Living legend. Creative giant. Entrepreneur. Just a few words that have been used to describe iconic creative figure, John C Jay, whose creativity and influence is borderless. John has shaped culture and design for a generation, from taking Bloomingdales to its height as a cultural force, leading legendary creative agency Wieden + Kennedy, or today as President of global creative for Uniqlo and Fast Retailing. His global perspective is immense, yet his passion to inspire and connect seems ever expanding. Based between New York, Portland and Tokyo, we spoke with John about his creative life in Japan, the intersection of travel and creativity, and where he finds inspiration in Tokyo.
ON WHERE YOU GREW UP
I grew up in Columbus Ohio, USA, as the first son of immigrant parents from China. It was a very humble beginning but filled with support and hope. Ambition was only limited by my family’s life experience of what was even possible. Dreams were simple but they grew exponentially with time. I learned English by watching car commercials on TV, then going out to the street to identify each brand. It is the ultimate irony that I became a professional in building global brands and I love cars. I grew up in a laundry, so my long history in fashion and apparel is yet another irony.
Tokyo was a part of my career from early on. Long before I moved there. I had a lot of experience within Tokyo culture and a growing network long before I joined Wieden + Kennedy.
ON WHEN YOU BEGAN WORKING IN TOKYO
I moved to Tokyo in 1998 to open Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo, the agency’s first office in Asia. Later, I opened W+K Shanghai and helped with W+K Delhi. This was a very pivotal time in Tokyo, the middle of the influential Harajuku movement which coincided with my mid-90’s involvement in an emerging street culture through my NYC work for Nike.
However, my relationship with Tokyo culture actually began with my previous role as a Creative Director of Bloomingdales. My first friend from Tokyo was Issey Miyake and he introduced influential creative leaders to me. Bloomingdales created an all store promotion based on the culture of Japan. So I spent a lot of time in Tokyo learning about its creative talent and industry. I mounted a show inside Bloomingdales on contemporary design, advertising, graphics and pop culture. It was an extraordinary time in Japan.
My first advertising agency experience as a creative was during my Bloomingdales years. Even then, I had a separate independent creative consultancy. Through the DENTSU USA office in New York and a key executive, I created many unusual and creative partnerships with Canon and other Dentsu USA clients. I created the graphic images for the opening event of the iconic Tokyo Dome for Suntory. I collaborated with design and typography giant, Neville Brody and New York artist, Anthony Russo. The fight event was none other than, Mike Tyson vs. Tony Tubbs. Unfortunately, the printing of the posters lasted longer than the heavy weight fight. It was wonderful to see my graphic program amidst the chaos and circus atmosphere of a Mike Tyson championship fight.
I also brought in Canon as a collaborator with my Bloomingdales fashion campaigns, utilizing the then new technology of Canon. I created fashion campaigns for the designer brands at Bloomingdales which appeared as fax mages in full page ads in the New York Times. I introduced the latest drawings and designs by Claude Montana on the fashion floor via live-time faxes from his Paris atelier. I was even the USA spokesperson in the national Canon ads for their newest technology in color copiers. I could propose almost anything. Japan was a great connection to fuel my desire to expand my scope of creativity.
Tokyo was a part of my career from early on. Long before I moved there. I had a lot of experience within Tokyo culture and a growing network long before I joined Wieden+ Kennedy. Overall, I had lots of experience working globally before my agency life.
ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TOKYO
My relationship with Tokyo runs very deep. For years, I always enjoyed the support of Japanese assistants as a part of my staff. I continue this today with two assistants in Portland. I have been able to nurture a long standing support system in Japan over the years. I have cultivated a network of friends in this and other areas of interest. That curiosity will continue to help me make new discoveries. During my earlier years in Tokyo, it was filled with wonder and excitement. But over time, you learn just how deep this culture is and how difficult it is to really penetrate its protective shell. However, the creative community is extraordinary. People, in an independent Western survey listed Tokyo has the most creative city in the world.
When I was leaving Portland to open Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo, founder Dan Wieden had one request, “ Make this new office the hothouse of our network….make it the agency that will develop the most daring creative work in the world”. I believe I helped to accomplish Dan’s dream. Tokyo means the world to me.
