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7 Japanese Aesthetic Principles to Change your Thinking

"The principles of Zen aesthetics found in the art of the traditional Japanese garden, have many lessons for us, though they are unknown to most people. The principles are interconnected and overlap; it's not possible to simply put the ideas in separate boxes."

The seven design-related principles published by Garr Reynolds in 2009 (there are more) govern the aesthetics of the Japanese garden and other art forms in Japan.

For further reading, Mr. Reynolds cites Patrick Lennox Tierney as the author of a few short essays that elaborate on the Zen concepts.

Garr Reynolds is an internationally acclaimed communications consultant and the author of best-selling books including the award-winning Presentation Zen, Presentation Zen Design, and the Naked Presenter. Garr’s approach to communication takes the principles and lessons from the Zen arts in Japan to reveal simple, concrete tips for communicating — and living — better. For more information please visit:

Source: Presentation Zen

The principles

  1. Simplicity or elimination of clutter - Kanso (簡素)
  2. Asymmetry or Irregularity - Fukinsei (不均整)
  3. Naturalness - Shizen (自然)
  4. Subtlety - Yugen (幽玄)
  5. Break from routine - Datsuzoku (脱俗)
  6. Stillness, Tranquility - Seijaku (静寂)
  7. Austerity - Shibui/Shibumi (渋味)

  1. Simplicity or elimination of clutter - Kanso (簡素)

    Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner. Reminds us to think not in terms of decoration but in terms of clarity, a kind of clarity that may be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.

    Kanso dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative, or fanciful. The overall effect is fresh, clean, and neat. Instagram may just owe its popularity to kanso. CEO Kevin Systrom’s first iteration (called Burbn) was a feature-laden app lacking a simple value proposition and, as such, had few users. By streamlining it so people could understand and have fun with it inside of 30 seconds, Instagram gained 2 million users in only four months, a rate of growth faster than Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter.

    Zen lesson: Eliminate what doesn't matter to make more room for what does.

  2. Asymmetry or Irregularity - Fukinsei (不均整)

    The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso ("Zen circle") in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In graphic design too asymmetrical balance is a dynamic, beautiful thing. Try looking for (or creating) beauty in balanced asymmetry. Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced. This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.

    The goal of fukinsei is to convey the symmetry of the natural world through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings. The effect is that the viewer supplies the missing symmetry and participates in the creative act.

    There was a huge buildup to the last episode of The Sopranos, the popular HBO series about a band of loosely organized criminals in northern New Jersey, led by one Tony Soprano. The big question was whether Tony would be whacked or not.

    In the final tension-filled seconds, everyone’s screen went black, and the credits rolled. It was a no-ending ending. The media went wild, accusing the show’s writer, producer, and director David Chase of copping out, until he announced the following day that everything anyone needed to determine the fate of Tony Soprano was in the episode.

    People went back and watched the show, again and again. Viewership went from the initial 12 million to 36 million in three days. Three distinct endings emerged on the Internet. By leaving the story incomplete and denying his audience conventional story symmetry, but embedding enough clues for someone to connect the dots, Chase made everyone a creator and tripled his impact.

    Zen lesson: Leave room for others to co-create with you; provide a platform for open innovation.

  3. Naturalness - Shizen (自然)

    Absence of pretense or artificiality, full creative intent unforced. Ironically, the spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create a natural-feeling environment. It is not a raw nature as such but one with more purpose and intention.

    The goal of shizen is to strike a balance between being “of nature” yet distinct from it--to be viewed as being without pretense or artifice, while seeming intentional rather than accidental or haphazard.

    Designer Noé Duchaufour Lawrance captured the essence of shizen in his Naturoscopie collection of furniture intended to re-create and abstract nature’s sensations: light filtering through trees, the setting sun, shadows of passing clouds. As he explained it, he wanted to “go beyond literal transcription of nature.”

    Zen lesson: Incorporate naturally occurring patterns and rhythms into your design.

  4. Subtlety - Yugen (幽玄)

    Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. Photographers and designers can surely think of many ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole, that is, showing more by showing less.

    The principle of yugen captures the Zen view that precision and finiteness are at odds with nature, implying stagnation and loss of life, and that the power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosure. Leaving something to the imagination piques our curiosity and can move us to action.

    Yugen has figured centrally in the Apple marketing strategy, ever since the original iPhone. In the months leading up to its June 2007 launch, it was hailed as one of the most-hyped products in history. To hype something, though, means to push and promote it heavily through marketing and media. Apple did the exact opposite: Steve Jobs demonstrated it at Macworld 07 just once.

    Between the announcement and the product launch, there was nothing but radio silence: no publicity, promotion, leaks to the media, price discounts, demos for technology reviewers, clever advertising, or preordering. There was essentially an embargo on official information, with only the Jobs demo available to reference online. The blogosphere exploded, resulting in over 20 million people expressing an intent to buy.

    Zen lesson: Limit information just enough to pique curiosity and leave something to the imagination.

  5. Break from routine - Datsuzoku (脱俗)

    Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary. Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principles describes the feeling of surprise and a bit of amazement when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional. Professor Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, "...made with the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden."

    Datsuzoku signifies a certain reprieve from convention. When a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity and resourcefulness emerge.

    Imagine that you get a flat tire while you’re driving. If you’re normal, you curse out loud. That curse signals a break from the ordinary, which, being creatures of habit, we don’t much care for. But now suddenly you’re wide awake, with senses on high alert, and you’re aware of a problem requiring your full attention to solve.

    Suddenly everything you normally take for granted becomes vitally important: How the car handles, the shoulder of the road, safe spots to pull over, traffic around you, tire-changing tools in your trunk, immediate avenues for help.

    These are all the resources you need for a creative solution. They were there all along, but it was the break that brought them to your attention.

    Zen lesson: An interruptive “break” is an important part of any breakthrough design.

  6. Stillness, Tranquility - Seijaku (静寂)

    Energized calm (quite), solitude. This is related to the feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by seijaku would be noise and disturbance. How might we bring a feeling of "active calm" and stillness to ephemeral designs outside the Zen arts?

    The principle of seijaku deals with the actual content of datsuzoku. To the Zen practitioner, it is in states of active calm, tranquillity, solitude, and quietude that we find the essence of creative energy.

    Enter meditation, which is an incredibly effective way to enhance self-awareness, focus, and attention and to prime your brain for achieving creative insights. Leaders at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and all meditate. Oracle chief Larry Ellison meditates and asks his executives to do so several times a day.

    Zen lesson: Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.

  7. Austerity - Shibui/Shibumi (渋味)

    Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter tasting).

    Koko emphasizes restraint, exclusion, and omission. The goal is to present something that both appears spare and imparts a sense of focus and clarity. In the world of mobile apps, Clear is a great example, and according to Co.Design’s John Pavlus, is “interesting for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t sync. It doesn’t tag. It doesn’t "intelligently" sort anything. It also doesn’t have any obvious clues in its gestural interface for how to actually use the thing.”

    Zen lesson: Refrain from adding what is not absolutely necessary in the first place.