Interview: Third Hello Kitty Designer Yuko Yamaguchi [1/2]

Interview: Third Hello Kitty Designer Yuko Yamaguchi [1/2]

There’s a character backed by numerous celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey and Avril Lavigne. Her name is Kitty White. She is known more commonly as Hello Kitty. Born in 1974, this character has captivated people around the world, particularly women. With the spread of Hello Kitty merchandise, the character has become the most profitable member of the Sanrio company.

But even Hello Kitty has had her low points. At the end of the ‘70s, when Japan’s rapid economic growth was beginning to show signs of slowing, Hello Kitty’s popularity also began to die down. Coming on as Hello Kitty’s third character designer during that time, Yuko Yamaguchi infused various new ideas into the character and contributed to her renewed popularity. She helped make her into a global character with an animated TV show Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater even airing on the American CBS network in 1987. We spoke with the person who achieved this success as the third Hello Kitty designer.

[Yuko Yamaguchi’s Profile]
Joined Sanrio Co., Ltd. in 1978. Appointed as Hello Kitty’s third character designer in 1980, and in addition to designing, was very active in Hello Kitty-related events both in Japan and abroad. Became head of production for the character in 2005, and became director the following year.

**There were a lot of questions about Hello Kitty**

──Could you give us some of your background up until you became Hello Kitty’s designer?

Certainly. At the end of the ‘70s, Hello Kitty wasn’t selling much, and Sanrio’s biggest sellers were the Little Twin Stars (Kiki and Lala). I was actually a fan of Kiki and Lala. At the time, I had just joined Sanrio and I belonged to a group that developed so-called “non-character” designs such as logos and heart patterns that were aimed more at adults. I was not engaged in character design.

It was then that the second Hello Kitty designer quit, and it seemed as though Hello Kitty might also go. A lot of Hello Kitty products were being discontinued then, and the company president Tsuji was apparently concerned, saying, “If we leave her like this, Hello Kitty will be lost.” Part of that is because the concept behind Hello Kitty was that she was the “symbol of friendship.”

It was a time when the characters who debuted in the mid-’70s stopped selling and kept getting discontinued. Even before I entered the company, merchandise for characters that had been selling well like Bunny & Matty, Patty & Jimmy and Tiny Poem stopped selling. It’s true that I thought that it was finally Hello Kitty’s time as well. With that situation and with a lot of people in the company saying, “But she’s the symbol of friendship,” and “We can’t just let this go,” we ended up holding an election for the third Hello Kitty designer.

──You became one of the Hello Kitty designer candidates at that point.

Right. A few designers were picked out and given the challenge to create a new Hello Kitty. I think a lot of other designers at that time were trying out various things. For me, I just remember having a lot of questions about Hello Kitty.

In addition to the concept of her being the “symbol of friendship,” part of Hello Kitty’s story was that her dream was to become a pianist. But then, I thought, “Why aren’t there any pictures of her playing a piano?” So, thinking it would be good for her to have a grand piano in her house if she wanted to be a pianist, I drew a picture. The picture showed Hello Kitty’s story, but also depicted family love. Her dad buys her a grand piano, and Hello Kitty is grateful from the bottom of her heart. I think that she would gingerly touch the keys of this grand piano she was seeing for the first time in her life. And watching nearby, Mimmy would definitely look extremely jealous. For the third designer selection, I gave a presentation on that story.

As a result, I was chosen as the third Hello Kitty designer. I think the other designers revealed new Hello Kitty designs that had various altered graphic elements in their presentations. But in order to keep doing character design, I think you have to create a story for that character and continue adding new characters within that story. I think it’s because of that that they said, “You do [the Hello Kitty design].”

──You planted the seeds of this new concept of “family love” into the “symbol of friendship.”

