digital processes several times until they were finally completed.


 So he had the time and space to contemplate the design on his own?


Eto Perhaps it was because of this that he was always so clear in his thinking, and we staff never felt strangely stressed.


 Was his home separate from his work place?


Eto Yes. His work place was in Hongo, separate from his home. He moved several times, but I remember that he was always in the Hongo area.


 From what you've told us, his work pace was relatively relaxed, wasn't it?


Eto Indeed. However, we were regularly involved in visual design for trade fairs such as the JAPAN SHOP and the Architecture and Building Materials Exhibition at Tokyo Big Sight, packaging for the Japanese confectionery Kanou Shoujuan, newsletters such as "Sogetsu Quarterly Magazine" and "Imperial", and posters for ADC, JAGDA and Tama Art University etc.. Until 2015 he was also teaching at Tama Art University. When I was there, he was also working with Mizumaru Anzai and Shinichiro Wakao on a project called "Haigra", in which they created graphics to accompany their own words and haiku on hanging scrolls, creating around 14 or 15 playful graphic works and holding exhibitions. His creative work was very fulfilling.


Muramatsu When I was there, regular work such as magazines was over and there were many one-off poster commissions. There were also several exhibitions looking back on his career, such as the exhibition "The Poster Works of Koichi Sato" at ginza graphic gallery and the "Tama Art University Retirement Commemoration: Koichi Sato Exhibition", and I was organising posters and compiling a collection of works for the exhibitions.


 You were already working on the archiving process. Did you both work on your own on the days you did not go to the office?


Eto I was a student, so I was doing my own research and creating.


Muramatsu I was freelance, doing my own work.



Unanswered question


 From what you have told us so far, it seems that at the office, Mr Sato was more of a natural communicator, sharing the process with you rather than a master teacher of design.


Muramatsu Did he have that kind of awareness in the first place, or not?


Eto Sometimes he would tell me specific things. In my case, he was very strict at the university, but at the office he was very gentle, which was a little disconcerting. What about you, Mr Muramatsu?


Muramatsu There was a time lag between my graduation and becoming a staff member, so I was often very nervous when I showed him my freelance work, just as I was when I was a student. Most of the time, he would give me compliments during the day, but then when we started drinking beer at night, he would sharply re-criticise me. Looking back, I wonder if they were more honest at night.


 What kind of things are you talking about?


Muramatsu  It was not about concrete things that could be solved immediately, such as colours and shapes, but more about more fundamental things, such as thinking and attitude towards design. I still have homework to do.


Eto That's right. Mr Sato's points are not specific, but fundamental questions. It's like he is leaving us with eternal questions. But I think that's what keeps me motivated to continue designing.


 Was Mr Sato himself a person for whom "design = living = play"?


Eto In a way, I think that's true. I feel that it was in the actual work that I was playing around rather seriously, not to mention the artwork work like the "Box Series" and "Haigra". I always looked forward to seeing the series of posters for the doctoral course exhibition at Tama Art University, which seemed to get more and more off the rails as the years went by. One thing I didn't expect was that he liked television. He told us in the office that he often watched documentaries on natural science, perhaps influenced by the fact that his father worked for NHK.


Muramatsu When I was working, we talked about television. I remember it was a documentary or something like that.


 How do you feel about designs that send a social message, such as environmental issues, nature, children, peace, etc.?


Eto He was never vocal or active on such themes. Of course, he has designed posters with such content, but I think our aim was not just to convey a message in a straightforward manner, but to stimulate the viewer's senses and provoke thought.


 What about writing such as essays and reviews?


Eto I don't think he ever actively wrote essays, etc., but he did write for his own books and catalogues.


Muramatsu When he was younger, he had a series of articles in "Music Magazine". For a long time he was passionate about haiku, and he also wrote poetry when he was a student.


 How was the photo?


Eto In his later years, he made handmade collections of his own photographs, which he pasted into his sketchbooks. I was always amazed at how something poetic emerged from the simple operation of combining two photographs. I think he made nearly 20 books.


