Doug Akagi on Wabi-Sabi, Alterpop, and Paying It Forward

"Japan totally blew my mind."

That's a typical comment from a student after returning from Doug Akagi's summer study-abroad trip to Japan. Akagi created the course -- titled "In Search of Emptiness and Wabi-Sabi" -- three years ago, and he has led it each summer since. It's often difficult for the students to put into words what the adventure means to them and their work.

"Most of them," Akagi observes, "have never experienced a metropolis like Tokyo or the sublime beauty of an ancient city like Kyoto. And I realize that the trip is expensive, with the tuition and the airfare and the incidentals. So I try to make it a trip of a lifetime.

"Leading 14 students to almost 30 venues in two different cities in 12 days without incident is a challenge, and exhausting. Dozens of subway, train, and bus rides, endless miles of walking, and counting heads at every juncture.”

But there is plenty of beauty and inspiration as a reward. And Akagi gets a profound kick out of showing off his old haunts from when he was a young graphic designer living and working in Tokyo and Kyoto.

"Doug really cares deeply that students understand the context and history of what they are studying."

Many of Akagi's fellow Graphic Design faculty members say this about him as a teacher, and it certainly applies to his motivations for teaching the Japan course. "The idea," he reflects, "is to distill my 40 years of pondering ancient Japanese aesthetics into one summer session.

"We cover everything from wabi-sabi (the beauty of impermanence and imperfection) to the Shinto concept of emptiness as a strategy to attract the gods, the tea ceremony, and Zen Buddhism. They see a lot of temples and gardens, but they get to do some touristy things, too."

And they visit lots of design exhibitions.

"Tokyo alone usually has something like six design exhibitions going at any given time." They visit the Ghibli Museum, whose executive director is the world-famous film director, animator, and manga artist Hayao Miyazaki.

The most recent group caught an exhibition at the Suntory Museum of Art on the concept of mono no aware, a Japanese term for the transitory nature of life and things.

"This year I was really pleased to have such an international group. There were only four Americans. Of the rest, two were Taiwanese, two Filipino, two Korean, and four from mainland China. Four were MFA Design students, four undergraduate Graphic Design majors, two Jewelry / Metal Arts majors, two Animation students, and one Film. It was a great mix."

"Doug was born in a World War II Japanese internment camp."

Akagi was, indeed, born in an internment camp in Utah. After the war ended, his parents, both born and raised in Berkeley, moved to the East Coast to raise their children in a less discriminatory environment.

Assimilation was their goal, so they never spoke Japanese at home and made little reference to their cultural heritage. It provoked in Akagi an ongoing identity crisis and a burning desire to connect with his family’s past.

His uncle, whose job involved living half the year in Japan and the other half in the United States, promised to help him find a job in Tokyo if he could get himself over there.

"Doug went to Japan and got a job at a design firm, without speaking a word of Japanese."

Also true. The firm was the renowned Nippon Design Center in Tokyo.

"After I'd been there about a year, I asked a coworker how my Japanese was coming along. He said, 'You speak horrible Japanese beautifully.' Meaning that I sounded very feminine, probably because I was sitting between two women designers at the firm, and that my vocabulary was terrible.

"Being young, my solution to this was to start frequenting the Shinjuku movie houses, watching lots of gangster and samurai films to pick up some macho lingo."

"Doug is the Kevin Bacon of San Francisco graphic design."

Back in 1983, Akagi was one of the cofounders of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA-SF). Today it is the second-largest chapter in the country, with a membership exceeding 1,600.

Between his renewed involvement in AIGA-SF; running his design firm, Alterpop, with his wife, Dorothy Remington; and his multi-decade teaching career, he has been a connector for vast numbers of graphic designers.

"The scene can be incestuous, sure! But it's very gratifying to bring good designers together."

Case in point: Two former Alterpop interns (and CCA alumni) have subsequently become presidents of AIGA-SF: Christopher Simmons (Graphic Design 1997) and current president David Asari (Graphic Design 1989), who is also the assistant chair of CCA's Graphic Design Program.

Akagi has taught at almost every level of the program and has had an incalculable number of students. He's also hired about 75 interns and 100 employees, mostly from CCA.

"Being around students all the time keeps you current, and vital," he says, "not only in terms of your work, but also in terms of technology, and pure enthusiasm. If you want to talk generations, at this point I think I've got several 'grandchildren' out there in the professional design community."

"Doug was heavily into triathlons, you know. He did something like 150 triathlons and completed the Hawaii Ironman twice. The story goes that when he and Dorothy got married, they made a pact that they would quit smoking and become athletes together. Their wedding registry was at a local bike shop."

"I'm an obsessive personality," Akagi admits. "At the height of it all I was running and biking and swimming every day, working long hours at Alterpop, plus teaching at CCA.

"Dorothy and I relocated Alterpop to be near the campus so that we could walk over there together midday and teach our classes. I loved it. But, you know, work becomes like a drug. It's exhilarating, but you need to keep your employees busy, so you are constantly hustling for more work."

In 2011, Akagi and his wife made the difficult decision to downsize and bring some sanity to their lives.

"We finally closed our San Francisco office and moved our base of operations to our house in San Rafael. It took forever just to sell or donate all the equipment and furniture. It was traumatic.

"But the moment it was all over, it was such a huge relief! We realized we should have done it sooner. This morning, I woke up, went for a walk with Dorothy and our dog, Bella, and later had lunch on the back deck with them."

"Doug retired from teaching at CCA in 2008 and was named professor emeritus. He’s the only emeritus I know who's back on the faculty teaching multiple classes! Between you and me, I suspect that he got bored."

"They threw this great party for my retirement (longtime faculty member Steve Reoutt was also retiring at that time), and everyone said such nice things in their speeches. I was glad to be done -- I was feeling a bit burned out after 24 years -- and for a while I didn’t miss teaching.

"But a few years later Cinthia Wen (Graphic Design 2007), who was then program chair (she's also a former student and employee), called and asked if I might be able to help her out of a bind. You know, just teach one class.

"And then one thing led to another and I was sucked back into the CCA orbit. I do love it here."

Currently he is filling in for Bob Aufuldish as the faculty advisor for Sputnik, the group of undergraduates that designs many of CCA's publications. And he is the new student group advisor for AIGA-SF.

"I've never known such a senior professional -- in any field—to take the idea of paying it forward so much to heart."

You may have noticed by now how committed Akagi is to educating the next generation. But it's more than that. It’s also about welcoming them into the professional community -- paying it forward as a mentor -- since he benefited so much from his own mentors.

He is likewise generous about passing along actual jobs to former students when he is in a position to do so.

"Yes, it's very competitive out there. But there is always room for one more good designer."