What Studio Ghibli Teaches All Designers

Posted on July 6, 2017 | Updated on January 25, 2023

Studio Ghibli is one of the most acclaimed and well-loved animation studios in the world. The Japanese studio and its director Hayao Miyazaki have brought us films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo.

While these films have something for pretty much everyone, designers, in particular, can learn a lot from their colorful, hand-drawn, 2D animations.

The Power of Detail

Attention to detail is a hallmark of Studio Ghibli films, and helps bring the animations to life. What’s even more impressive in this digital age is that all the beautiful art is hand-drawn.

This teaches designers the importance of detail. Details aren’t just little things to add in —Miyazaki’s films show us that details truly are the design.

Every detail gives viewers a new piece of information. Over time, those little details add up to create an overall message and aesthetic. Imagine Spirited Away without all the details of the movie’s many characters! It just wouldn’t be the same.

Movement Speaks Volumes

Studio Ghibli makes animated movies, so, of course, there’s movement in them. By observing the way the animators use movement, designers can get some ideas for how to integrate motion into their work.

The concept of animation wouldn’t exist without motion. Graphic designers may find that, in some cases, movement is the best way to convey the message you want to share with the audience.

On a website, for example, a designer could add subtle animation to a button to attract attention to it. This will draw people to certain aspects of the design and make them more likely to click on it. Even design that remains stationary can convey movement — think of the Nike logo’s famous “swoosh,” or the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo.

2D Design Can Feel Real

Design can communicate a lot of emotion. Studio Ghibli films show us design doesn’t necessarily need to be realistic to communicate real emotions.

Though Miyazaki and the rest of his animation team opt for hand-drawn, two-dimensional imagery, their creations can still feel real to the audience. Roger Ebert famously said Grave of the Fireflies was the most realistic animated film he had ever watched. This wasn’t because of how it looks, though. It was because of how it feels to the viewer.

When designing, we should remember our designs can pack an emotional punch and use that capability to our advantage. It’s also important to keep in mind that even designs that don’t look particularly lifelike can still feel real to the audience.

Color Is Crucial

Color theory is a common topic when it comes to graphic design, and for good reason. It’s crucial to a good design. Miyazaki is a master of using color, and it shows in his films.

The watercolors he uses in his movies brings them to life, helps convey emotion and aids in bringing the viewer into the world of the film. Graphic designers know about this, because they’re used to using colors in their designs that communicate the message and emotion they need to get across.

Miyazaki’s use of color is so distinct that artist Hyo Taek Kim created a series of posters inspired by the colors in Studio Ghibli films. He condensed a number of the studio’s films down into a color palette of shades often used in each film. Here’s an example of a scene from My Neighbor Totoro next to Kim’s color palette.

Design Is Communication

As designers know, design is a form of communication — and a powerful one at that. Color, movement, shape and all other aspects of design combine to send messages — from the overall meaning to the little details that make up the whole.

Studio Ghibli is well-known for creating works that communicate important ideas about the state of our society, self-development and a variety of other important life lessons. Grave of the Fireflies communicates an invaluable lesson about the impact of war. Spirited Away inspired many young people with its themes of growing up and realizing the importance of your words and the dangers of greed.

Designers should remain mindful of the fact that every bit of their work is communicating something to people. They create their designs to reflect that idea.

Studio Ghibli is one of the most influential animation studios of all time. Its hand-drawn films have entertained and inspired people of all ages, genders and nationalities.

Part of what makes these movies so good at reaching people is how they are designed. Designers of all sorts can take inspiration from that for their own work and use lessons learned from Studio Ghibli to help them reach people more effectively in whatever design work they do.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at www.eleanorhecks.com.

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