Muramatsu When he was a student he was in the photography club and he wanted his graduation project from Tokyo University of the Arts to be a photograph, but he wasn't allowed. At the time, he was working in the darkroom, so he was able to apply the mechanisms of photography and development, such as solarisation, to posters, and I think he also had knowledge of Photoshop.


 There are fewer opportunities to design by hand these days, but did he always insist on doing it by hand?


Eto In fact, he probably did, but I don't think he placed any more value on manual labour than necessary, or on labouring for nothing. He made everything himself, but he was strict against labour becoming an end in itself.


Muramatsu However, when he was younger and using an airbrush, he used to stay up all night. It may be because it was only in his later years that he did not stay up all night.


 From what you have told us so far, Koichi Sato is a genius, and he was able to imagine the finished product from the very beginning, wasn't him?


Eto I don't think so. He was not aiming for the project to be finished on time, but rather enjoyed the leaps in design that the process took, although he did anticipate them to a certain extent.


Muramatsu It may feel more like invention.


Eto It is certainly an invention. If it was predictable from the start, he wouldn't have done it.


 What else do you remember about Mr Sato's work?


Eto I like his logo and symbol designs and was impressed by his ability to draw from such a wide range. Of course he is good at it, as posters are also symbols in a way, but I am attracted to designs that are even more powerful and wild than posters.


Muramatsu In terms of archiving, he also neatly preserved his airbrushed gradients and pasteup manuscripts. For example, it seems that he sometimes combined the pasteups of work A and B to create a new work C. For this reason, he needed to keep the pasteups of his past work. It's a remix approach, but I think he had a second, simplified production process in place because airbrushing is so labour-intensive. By the time I was there, he weren't already using airbrushing, but we were pulling out old work and pasteups, scanning them in and reusing them.


 Finally, can you tell us about a special story that has stayed with you both?


Eto The kanji in my family name was originally '衛', but it was Mr. Sato who inspired me to use another kanji 'ゑ' instead of '衛'. It was just before he underwent major surgery. When I went to see him, he said, "From the moment I met you, I thought your name Eto was not good. Especially '衛' is not good. I thought about it". At the time I thought he was joking, but that was the last time I met him. When I thought about his true meaning, I remembered that he had once pointed out to me that I had a Yayoi sensibility. This can be a good thing, as it is refined and beautiful, but it can also be bland and boring. It was just around the time when I became independent, and I thought that he was pushing me to 'break out of my shell', so I decided to call myself “ゑ藤", using the kanji character “ゑ" which looks like a whirlpool, like Flame-type earthenware.


 You mean you changed your real name?


Eto Only at work, a pseudonym, so to speak. Then, when I called him after the operation, he advised me to "wear an interesting hat or get a fancy haircut". I think this is a superficial way of saying "come out of your shell" and I still don't know what he meant by this.


 Certainly, it takes power to dress flamboyantly, and in a way it may be connected to breaking out of one's shell. I think that is what he was trying to say. I feel that many of the portraits of Mr Sato himself and his later years are eccentric.


Muramatsu When I showed him my works he said: "I think it's well done, but I don't like. Of course the client would be very happy with the design, But it's not. The real job of the designer is to present beauty beyond the client's imagination. How long are you going to keep doing this kind of work?" It's like a horrible curse, but I still keep those words in mind when I work.


Eto It's definitely a curse.


 But it's a gratifying curse. When a designer proposes a jaw-dropping design that exceeds the imagination, I am unintentionally crestfallen, but at the same time it's exciting and the finished product is enjoyable. Mr Sato must have given you two a pep talk, telling you that you could do more.


Eto If he didn't care, he wouldn't dare to speak harshly about it, given his personality. So people have to change before technology.


 Design is personality. It means that you can't do it in a manipulative technique.


Eto It doesn't come across clearly when we are told what to think with just your head, but when we hear it from someone like Mr Sato, whose head and hands are first class, we have no choice but to agree.


 I would like to continue to ask about the future of his archive to the AAC of Tama Art University, where it is currently held. Thank you very much for your time today.





Tama Art University Art Archive Center https://aac.tamabi.ac.jp