I was deeply touched and consequently inspired by the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This documentary portrays 85-year-old sushi chef, Jiro Ono, working with unmitigated diligence and passion in pursuing his goal of achieving the unqualified best. The film demonstrates the kind of total commitment it requires to accomplish such a lofty goal.
This summer I met Jiro’s younger son Takashi who opened a mirror image (literally, as one is right-handed and the other left-handed) of his father’s restaurant in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. I greatly enjoyed tasting the delicate pieces of art he creates in the form of sushi, and yet, despite the magnificence of the cuisine, was equally fascinated to hear his thoughts and insights about his profession.
Takashi said, “We (Sushi chefs) sell our 技 (waza, technique or skill in Japanese) and sushi as pieces of art work, as a presentation of craftsmanship.” In fact the name for sushi chef in Japanese is 寿司職人 (sushi shoku-nin) and 職人 literally meaning craftsman.
We designers can apply the same logic. I remembered the words of Jan Tschichold regarding typography while listening Takashi and tasting his sushi. Tschichold said, “The goal of all typography is communication. Communication must appear in the shortest, simplest, and most forceful form.”
Typography is like sushi, both the typographic practice and the making of sushi require:
If the fish is not fresh or of the highest quality, the chef can only do so much. So it is with typographic layouts: if you choose poorly designed or inappropriate fonts, the outcome will be compromised. You need to have high quality ingredients to begin with. A sushi chef is dependent on the raw material provided by the fish marketer and rice farmer. Designers cannot create exceptional designs on their own, they rely on the typographer who created the quality raw material: the typefaces.
Deep knowledge of ingredients, and the experience of how to treat those ingredients
I did not know the intricacies of what it takes to make (great) sushi before I watched the movie. Much of the preparation is done behind the scenes and prior to the chef hand-rolling the sushi in front of customers. Hand-rolling sushi only takes a few minutes but prior to that he spends hours preparing the ingredients. You need to have a comprehensive understanding of what it is and the best way to bring out strengths to maximize the inherent quality of the basic forms.
It is a never ending path to greater excellence. It requires diligent effort and continued practice to cultivate great taste as well as craftsmanship. As with the sushi chef working with things from the sea of life, so it is with the designer working with letterforms from the sea of symbols ― there is only better, there is not best.
Perfect sushi is certainly the most elusive of all culinary arts, just as Tschichold said “Perfect typography is certainly the most elusive of all arts.”