What is a ‘digital production studio’? What do they do, and why do companies need one?
We chat with Natsuko Sakai, Web Director at Tokyo based studio Garden Eight, to gather insight on the multi-award-winning studio’s daily workings, approach to creativity, and discover why it’s key for Japanese companies to have an international presence online.
One of the best things about working for a small independent agency, beyond just being allowed to reign free-ish as masters of our own — tiny — domains, is the general atmosphere of camaraderie between other similar organizations, Garden Eight being one of them.
At Y+L we’ve long been fans of the work of Tokyo based digital production studio Garden Eight.The company’s approach to building websites is fuelled by creativity as it is about technology and effective communication. Playing around on a Garden Eight-designed site is like taking a deep dive into a digital portal that does away with the concept of web ‘pages’. It’s clear the team take a more immersive approach to curating the online space they inhabit. Which is why when they reached out to us last year to connect, it felt like validation that we as an agency were doing something right.
Scrolling through the site they created for DDD Hotel is like flipping through the pages of a gorgeously designed lifestyle and architecture magazine, elegantly understated and utilitarian but beautiful in its refined layout and colour palette. Then there’s the online space they built for indie games company Shapefarm, bright and bold without being overbearing. Its colour selection, use of animation and still images breathe life into your computer monitor but doesn’t bombard, letting the user to be the master of the page.
While at Y+L we don’t focus solely on the digital space, we do draw a large part of our inspiration from the digital realm — as most folks do — and as an agency, we draw inspiration from Garden Eight and their approach to creativity and company culture. To learn more about how the company functions, we spoke with Web Director, Natsuko Sakai, a key member of the company and an inspiring, passionate, creative industry figure with insights and experience far beyond her years.
To begin, can we get a little introduction on yourself, your background and when you started at Garden Eight?
I started working at Garden Eight three or four years ago, fresh out of university. I was studying literature, which is very far from the design world. I first studied English literature and later Indian literature because I’m fascinated by Asian culture.
When I was studying literature, I thought language as a communication tool was an interesting concept and something I wanted to explore. But later, I saw visual design as an essential and influential tool for communication. From this discovery, I got more interested in design.
I started telling people around me that I wanted to become a designer. I was interested in digital design, so my friend recommended I look into Garden Eight. I found a lot of great agencies, but Garden Eight, for me, was the most interesting.
Five people were working here at the time, and since I started, the members haven’t changed; the co-founders have worked for the company for more than ten years, and the other two have now been working there for eight or nine years.
When I started as an intern, I didn’t know anything about design but — Garden Eight co-founder — Noma-san taught me a lot of things.
Going off topic for a brief moment, do you have a favourite Indian author/book from your study of Indian literature?
You’re a Web Director at Garden Eight, how did you end up in that role?
Going from intern to web director felt like a natural transition. At the time, we started getting more and more projects. Noma-san was the only director at the time; the rest were designers, so he needed more directors; that’s how I started.
What does a ‘Web Director’ actually do on a day-to-day scale?
At Garden Eight, basically everything except design and development. Paperwork, speaking with clients, also thinking about the project’s structure, design direction, and planning. Communication is an essential skill, and it’s critical to have a good relationship with the clients.
Garden Eight has won a lot of awards for their work in the digital space (‘Site of the Day’ 19 times and ‘Site of the Month’ once from Awwwards, and ‘FWA of the Day’ 11 times from FWA — (Favourite Website Awards). Are these awards something that the company thinks about when creating new online platforms, or is in an afterthought?
Awards are an afterthought; we work for the client, not for us.
Some of our clients want to win awards for their site, so we’ll think a bit about it if they ask us, but we don’t focus on that. We want to deliver the best product for our clients. It’s not about ego; we’re designers.
When it comes to creating an online presence, what do you think are the most important elements for a company/ person/ organization to consider?
The purpose of the site is most important feature, rather than just the interface. Design is a form of communication, so an online presence is crucial for companies.
