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Japanese Dots: A Journey Up the River

In the classic 70s film The Point, round-headed Obleo is banished to the Pointless Forest, where he discovers — to everyone’s surprise — that it was full of points, on the trees, on the people, and on almost everything else. His journey proved, of course, the existential law that everything has a point if you search hard enough.

I couldn’t help but think of Obleo’s journey on my recent two-week trip to Japan, as I searched high and low for Japanese Dots. As we discussed in a recent InDesignSecrets podcast, Japanese Dots is the name of an option in InDesign’s stroke styles pop-up menu. The name seems to differentiate this style from another set of dots, named “Dotted.” Visually, the difference appears to be that Japanese Dots are more dense, each spot closer to its neighbor:

JapanDots3

We have asked the InDesign product managers and engineers, but no one appears to know what quality they possessed that earned them the title Japanese. My theory was that the dots reflected the nature of traveling in Japan, where the Japanese are often literally pushed and squeezed onto trains during rush hour. Of course, if this were so, one would expect the style to look more like this:

JapanDots5

JapanDots4

Because we at InDesignSecrets spare no expense to uncover the true secrets of InDesign, I decided to book passage to Japan in an effort to figure out what made these truly Japanese. In order to be sure no stone remained unturned, I took my wife and two sons with me, as we visited Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, and — the ultimate dotty shrine — Disneyland. Everywhere we went, we searched high and low for dot patterns, in an attempt to analyze them. The results were surprising.

First of all, while Obleo found points everywhere, we found almost no dots. Dashed lined, solid lines, double stripes… but dots were surprisingly rare on ads, billboards, and other signage. My wife and kids were keen to point out dots on buildings and other human-made objects:

japanese dots 1

japanese dots 2

japanese dots 3

While it is unlikely that these dots were created with InDesign, it did provide an interesting insight into the Japanese psyche and provided groundwork for the stroke style.

There were a few signs that appeared to contained dotted lines, but on closer inspection revealed dashed lines:

dots are dashes

Fortunately, though it took some searching, I did finally find some actual signs with dotted lines:

japanese dots 4

japanese dots 5

japanese dots 6

However, by comparing the style of these signs with the other 99.9% of designs we saw, I have come to the conclusion that these signs were old. And if the signs weren’t old, the design style certainly was. Perhaps the dotted line is a decade or more out of style? Perhaps InDesign’s Dotted Line style reflects an aesthetic from the 20th century?

Of course, styles, like pendulums, just keep coming back. Maybe we are on the cusp of a resurgence of densely dotted lines. In fact, just before leaving Japan, I discovered two dotted adverts posted on a train, targeting youngsters — proof that the design community is preparing the next generation for tightly-packed Japanese dots:

new japanese dots

dots or apples

Okay, so the dots in that last one aren’t technically dots… they’re tiny pictures of apples and other objects to buy. But when you spend two weeks looking for Japanese Dots, you start to see them pretty much everywhere!

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at Lynda.com are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at 63p.com.
David Blatner

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15 Comments on “Japanese Dots: A Journey Up the River

  1. Google images: “Japanese dots fabric”, you get quite a dotty experience. I think it has to do with the relationship of the dot to the space around it. One of those perfection things.

  2. “Because we at InDesignSecrets spare no expense to uncover the true secrets of InDesign, . . . ”

    I think you could finance me a journey to some Greek islands to further investigate in the origin of Greek text and vector graphics and their current states. I promise to send you some pictures.

  3. Federico, you’ll have to wait until I come back from Egypt in search of the origin of the “Sphinx of black quartz” text in Story Editor Preferences.

    Also, fwiw, I’ve put in a feature request on the Adobe site that they rename the Wavy line style to “Hawaiian” so that I can investigate that one next winter.

  4. Wikipedia has a table that includes what looks like a bullet point and explains:

    “Adding these dots to the sides of characters (right side in vertical writing, above in horizontal writing) emphasizes the character in question. It is the Japanese equivalent of the use of italics for emphasis in English.”

    Maybe that’s where they came from? Not just short dashes, or full-stop sized dots, but dots the size of bullet points, like the Japanese use for emphasis.

    Were there Japanese dots in Quark? I can’t remember now. When were they first used?

    Loved your pics, though! Thanks!

  5. I am going to have to sit down and think about this. I did arrange for the family to take a trip to Disney World once so I could gather ambiance for a family mystery novel I have yet to write. But I can see now that I am thinking small . . .

  6. OBLEO!!! plus, my nickname is Dot, I love Disney and the other free podcast I started at the same time as I started ID Secrets is Japanese Pod101. my worlds just collided.

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