Smashing Spotlight: Junko Otsuki, Associate Principal Designer

Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Junko Otsuki, Associate Principal Designer, to talk shop, learn why she believes the role of the designer has changed from being a Rebel to a Ruler, which two things are crucial to get right when working with global teams, and she shares her advice for anyone dreaming of moving abroad to pursue an international career.


You approach your work with such creative force and passion, and it’s evident in your output that your love for design runs deep. Where did your love of design begin and what keeps it going?

Since I was a child I’ve been passionate about many different forms of art and I spent massive amounts of time drawing. As a kid who was either quietly drawing or reading comic books, I dreamt of becoming a comic writer, and in elementary and middle school, that’s all I wanted to do. In college I studied oil painting, along with economics, and then moved on to photography. When I came to the US, all I did was take photos with my analog Nikon SLR and spent all my time in the darkroom developing and printing black & white images. As I learned digital retouching, I fell in love with digital art; that is where my passion for design and UX began, which led to an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design.

What keeps my passion alive, gets me excited, and actually fuels me to keep going is the ongoing quest to solve new types of problems and overcome challenges at varying stages along my career path. I find that my passions can sometimes compete with each other, which has led me to take long breaks from my work and focus intensely on one particular thing. For example, when I first fell in love with photography, I backpacked through many countries with my Canon 5D and shot thousands of photos. Another time, when my son was little, I became obsessed with children’s books (maybe more than my son). I decided to take a year off to draw my own. Each time I’ve set out to pursue something like that, I’ve happily come back again – creatively satisfied – to design.


Your work has been described as elegant, delightful, and sophisticated, with an eye for detail. Do you look to art, film, music or specific designers to find inspiration to do what you do? What are your favorite ways to spark your creativity

First, thank you for the compliment! 🙂

Second, I don’t intentionally look to any one thing for inspiration for my work, but I do love art, film, and music. I especially love interactive digital art, photography, and films with beautiful cinematography. When it comes to interactive art, I am looking for something surprising, delightful, and playful that I can interpret on my own and play with; it gives me inspiration and fun ideas to run with. Some films and photographs show fantastical visual perfection and I learn a lot from them about framing, use of colors, use of negative space, balance, use of effects, and motion. Finding work like that makes me dream about achieving a similar quality in my work keeps my standard high. I also love watching documentary films about various artists to learn about their creative processes and am inspired by the enthusiasm they have for their creations.


Having worked for more than 15 years in interactive design and branding, how do you think the role of design has changed throughout your career?

The short answer is that my role has changed from breaking the rules to setting the rules.

When I started my career, all I cared about was creating something unique and stunning. I loved playing with Flash, and luckily one of the Flash sites that I created during my Master’s study was awarded the silver medal from the Art Director’s Club – it was the perfect way to kick start my career, which led to the opportunity to create microsites for Sony and AOL.

After AOL, I worked for NBCUniversal for almost 8 years. I created websites with eye-catching graphics for TV shows, TV channels, and movies. Gradually my work shifted from designing stand-alone products to developing reusable frameworks, such as modular content management systems and templates. To do this effectively I had to consider efficiency and business needs. Later, I worked on improving and redeveloping the corporate applications, such as the intranet, broadcasting publishing tools, management tools, analytics tools, and re-branding of internal organizations. There wasn’t really a standard style for those corporate digital products yet, and our team was trying to develop a consistent style and style guide.

At Smashing, not only do I work with clients, but I work to improve our brand and design process. By improving our internal design processes that impact our design team’s output, as well as have a significant impact on Marketing and Sales initiatives, I get to translate business needs into design. It’s funny to realize that this is something that wouldn’t have been at the top of my list to do 15 years ago, but I really enjoy now.


You play Pokémon Go with your son and it’s rumored that you are the one to go to if you want to catch one of these creatures. You even had an amazing Bulbasaur costume for Halloween. Where does your fascination with the universe of Pokémon stem from, and – be honest – who started playing: you or your son?

The truth is, I am not interested in Pokemon at all. It was all for my son who has a massive love and passion for Pokemon, and also some friends in Japan who asked me to catch some regional Pokemons.

However, I do love the application. I admire its UX design and visual consistency. Niantic successfully transformed the childish cartoony visual style to be modern and slick and appeal to a broader audience. The app is frequently updated with new functionality, but the interaction and visual style has been very consistent and well maintained.

Talking about Halloween costumes, my fascination is not with Pokemon, but with costume creation. The costume is another medium for my creative passion. When I was younger and lived in NY, my favorite thing to do was to make weird handmade costumes with my friend for raves.

Since my son was born, I’ve been making themed costumes for us every Halloween (except the years when my son wanted to be Spiderman which I visually hate). Our first costumes together were butterfly parents with a caterpillar baby; later a bear family with hand-sewed body suits and headgears; Jack-in-the-box Minecraft suites; etc. Since my son wanted to be a Pikachu last year, I had no choice but to be a Pokemon as his partner!


While you currently live in Seattle, you have also lived in Pasadena (CA), New York (NY), and Israel, as well as your motherland, Japan. Did you always dream of traveling the world and living in so many places? And with that, what is the best part of having been fully immersed in so many cultures?