In many ways, if you don’t continue to build on the story, the character’s universe won’t broaden. Thinking about it now, I didn’t consciously understand that at the time. However, long-lasting characters have a story and world of their own. I think people who infuse this kind of element into their characters can easily create other characters as well. Drawing skill and design sense are certainly both necessary for character design. But creating a story is even more important than either of those.

**Keeping Hello Kitty with the times**

──What did you come up with after being named the third Hello Kitty designer?

I personally didn’t have any interest in Hello Kitty, and I had no idea what kind of changes I should make. I never had a chance to work together with the second designer and we didn’t have a marketing department collecting and verifying data, so there weren’t any resources I could use for hints.

In truth, I don’t know at all what to do to make a character sell. I did see right away what my favorite characters Kiki and Lala were missing, though. In that same way, Hello Kitty fans may be able to come up with things she’s missing and ways to improve. With that in mind, I began thinking about interacting with Hello Kitty fans.

But I felt too shy to visit the stores directly and speak to the fans, so I struggled over how best to interact with them. Then one day, I saw a new singer passing out flyers on her own to promote her new album and I thought, “I want to do that to!” Thinking that I could draw pictures myself and pass them out at stores to advertise while also getting in touch with customers, I made requests with the managers of each Sanrio shop.

Back then, Sanrio shops were mostly one floor street shops and doing it inside the shop would disrupt business, so I worked in front of the store. I passed out drawings of Hello Kitty and asked, “Did you buy any Hello Kitty merchandise?” When there were fans who weren’t going for Hello Kitty anymore, I asked them directly, “Why did you stop buying her?”

──You listened to negative feedback as well.

If it was someone who truly loved Hello Kitty from the bottom of their heart, it may have been too painful to hear. But for me, I wanted ideas about how to make Hello Kitty a more popular character. Because of that, the feedback from people who used to be fans and people who stopped buying Hello Kitty were valuable.

──What kind of feedback was there?

Back then, Hello Kitty was getting compared to Kiki and Lala a lot. Kiki and Lala had a story (they were star children, they were twins), but Hello Kitty didn’t have that. Kiki and Lala’s fairytale-like story was cute and the pastel color of their designs was cute.

Hello Kitty was always wearing the same outfit and it wasn’t stylish. All she did was stand or sit sideways. The colors were too bold. Her ears looked like horns and it was too harsh. As I listened to these tough criticisms, I was nodding along like, “That’s true. That’s true.”

──Afterwards, you created your own style of design for Hello Kitty.

That’s right. The first thing I took on was looking into why everyone thought Hello Kitty looked harsh. As I considered it carefully, I discovered that it was because of the black outline. As a plush toy, she didn’t have outlines, so she looked gentle and huggable. I began thinking that I should draw her like the plush toy.

I also wanted to make everyone think that Hello Kitty was just like them. I wanted to make them feel close to her. To do that, I first needed to have her do the same things they were doing. I think the backstory from when the character was first created about her wanting to become a pianist was probably because everyone was playing the piano at the time. Her being from London was because girls adored England. But several years had passed since her creation and the times had changed. No one would be interested in that dream. It was out of date. I think it’s necessary to look into what is currently popular and make changes that fit that.

Teddy bears were really popular then. So I made having an interest in collecting teddy bears part of Hello Kitty’s character. A little wish of mine was that a sense of familiarity would come across with the idea that Hello Kitty does the same things as us.

Everyone, let’s get Hello Kitty to No. 1 for her 40th anniversary!

Sanrio Character Ranking
Sanrio Official Site
Sanrio Character Ranking Official Twitter

© 2014 Sanrio Co. Ltd.
© 2008, 2014 Sanrio Co. Ltd. / Sega Toys S, S/W, TX, JLPC
© 2011 TV Asahi Corporation, Sanrio Co. Ltd.

This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article written by Kohji Sakurai and Photos by Tetsuya Hara.

Interview: Third Hello Kitty Designer Yuko Yamaguchi [1/2] 1
Interview: Third Hello Kitty Designer Yuko Yamaguchi [1/2] 2
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