The Importance of Personal Work and Self-Initiated Projects with Nao Nozawa

The Importance of Personal Work and Self-Initiated Projects with Nao Nozawa



This episode features Nao Nozawa, a Tokyo based graphic designer and art director. We cover topics such as dealing with feedback and criticism, the importance of personal work and self-initiated projects, the specifics of freelancing, and working with clients in Japan, and much more.


Nao Nozawa is a Tokyo based graphic designer and art director. She currently works as a freelancer within different disciplines including graphic design, art direction, accessories, and textile design, and is always eager to collaborate.

"Graphic design is not only about design, but it’s also always related to the society."

She’s a member of the Japan Graphic Designers Association. Besides her client practice, she nurtures her personal work, through making exhibitions and books.

  • Introduction [00:00]
  • Episode Introduction [00:52]
  • Advice to Younger Self [02:32]
  • Advice to Graphic Designers Who Are Just Starting Out [03:46]
  • Freelancing and Working With Clients in Japan [07:59]
  • Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [11:08]
  • Importance of Personal Work and Self Initiated Projects [11:59]
  • Dealing With Feedback and Criticism [15:58]
  • Nao’s Current Struggles [17:30]
  • Early Mistakes [20:03]
  • Advice for Being a Better Designer and Creative Professional [21:23]
  • Episode Outro [22:29]

    Nao: My own personal instinct is important because what I’m interested in is what the difference is from me and others.

    This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission of helping creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself, active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting, working with companies such as Kinfolk, MENU, and Sonos.  

    Through Season One of this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals, revealing the stories that shaped their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.

    Mario: In this episode, I talk to a fellow graphic designer and art director.

    Nao: My name is Nao Nozawa, I am Japanese and I’m a Tokyo based graphic designer. After graduating Tama University in Tokyo, I started my career for three years in Tokyo, based in advertisement agency, and moved to London when I was 26. I’m now based in Tokyo and working as a freelancer.

    Mario: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Nao though a mutual friend while I was visiting Tokyo for the very first time at the beginning of this year. We met over a delicious lunch at Kanetanaka, which is a minimalist haven in the form of a restaurant, designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto who’s a Japanese photographer and architect. After our brief time spent together, I was fascinated with Nao, so I decided to ask her to be one of my first podcast guests, and luckily, she said yes.

    Mario: Nao is currently working as a freelancer, spending her time between working with Tokyo based studio Artless and working with a range of clients independently. What drew me to her work is the variety of her projects and the way she infuses her personality in her work with seemingly effortless ease, and working between different disciplines including graphic design, art direction, but also accessories and textile design. She’s also often exhibiting her personal work and has her self-published book sold in design capitals such as London, Paris, New York and L.A. In this episode we’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Nao in February of 2018. We cover topics such as dealing with feedback and criticism, the importance of personal work and self initiated projects, the specifics of freelancing, and working with clients in Japan, and much more.

    Nao knew by age 10 that she wanted to do something creative for a living and by 18 had her first commission, but her parents didn’t allow her to specialize too early, fearing she’d be too narrow in her world view. The advice is one she now gives to young professionals, “Don’t focus so squarely on graphic design, that you don’t know what’s going on in the other fields.” I started my conversation with Nao, asking her what she would advise her younger self when she was just starting out.

    Nao: The first thing is trust your instinct. That is very important to me. When I was 20 or 21, I was in Uni and actually I didn’t enjoy my life at Uni that much because there are more than 100 students in my department and it was kind of competitive, a bit. I think it happened all the time, maybe in design industry, but I think, it never makes sense to compare with the other people. I think designer should focus on what I really want to design, and what I really want to express, so don’t to be afraid trust your instinct. That is very important advice to myself.

    Between working with the design agency, Artless, and her independent work, Nao often collaborates with assistants, and they are usually younger professionals, fresh out of University. I was curious to hear what advice she would give a young person entering into this kind of work, and more specifically, what she wished her assistants perhaps already knew coming out of their design schools.

    Nao: The young people like 23 or 25, like after graduating Uni, they are very enthusiastic, which I really like, but the typographic skills are always kind of hard to teach. I think in University, the typography lessons are experimental. People who are studying graphic design, like making posters and magazines, that kind of people are very talented, but still very experimental for everything. In general, the graphic design work always needs to be easy to read, and especially in Japanese, there’s three different letters: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana, and quite difficult to combine all the three different letters on the paper, so I think it’s always better to study and get experience about typography before entering this industry.