I grew up in a provincial city in the south part of Japan, and English was the weakest subject in my school days; I had never imagined that I would live outside of Japan. The biggest adventure I could imagine back then was to move to Tokyo.

My initial plan was to study English for one year in California, but I look back now and I‘ve been away from Japan for over 20 years! Not only have I lived in Israel and 3 cities in the US, but I’ve backpacked through rural villages, jungles, mountains, deserts, and islands in India, Nepal, Peru, and Mexico, and I’ve stayed with local people and experienced many different cultures.

Noticing so many differences in cultures is fascinating: walking speed, the volume of voices, noise level, visual loudness, level of politeness, aggressiveness, friendliness, and openness, the relationship between individual and society, the relationship between genders, the distance between individuals, the speed of time…

Experiencing and being aware of such social and behavioral diversity in different locations and cultures has been invaluable for me. I hope that I get to use this awareness and knowledge effectively in a global design challenge someday.


What do you miss the most about Japan and how do you honor and keep alive the traditions that mean the most to you in new environments?

Modesty, humility, generosity, and great attention to detail are what I honor and appreciate most about Japan. I believe that all of this is in my DNA, but I don’t really do anything to keep it alive or apply it in my daily life outside of the country. I think it would be misunderstood and rather confuse people.

I teach these things to my son, though. I can only teach him by taking him to Japan frequently and allow him to have the time to interact with others and then reflect back and articulate the differences he notices.


We are often working with teams from around the world, and as you have solid experience navigating and communicating with teams in different countries and cultures, what are the most important things you’ve learned from those experiences? And what can we do to make sure we do our part to create the best conditions for collaboration – no matter where our partners are located?

The major challenge working with teams and clients from different countries is the time difference. In Israel, I worked with co-workers in NY, LA, and Mexico. We had a narrow window of time to meet via conference calls and no other co-workers were awake while I was working. To work smoothly under such conditions it was important to set the rules for our communication methods, and it was key to share files. We all knew how to store all communications, such as work orders, meeting notes, all specs, and documentation, and we clearly defined a location to store all assets and work files. Everyone made sure to upload their work at the end of the day; otherwise, it can block someone’s job for a day. It went very well most of the time because I could track all conversations and communication and easily take over from where my co-worker left.

You quickly learn that modes of expression vary from culture to culture and understanding that is essential. People from some countries are very straight forward and their comments can feel quite harsh. People from other places can seem too polite and it can be hard to figure out if they are being sincere. Trying to understand the communication patterns of your team and clients and adjusting the communication methods accordingly are important ways to make any collaboration healthy and smooth.


What advice do you have for anyone dreaming of leaving their home country to pursue a career in another part of the world?

Be super good at one thing in your profession, learn the required language, and be openminded!

You don’t have to be versatile, but acquire one strength which can overcome the communicational and cultural handicap. It will give you the confidence to believe in yourself and possibly provide a visa to stay in the country.

Language is an essential communication tool. If you don’t have the language for where you want to be, then you must learn that tool first. However, language is not the only thing you need to truly communicate with people in different countries. You need to understand the culture, manners, and social standards of the place in order to be successful in your profession and find friends. And, you must be openminded to adjust yourself to get along with.


Your designs are not only beautiful, but powerful. Bring us along in your artist journey as the process moves through your hands, heart, and head.

Simply designing something pretty doesn’t solve the problem, nor achieve the goal. Identifying the purpose of the project and the problem needing to be solved are first and foremost. My job as a visual designer is ultimately to solve a problem and achieve a goal by setting the right visual direction and applying it across the whole experience. That is what I am most passionate about. I investigate all possible and effective directions and create mood boards and mock-ups to clearly communicate with the team and clients to set the style.


What do you love to do outside of the 9-5? You know, when you’re not busy catching Pokémons, designing for our clients, or enriching our brand identity.

I love playing with my 8-year-old son. It’s especially fun to create something with him. We have created a children’s book, a card game, a board game, costumes, picture books, and many other small things. Our current project is a comic book about a flying bunny hero. The story and setting don’t make much sense, and the quality is honestly quite low, but coming up with silly ideas together, laughing, and producing something together is precious.

Sadly, I have less and less of this kind of quality time with him as his growing addiction to video games takes over and he spends more and more time with his friends. It will probably be totally gone in a couple of years. I will enjoy it as long as it lasts, then I will go back to work on my own project: large format film photography.

Speaking of large format film photography, before my son was born, a serious hobby of mine was photographing on a large format film camera. It is gigantic and heavy. The size of the film is 8×10 inches, comes with a long steel bar with a spring, and needs a heavy-duty tripod. I bought it because I was so fascinated by the quality of my favorite large format photographers, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto and Andrew Moore. I studied under Mike Nogami, a highly regarded Japanese photographer in the field, and I worked on a series. I stopped doing it when my son was born because I just lost the time for it, but I would love to go back to work on it again.


What’s the music style of the band you’ve always dreamt of playing in, and what instrument would you be playing?

Tough question. Being able to play an instrument was always my dream, and there are so many ways that I have dreamt of it… but playing acoustic guitar gently, and singing along with a beautiful, dreamy voice like Rickie Lee Jones is maybe my best dream.


Want to join our team? See our open positions.

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