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June 13, 2018 - Comments Off on Patterns in Culture: Japan

Patterns in Culture: Japan

My love for travel started before I was two years old, when my parents flew me from New Zealand to Chicago, the beginning of what became their 30 year adventure in the United States. Each summer, we traveled. My brother and I made a nest in the back of the station wagon and we’d motor around the vast countryside of America or we’d hop on a plane to vacation overseas, taking advantage of my father’s light summer workload to see the world. Even as a child, I took in new cultures through small details and remembered each state or country by their textures, textiles, buildings and gelato flavors.

Today I see patterns everywhere I go, whether at home in Denver or in foreign curiosities. I've learned that each country reveals itself through the people’s expression of art, pattern and design. What is rendered are revered items of daily life or spiritual aspiration. Through my adventures, I’ve discovered that culture is not contained in a museum, but open to all and constantly evolving — simply walk, wander and take it in.

Patterned Roof in Kyoto Japan EnZed Design Helen Young


On my recent trips to Tokyo and Kyoto, I found objects rich in color and variety of pattern. The Japanese attention to detail is highly symbolic of their respect for others and their surroundings. Their connection to the Earth and its energy is part of their spirituality and expressed via the vermilion, gold and colorful patterns on their Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There’s a rhythm to their spaces, creating visual patterns in three dimensions. Most of the printed patterns you find on papers and fabrics are representations of nature — flora, fauna, water and sky. Many are symbols associated with spirituality, luck, abundance and good fortune. This Kiriko clothing company article shows the most prevalent patterns, explaining their names, symbolism and origin.

Azaleas and Gates in Tokyo Japan EnZed Design Helen Young

The Japanese mix patterns and color expertly, which is especially notable in the multiple fabrics layered in their kimonos. You also see this in their fine art. They combine patterned papers as borders or mattes on hanging paintings and within hinges and borders on painted screens. Patterns are inlaid on boxes and painted on ceramics. Their combinations of pattern scale and object shapes within them is deft and often unexpected. Most of us are familiar with origami paper collections that fan out a gorgeous mix of patterns. The variety of these origami packs in Japan is dizzying. When I visited the iconic stationery shop Itoya in Ginza, Tokyo, I spent nearly 2 hours combing through 12 floors of paper, washi tape, journals, cards, bookmarks, pens, and shaped sticky notes. My Pinterest board on Japanese Design has an array of eyecandy featuring items with innovative simplicity or intricate decoration — all with a deliberately delicate touch.

Shoes in Kyoto Japan EnZed Design Helen Young Patterns

What’s particularly interesting to me about Japanese pattern is the motifs are ancient yet very contemporary. This mix is evident everywhere in their culture and takes many forms. In modern Tokyo, it’s subway riders with heads bowed absorbed in their phones balanced by their custom of bowing in greeting. In Kyoto, it’s a hunger for shopping high-fashion brands balanced by young people renting kimonos and queuing for tea ceremonies. (Side note: The shoe selections in Japanese department stores are on a scale I’ve not encountered before. Wowza.)

Kimonos Kyoto Manhole Cover Tokyo Japan EnZed Design Helen Young

Harmony and beauty come from this knack for balance. A quality I love about the Japanese people is their utmost respect for one another and their surroundings. You’d be hard pressed to encounter brash personalities or see careless littering. At the end of a rainy day, Tokyo’s subway train floor was shiny and spotless. The city’s manhole covers are famously shared on Instagram. Consumerism is high and space is precious, yet patience and civility underpin the culture. As the world capital of cute, with a love of animal ears on everything and hats on cats, I surmise that people strive to find small joys in many places or moments, especially in Tokyo, one of the world’s most densely populated cities. I’ll have to explore the country more to test that theory. Until then, enjoy these 20 photos + 20 haikus expressing my impressions of Japan (3 minute video). Arigato.

February 14, 2014 - Comments Off on President, AIGA Colorado

President, AIGA Colorado

Aiga president Colorado Helen Young

Last summer, I accepted the role of President for the Colorado Chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design. AIGA is a national organization with 25,000 members and 67 chapters. The AIGA is committed to advancing design as a professional craft, strategic advantage and vital cultural force.

Founded in 1914, AIGA celebrates 100 years this year. The Denver Art Museum is keeper of the AIGA National Archives, a collection of more than 6,000 of the physical artifacts representing decades of the best in design and communication. Their new exhibit pulled from the Archives, Drawn to Action, is up throughout 2014.

AIGA Colorado consists of 550 members and 2,500 friends. Each year, AIGA CO hosts 35 local events and initiatives relevant to designers and industry friends. Starting in May 2014 through June 2015, the chapter will celebrate 25 years serving the local design community.

This volunteer position involves guiding a dynamic board of directors, along side President Emeritus Elysia Syriac, and representing the organization within the local community. My love of AIGA began in the mid 1990s when I served on the Board as Communications Chair, producing the quarterly newsletter. My membership has never lapsed and my involvement with AIGA has continued throughout my career via attending local speaker events and national conferences.

When asked to take a leadership role, I viewed it as an opportunity to expand my knowledge of the myriad design disciplines that have arisen since founding EnZed Design 17 years ago. So much has changed since “print” was king. Teams of specialists now work seamlessly together to communicate within diverse media. Being part of AIGA helps me keep on top of trends and best practices. A true passion for design craft and design thinking—that together create strategic communications—is what really fires my caldron. AIGA offers an outlet for both. Read my post on AIGA CO’s website for more thoughts on why AIGA is still relevant to designers, after all these years.