    Mario: Yeah I’ve noticed a very similar thing with a lot of people who are just starting as interns, or when they’re done with their University. Even some basic things. For example, in typography, how to use different types of dashes. There’s people who have been in a design school for three or five years. They come out and they don’t know that there’s a hyphen, that there’s an en dash, there’s an em dash, and how to use those, which is like a very basic principle, or rule, in the craft of typography.

    Nao: Yeah.

    Mario: Is there anything else that you noticed?

    Nao: I don’t know if it happen in other country, but in Tokyo I think now younger people don’t get to know the people working in other industry. Not only in graphic design, they love graphic design so much, but they are not very much interested in other design, like other art, like music and movies and film, like architecture and everything.

    Nao: Graphic design is not only about design, it’s always related to the society. I think they are not very interested in any kind of things happening in this world. That’s quite serious issues for me. For example, last weekend, I asked my assistant, “What are you doing this weekend?” And he said that, “I’m going to dinner with my friends. Okay, what are you doing Nao-San?” And I said, “Ah, I’m going to the movies.” “Oh what kind of movie?” Blah blah blah blah. And I told him about the movie I loved. He didn’t know that. It’s okay, but he’s never interested in movies, and he somehow says, “Because movies are not my world.” He’s a graphic designer, so he is not a filmmaker. He’s not a movie designer, so he not interested in movies, but it’s so weird to me.

    Mario: Do you have any feeling why that might be the case?

    Nao: I think that maybe when I was in Uni, there is not that much – like, I didn’t have iPhone, for example, and there was no Facebook and Instagram when I was a teenager, so I need to Google everything or go into a theater to get the information, right? But right now they have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and everything, so they can get the information and all the information from really easily, from social networks. So they never curious about it, because it’s general. There are too many information and they can’t find what they’re really interested in, but I think that’s the point, because they are always browsing Instagram, but it’s just browsing.

    “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote often attributed to Peter Drucker, but probably first mentioned by the consultation company, Giga Information Group. Anyhow, culture is immensely important. And every culture has its specifics. As a creative professional based in Tokyo, Nao works predominantly on the Japanese market, but she also has international experience. I wanted to hear if she thinks there are any specific challenges to freelancing in Japan.

    Nao: I think in Tokyo, as you probably know, population of Tokyo is very high. Very high. It’s very competitive out there. That’s the biggest thing for me, and there are a number of designers who are very talented, and that’s why I need to focus on what I really want, and what I can do and what I cannot do. That’s very important. I think being freelance is not so very hard, in Japan generally, but from a financial point of view, it’s kind of a bit hard to get contract with clients working in monthly payments. I mean, you understand?

    Mario: Yeah, yeah. Like a monthly retainer.

    Nao: Exactly. It’s quite hard because in Japan, the magazine industry is getting very low.

    Mario: Yeah but it seems like that’s happening in a lot of places.

    Nao: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, so that’s why it was difficult to get the contract with monthly, but a kind of big issue for freelance designers I think.

    Mario: So how to maintain a positive cashflow.

    Nao: Exactly.

    Nao: I only know the Japan and London, but compared with them, I think in Japan all the schedules are very short compared with London, and designers populations are much higher than London. So very competitive and very tough work. That’s the biggest issues in Tokyo, I think.

    Nao: Generally, Tokyo is such a big metropolitan, but other large cities are much better than Tokyo, so I think if the people from overseas are interested in Japan, I think it’s better to not focus on Tokyo, but also like Osaka and other cities like Shikoku and Sapporo and other cities are still big and they are many other clients, like local clients, which is very nice.

    Mario: And are there any specific cultural norms that international designers should be aware of, if they ever work with Japanese clients?

    Nao: Personally, I think Japanese are a bit more business-minded than European people. Not so very friendly, I think. But it’s kind of a good, it’s easier to work with them. I personally think.

    Nao: All of the clients in Japan are very professional, which is a bit, kind of easy to work with. They have their idea, and also they have respect to listen to our ideas, which is good.