If the client has a purpose, it is easier to find design direction and things they want to tell. Usually, they want to change their company/ brand; they come to us for a refresh. We work mainly on websites, not corporate identity building.
Is it beneficial or a challenge to work with companies that already have a strong brand identity?
We work with big brand clients and smaller clients; we don’t have a preference. If the clients have a firm idea of what they want in terms of the design direction, it can be more of a challenge. If the company is brand new, that can also have its difficulties, but we like the challenge of making something from scratch.
How do you decide what types of clients to work with?
Basically, we don’t do outreach; most of our clients come from referrals. If we find some clients doing interesting things, we might reach out. Recently we’ve gotten a lot of requests/ submissions from clients from all over the world.
What’s the company’s approach to starting a new project, say with a new client?
The beginning process goes like this: We find out what the client wants, timeline, budget, and if we think we can work together, we set up a call (usually online) to hear more details about the project and if it is a collaboration opportunity. If it requires a level of technical skill, we’ll want to do it.
With the accessibility and ubiquity of DIY website-building platforms like Squarespace and Wix these days, do you think they impact the general attitude towards web design?
I think they’re good! Useful! I believe the purpose of a site is communication, so as a tool, they’re worthwhile.
So when do you think someone would switch from Squarespace/ Wix/ DIY website to hiring a company like Garden Eight?
If they want to focus on visual impression, that’s when they should make the switch.
Sometimes I recommend clients build a website on Squarespace and Wix first, like if they just started their brand/ company and don’t have clear direction just yet.
In 2020, you helped launch Garden Eight’s European headquarters in Copenhagen. Can you tell us about how that happened and the motivation behind it?
When I joined the company, they had connected with businesses in Denmark, and they were thinking about opening a studio there.
About five or six years ago, our designers went to Denmark for an experimental inspiration trip for a month. At the time, they decided not to expand. After I joined, Noma-san was still interested in exploring Denmark. It wasn’t a business decision in terms of short-term financial benefits, but more of a creative decision.
Before this, I’d never been to Europe, and I loved Asia and travelled around Asia as a backpacker. At the time, I didn’t even know where Denmark was. They already had an idea for expansion when I joined, so I just went for it.
What I liked most about Denmark was the diversity of the population and the architecture and design. Even the government websites are designed minimally and simply, so I was impressed. I was only there for a few months; then covid happened, so I moved back for the time being.
You said in an interview, “There is a perfect match to the Japanese way of thinking — originality in the minimalism of a concept… Denmark has a very deep understanding of what it is to be human — and this is at the heart of its design-centred approach.” What elements of Japanese design and culture and Danish design and culture match/ complement each other?
An appreciation for craftsmanship was very mutual; it’s something I noticed talking to designers in Denmark. The minimalist approach is similar too. If you see the general websites or Ads on TV and city billboards, they’re overloaded, but traditional Japanese culture is minimalistic and based on the appreciation of simple aesthetics.
Are there any significant differences between the two cultures that you found interesting?
The evening rush hour is at 4pm. When the office lights were on at 8pm, my friend said, “That company is ブラック企業” (black company). Family time is very important for them. Also, there is a good balance between business and craftsmanship.
In Japan, I feel that there is often a bias towards one or the other [work time over personal time]. Garden Eight’s approach to work is a little similar; it’s less about counting the hours in the office but more about doing deep-focused work.
I often hear from Japanese people that Denmark is a happy country, and I think that is true. But, of course, there is darkness in every country. However, they are very good at showing what is better than the darkness, I felt in that regard that Denmark is a country with good branding.
Do you think it’s important these days for Japanese creative companies to have an international presence? Why/ why not?
The internet has no borders, so it’s natural to have a more international perspective. The Japanese market is decreasing too, so I think we need to look abroad. I think we [Japan] could showcase our exciting, and abundant contemporary culture more powerfully and with more pride.
Original photography for this piece was done by Kim Marcelo.