As President, I’m in a unique position to see the organization in a national scope. It’s been a privilege to get to know presidents from other chapters, national board members, and the national staff who are the wind beneath the sails of the organization. And it’s been a delight to get to know an enthusiastic local team of go-getters in the design industry making waves in the community.

And it’s only just begun. I’ll be sharing more of AIGA Colorado’s plans for the coming two years of my term, including highlights from the National Leadership Conference hosted right here in Denver in May 2014. Stay tuned.

Photos taken at the National Design Conference and at AIGA Colorado Gala (by Jason Hayes).


October 24, 2012 - 2 comments

Neenah Paper Mill Trip

A rare adventure in our industry these days is The Mill Trip. I’d been on one back in the day, when I was just starting my career in Chicago. That trip was to a coated mill producing white paper, so I nearly went off the deckled edge when I was invited by Debbie of xpedx and Randy of Neenah Paper to travel to Wisconsin on October 8th. Completing the entourage were print designers Jeff of Cultivator and Jorge of Cactus, two print designers as passionate as I about paper and its potential.

And so with carry-ons in hand at Gate B90, the designer geekfest was officially underway.

Neenah Paper Wisconsin EnZed Design Helen YoungOur drive from Madison to Steven’s Point was a trip down memory lane for me, as it was the same route I’d driven countless times to a family cabin when living in Chicago. The flat, open landscape with light blue sky and long clouds reminded me of growing up in Illinois. But it wasn’t long before things got exciting. First Jeff piped up from the ‘way back’ of the van, “I think I just saw a roll-over.” Sure enough, a minivan has swerved off the other side of the highway into the wide, grassy median, hitting a small pine tree before coming to rest upside down on it’s windshield. Every car on the highway stopped to help. The driver and her daughter were fine, so we continued along until we came upon “The Pioneer”—your typical mid-western roadside diner. An hour after polishing off only half of the “small” open-faced turkey platters and admiring the painted saws around the room, we found ourselves at the exit for Steven’s Point, home of The Whiting Mill.

The Whiting Mill opened in the late 1800s on more than 300 acres of forested land along the Wisconsin river. Most of the acreage has remained untouched, covered in burgundy oaks, orange maples, and golden birch trees. Neenah makes many of its uncoated Text and Cover papers there, including the popular Classic Crest and Classic Linen grades. Astrobrights’ Terra Green was being made during our visit. The bright green pulp had a Willy Wonka quality about it that made for excellent viewing!

We started our tour at the Neenah conference center, participating in an informal focus group lead by Kathy and Chris. The topic was Neenah’s Environment line. What do we use? What do we like? What would we do differently? Being full of opinions, I was happy to contribute to the discussion.

Next we arrived at the Mill where Jason greeted us and took us through R&D showing us, in miniature, how paper is made. We each started with some post-consumer waste pulp and added our choice of sprinkles. I chose blue flecks and white sparkles. Next, this was mixed with a lot of water, poured into container that drained the water, leaving only the fibers in an evenly distributed sheet. That then was pressed to remove more water and placed in a dryer. Ta da! Helen’s “Blue Lagoon.” This process was repeated for each of us. Jorge named his chunky orange fleck with peachy copper background “Liver Spots.” I’m not sure Neenah will be adding these masterpieces into their Text and Cover line anytime soon, but the process of making my 9x9 inch sheet is the same when making a roll that’s 100-inches wide and 2500 pounds. Precise measurement is all it takes to extrapolate ounces into tons.

Neenah Paper EnZed Design Mill Trip Helen Young

After an overview of the mill’s history and the basics of paper making, we donned headphones and safety glasses to tour the mill. Jason introduced us first to the pulping machines, giant vats that mix precise proportions of post-consumer waste and reclaimed virgin paper scraps with water. Dye is added at this point, if it’s a colored sheet.

This pulp, now 90% water, is pumped into a three-story-deep holding tank where it then moves into the paper-making machine. The mixture floods a giant horizontal mesh screen that agitates so the fibers evenly distribute into a flat sheet, releasing water to be recycled back into the pulping machines. This flat fiber sheet, now 60% water, feeds into driers, a long series of large and small cylindrical steam-heated rollers. Steam is rising all along the giant machine-—about the size of a semi-truck—and the whole room feels humid and warm. At the end of the drier, the paper is sometimes coated with sizing and rolled up on a core. This roll is 100 inches wide and weighs 2500 pounds. They aren’t messing around.

The finishing process varies. Unlike the coated mill that calendared each sheet, these uncoated sheets are often textured. Some of the textures are created during the creation of the sheet (Esse) and others are added later (Classic Linen). If a stationery sheet is being made, a dandy roll might be added to create a watermark. A company logo is hand-soldered onto a mesh roll that then pushes into the fibers. This happens during the sheet making. After the paper is done, the roll is removed and quality checked. Then it’s cut into smaller rolls and textured, sheeted or shipped as is. If it doesn’t pass Neenah’s high standards, the roll is recycled—back into the pulper.

Neenah making Astrobrights Helen Young EnZed Design

Although paper making is basically the combination of pulp, water and heat, a lot of science goes into each sheet. Much of the mill staff is composed of engineers—chemical, mechanical, electrical and civil. The precision needed to produce a paper of this quality and quantity is, indeed, impressive. Details of each grade’s texture, color, formation and weight were dialed in on computers and monitored by skilled workers. Each employee we encountered was passionate about making paper. I never thought I’d meet anyone who cared about paper as much as print designers like me.

But at Neenah Paper, paper nerds rule!


Photos by Jorge Lamora and Helen Young