    Hey, friends. You’re listening to the Creative Voyage Podcast. We are roughly in the middle of this episode, so it’s time for a short break. There’s no team behind the show. It’s solely produced and edited by me, Mario. I don’t have any sponsors, and I have no plans to add any. Nevertheless, I can use all the help I can get growing the show. If you like what you’ve heard so far, there’s three simple things you can do for me and future episodes. Number one, review the show on Apple Podcasts. Number two, tell a friend and share a link on social media. Number three, visit the shop on and support the show by buying bespoke Creative Voyage Products. Thanks everyone. Let’s get back to the show.

    Growth is a crucial factor of long-term career success and personal satisfaction. I was curious to hear how Nao manages that part of her career.

    Mario: How are you making sure that, besides working on a project for your clients, you also develop as a designer, creative professional, and make sure you’re continually learning and growing?

    Nao: I’m still making my own personal work. I mean personal artwork, and I launched my personal artwork book in London, when I was in London, and that book is available in Paris and London, so I’m still claiming to make my own personal work. So that is quite important to me now.

    Mario: Okay, and in what way do you think that helps you in your client work?

    Nao: My own personal instinct is important because what I’m interested in is what’s the differences for me and others. Do you understand?

    Mario: Yeah. Yeah. I understand.

    Nao: What’s the point for client to ask myself to, I don’t wanna do the same things from others, so I make my own personal works and clients see that and they find, “Okay, she is that kind of person.” You know? There are many kind of people, but I really wanna focus on telling what kind of person I am. So that’s why my personal artwork shows me who I am. That is my good portfolio for me.

    Mario: Yeah.

    Nao: So I wanna put all my clients works on my portfolio. I also wanna put my personal artwork my portfolio, which makes my portfolio more interesting.

    Mario: So it sounds like through your personal work, you are getting client commission.

    Nao: Exactly. Some of the magazine industry interested me, and they offered me some collage works, which was based on my personal artwork, so it was really nice experience.

    Mario: And then you’re also exhibiting your work, right?

    Nao: Exactly. Once in two years I had a exhibition.

    Mario: So let’s say a designer doesn’t cultivate their personal work, but they want to. They would be willing to start. Do you have any advice? How to begin?

    Nao: I think I was just lucky, so I don’t know.

    Mario: Okay. That’s fair.

    Nao: I publish my own personal artwork book. That was the big things to happen to my career in the art industry, so I think it’s better to make a zine or a book. Magazine or a book. And showing the book to all the people you know, and there must be some opportunities.

    Mario: Was that book released through a publisher, or did you self-publish it?

    Nao: In the first time was a self-publishing.

    Mario: Let me just try to dissect this a little bit. So you made a concept, you designed a book, you decided to print it. You did it all by yourself, right?

    Nao: Exactly.

    Mario: And how did you distribute the book?

    Nao: I just visited all the book stores in London.

    Mario: So you just contacted them directly.

    Nao: Exactly.

    Mario: And how was the response?

    Nao: Actually, it was really good. Almost all of them have my books, accept my book. It was really good.

    Mario: Oh wow.

    Nao: And in New York and Paris I did the same thing and it was good. They accept my book. It was like commissions.

    Mario: How many copies did you make?

    Nao: The first one was 100 copies, and the second one was 200.

    Mario: Cool. So I’m trying to figure it out. You made the books, you had the books, and then you just like emailed the bookstores?

    Nao: The first time I emailed them, and they responded and I visited them just to keep it like a ten piece of my books or twenty or something, and now it’s sold out.

    Mario: That’s great.

    Nao: But I think, keep moving on. That is very important. Don’t hesitate.

    Mario: Yeah I think that’s good advice. I’ll try to take that.

    Giving and receiving feedback is one of the crucial skills every creative professional has to learn. How we are dealing with criticism, both self-criticism and external critique, is what can make or break our longterm relationship with our craft and our community. I wanted to hear how Nao navigates through that.

    Nao: All of the voices from others, I really love that. I really appreciate that overall.

    Mario: So both good and let’s say bad.