ON A PIECE OF CREATIVE ADVICE THAT TRAVELS WITH YOU
Actually, I have published a list of 10 rules and it’s been translated into many languages online. See, “John Jay’s Ten Tips for Young Designers” originally published by the AIGA in New York but popularized by a John Maeda tweet while President of RISD. If I could write only one piece new advice, it would be, “ Working harder than anyone else will be the best investment you will ever make.’
Travel humbles you by showing you just how little you really know. You learn that your way is not the only way and that is invaluable. It is not only a lesson in culture but a primer on empathy.
ON WINDOW SEAT OR AISLE
I usually prefer an aisle except when the plane offers the single seat by the window.
ON HOW TRAVEL INFLUENCES YOU AS A CREATIVE PERSON
Traveling exposes you to other ways of thinking and living. It can take you outside of your comfort zone. Travel humbles you by showing you just how little you really know. You learn that your way is not the only way and that is invaluable. It is not only a lesson in culture but a primer on empathy.
ON SOMETHING UNIQUE TO TOKYO’S CREATIVE CULTURE
Tokyo’s creative culture is driven by powerful small centers of influence…led by individuals and teams with unique points of view. The island mentality remains even in this global moment. It is the greatest strength and greatest weakness. People often go very deep into a subject matter. Therefore its many subcultures rule the outside impression of its creativity.
ON SOMETHING THAT HELPED YOU CONNECT WITH JAPANESE CULTURE
My connection to local Tokyo culture in the beginning was through a network of friends that I had met in the West. My work at Bloomingdales was a graduate course on the humanities. I traveled to meet with Japan’s most important creators and still do so today around the world.
To some, the creative community can be very insular and it’s difficult to break through. Like any society, it is dependent on the level of trust. For me, having W+K in Japan rekindled friendships with all of the former collaborators and friendships I had during the Bloomingdales years.
Tokyo’s creative culture is driven by powerful small centers of influence…led by individuals and teams with unique points of view. The island mentality remains even in this global moment. It is the greatest strength and greatest weakness.
ON BUILDING A CULTURE OF GLOBAL CREATIVITY AT UNIQLO
The first responsibility of a manager or director is to inspire, to lift everyone around them to achieve a higher level of excellence…together. In order to expand the creative tools, you can try certain collaborations for mutual learning about other cultures and skills. This collaboration is a means to make more and do more, achieve more than you could alone. These cross cultural collaborations are extraordinary when you can put together the right team of talent. You must clearly share your goals and demonstrate that you are a team player.
ON CREATIVITY GROWING BORDERLESS
Creativity is growing because many of the silos of expertise and information are being challenged. Technology has opened the door for so many people to make images, music, designs and communications. This democracy that technology enables lifts a certain level of creative excellence. I hope it is also lifting the expectations of excellence, the appreciation of craft and the depth of ideas. I want the level of excellence to continue to grow. I am not sure it always is. Certainly, our world of efficiency in business is challenging the value and worth of real creativity. Good enough often today, is simply…good enough. The culture of quality is at great risk today as everyone wants to be a “creative”, without investing in the learning and skill. More people are being “creative” which has to be good. But what happens to society as we no longer want what no one else has, but rather want what everyone else desires? How does that change the mindset of a maker?
Q: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This has affected our value of creativity.
ON WHERE YOU FIND INSPIRATION IN TOKYO
In Tokyo, I enjoy moments of inspiration in:
Jinbocho, Tokyo’s used book store district. Nezu Museum, right in the middle of Tokyo’s shopping area of Omotosando, a welcomed relief from the dizzying consumerism just beyond its bamboo trees.. Designed by Kengo Kuma. Secret Bars, everyone in Tokyo has their own short list of secret bars that they tend not to share outside of a circle of friends.
ON SOMETHING YOU RECENTLY DISCOVERED IN TOKYO
Shinagawa Flea Market.
ON EXAMPLES OF EXCEPTIONAL DESIGN IN TOKYO
This may not be a correct answer because it is not actually in Tokyo but you could start in Tokyo. I would take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Naoshima, the art island in the Seto Inland Sea, and the surrounding art villages and island. It is a wonderful mix of experiences from the train to a rich mix of old and new architecture while enjoying wonderful art and food. All in one trip.
ON ONE THING TO DO IF JUST PASSING THROUGH TOKYO
Get air conditioning.
ON TOKYO IN ONE WORD
The ultimate paradox.