On 6. February 2021, a day-long series of web presentations in Japan celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Japanese version of Adobe InDesign. I tuned in from British Columbia, late Friday night my time. Mixed in with tips about the latest InDesign features were reminescences by the key Adobe employees from the time about how InDesign Japanese Version came to be. It turned out to be more than some tales of just another product. It was a warm reunion, particularly on the chat threads. It was the story of a singular gathering of Japanese printing expertise at a singular time of transformation. It was for many of the speakers a capstone event of their careers.

A major part of the InDesign story is how the Japanese version of InDesign turned out to be a substantially different product from the original North American version of InDesign — launching 17 months later, with Japan-oriented text layout. The fascinating talk, 「日本語DTPに大革命を! アメリカからやってきた風雲児」 (“A great revolution in Japanese Desktop Publishing! The change agents from America”) told this story in vivid detail, with anecdotes from Priscilla Knoble, Lynn Shade, and Miyamoto Hiroshi, elicited by the deft questioning from Ishioka Yuki.

This talk unfolded entirely in Japanese, via a Youtube live broadcast from a pre-recorded web call. The chat log beside the video turned into a warm, friendly reunion with lots of greetings to colleagues from 20 years previously. In a nice touch, the presenters were present on the chat as their video played. They even remembered me.

I was enchanted by the term 風雲児, used in the talk’s title. Pronounced “fu-un-ji”, the three characters represent “wind”, “clouds”, and “child”. I didn’t know it, but from the characters it seemed to have sense of wildness and magic, like an “elemental” or “horsemen of the apocalypse”. It is common enough to be the name of a sushi restaurant. A dictionary defines 風雲児 as 「社会の変動などに乗じて活躍する英雄的人物」, or “heroic people who take an active role in a time of social change”. Maybe “change agents” or “disruptors in turbulent times” would be a good translation, though they lack the poetry of “wind” and “clouds”.

In the same vein of reminescences by the key contributors, Nat McCully and Nakamura Mika presented 「InDesign日本語版開発秘話」 (“Secret Tales of InDesign Japanese Version’s Development”). In a curious twist, McCully appears to now hold the role of manager of the Type Development Group at Adobe which I held some 20 years ago.

Another talk that was meaningful for me was Yamamoto Taro’s 「日本語タイポグラフィにおけるInDesignとフォント技術」 (InDesign and Font Technology in Japanese Typography). On of the treasures of working at Adobe was Yamamoto’s deep knowledge of Japanese typography and of type design, and the friendliness with which he shared it with me and other colleagues. It was great to hear from him again.

I had my own role in InDesign Japanese Version, which played out a few years after the initial product launch, in about the years 2003-2005. I was a leader of work on the SING Gaiji Architecture. This was an attempt, which ultimately failed commercially, to solve a crucial problem in Japanese and Chinese typography. Read about it in SING: The Final Frontier For Japanese DTP, a 2004 article in the Seybold Report, written by Joel Breckenridge Basset. In this project I worked particularly closely with Yamamoto Taro, with Ishioka Yuki, product manager for InDesign Japanese Version at the time, and with daan Strebe on the InDesign engineering team. The architect of SING, my good friend John Renner of the Type Development Group, sadly died in a car crash in 2018.

The SING architecture was mentioned in the 20th Anniversary event, but only once, only in passing, and as a trivia point.

A remarkable aspect of the InDesign story is the number of Japanese experts on typography and layout who agreed to advise Adobe on requirements, to show Adobe how they published and what their workflow and working spaces were like, and to give feedback on Adobe products, so that Adobe could improve them. For those who worked on InDesign, it was not just a chance to build a product, it was a chance to work with fine minds across the industry.

And a remarkable aspect of the recollections of many of the core Adobe participants was that InDesign Japanese version was one of, if not the, capstone project of their professional lives. In a time of profound change in an entire industry, a North American company took an unusual step of putting real money on the table to build a product to meet the needs of a foreign market which weren’t visible at home. Many people from across the industry paid attention. The result was excellent, and did indeed establish personal computers and Adobe as the new ubiquitous tool.

It is rare that one gets to be a part of an experience like that. I am certainly grateful to have had that opportunity.