    Nao: Actually the good ones never make me lead to farther, but the worse ones, I mean the, “I don’t like how your work was.” That kind of thing, is leads to me farther than I think always. For example, if I say some good feedback to others, it was just good, but if I had a bad feeling from someone’s work, it was quite, it was my instinct and I’m curious about how people think about my work, and that feedback always from the [inaudible 00:17:04], that’s the point, so I really appreciate that.

    Mario: And what would you say to those who are struggling with receiving that feedback. That critique?

    Nao: Well I think that what critiques mean, they are challenge to be better, right? So I always teach that the client, if someone gives you the bad critique, which means you can be better. That’s the point.

    Mario: Let’s shift gears a little bit. What would you say is the thing you’re struggling with the most right now?

    Nao: In terms of business-wise, maybe work alongside clients for long term is essential, and right now I’m struggling with that. It’s not only for financial matters, but also creative matters because work alongside clients for long time, like one year and two years, it let me learn how design affects on the project.

    Nao: I really love to work like that, but I’m struggling with it.

    Mario: What do you think is behind that? Do you think clients don’t have general awareness of that? Or there’s a lack of budget?

    Nao: Actually that’s because of the budget. I went and work with the one client at least three years, but it’s normally one year or one month or something, but I want to keep at least three years, and like in five years, ten years, and more and more. That is way better.

    Mario: Do you have any ideas or intuitions on how to position yourself and make that happen?

    Nao: Maybe I need to make my studio bigger. I mean I’m just working alone and with a couple of assistants but if I want to make my studio bigger, I need more assistants and maybe the financial problems, they are, I have to be bigger.

    Mario: You mentioned working with assistants and that part of business, the delegation, and learning how to work with other people and utilize their talents, it’s something that I’ve been struggling with lately. It just feels hard especially coming from, more like a loner freelance perspective where you enjoy working by yourself and you know how to work with yourself, and then you’re on that tipping point of you need help, but maybe you don’t, and it’s a very delicate balance, so I’m curious how are you dealing with that delegation and growing your team?

    Nao: Yeah it’s actually always problem fore me too. I actually wanna focus on my work as an art director. So graphic design style, from a graphic designer point of view. For example, I will make the draft, but I don’t make all the samples, you know? I have an assistant. I will make a draft, and they can do all other samples. Sample designs. And I will check that, and we can discuss it, and make it better. It’s much better to work with assistants.

    Mistakes happen. They’re a part of the process. And a valuable part, if we are willing to learn from them. I’ve asked Nao if there were any specific mistakes she made or regrets she had, looking back on her journey so far, and what she learned from that.

    Nao: At the very early moment of my career, working career, I was not very much interested in doing the web design and another textile design, which related to graphic, but I always wanted to focus on the paper, you know? The graphic design on paper. So I was not interested to work in textiles and other things, but once I got a chance to design some of the genres, like textiles and accessory in London, I suddenly realized that it’s always absolutely related to graphic, and actually my work for accessories and textiles pushes me harder now I think, so before I was interested in other genres, not only the graphics on paper, at the early moment of my career, I think it’s much faster to be here.

    Nao: I was kind of stubborn about graphic on paper. I think that was a mistake. I should be more open minded.

    We’ve come to the very end of the conversation I had with Nao. I tried to wrap up every episode with some form of actionable or inspirational advice from my guests. Here’s what Nao generously shared with me.

    Nao: The first one is, as I said, trust your instinct. This is very important. Trust your instinct.

    Nao: And second one is learning from the failure, every time. For example, as you say, I publish my own personal books and visit all the book stores in London and there must be some fails and bad feedback, but there must be something I can learn from the bad feedback, so trial and error is the most important for me. So never give up from the failures. That is important.

    Nao: And the final one is, it’s kind of related to the second one, but don’t be afraid of the new adventure. Meeting new people and finding new work style, and that is very important to me.

    Alright for everybody at home keeping score, I think we touched on a lot of useful information for anybody out there interested in graphic design, freelancing, and more broadly about growing as creative professionals.

    I want to thank Nao for coming onto the show. She’s truly inspiring and I’m grateful for having a chance to talk to her.

    Links to Nao’s work, Instagram, as well as to some other things mentioned during our conversation can be found in the show notes at Don’t forget that you can follow on Instagram, and you can also email me directly on I welcome all types of feedback. The good ones, but also the critique. Bring it on. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe, and until next time my friends, take care.

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