Making sense of Japanese

Multiple trips to Japan over the years had sparked constant frustration at being unable to read the language. This isn’t so surprising since Japanese makes liberal use of three different sets of typeforms, Hiragana, Kanji and Katakana. Just to read a manga comic you’d need to memorise thousands of different characters.

However, Katakana is at least phonetic – if you memorise the shape, you know how it sounds. And many western names and words are written in Katakana, so this entry point sparked a research project we call Phonetikana.

The idea is a simple one. Into each character we embed the English letters that show you how to ‘say’ the sound.

So if you take the word ‘superhero’, in Japanese it would break down into four phonetic sounds, ‘Soo Pa Hee Roh’. To illustrate this, we embedded the words into a useful illustration. Below is the example ‘Big Apple’ (‘Bee Goo A Poo Roo’).

If Uniqlo adopted Phonetikana, it would look like this (and possibly help explain that in Japanese, Uniqlo is said with four sounds – Yoo Nee Koo Roh).

This is what the full alphabet looks like, and there follows more applications, including a cover for Brain magazine based on the idea of ‘blue’ (pronounced ‘boo’ ‘roo’ in Japanese).


Even though only put forward as a research idea, Phonetikana regularly becomes an internet meme and has been written up in detail many times, including on DesignBoom and FastCo. It was nominated for best typeface at D&AD in 2010 and in turn influenced our next Asian type project, Mandagrams.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Phonetikana please submit your email address in the form below and we will be in touch when we have more news. (We won’t share or use your email for anything else).


2010 D&AD | Typography / Typefaces | Graphite Pencil

We wouldn’t normally say this but for legal safety’s sake we have to point out that all of the ideas, concepts and designs above are ©johnson banks design limited 2009.

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