Design principles of the Far East.

Japanese design has always fascinated people around the world. It is subtle, yet impactful, mysterious yet clear. Based primarily on the concepts of Zen, the Japanese design principles are often more philosophical than physical. They also place a great priority on imperfection and stillness.

The following are 7 Japanese design principles from Garr Reynold’s blog(accessible here at: He mentions them as aesthetic principles, but should we look deeper, we will realise that they also qualify as design principles. Without further ado, the seven principles are as follows;

Kanso“Kanso (簡素) Simplicity or elimination of clutter. 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.”

As mentioned, Kanso extends to more than just visual simplicity. It creates clarity through having less, and can be related to Dieter Rams’ 6th principle of good design; Good design is honest. Kanso, is to be clear by being simple and the 6th principle is to be honest. To convey your message clearly, and without embellishment, that is what Kanso stands for.

fukinsei“Fukinsei (不均整) Asymmetry or irregularity. 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.”

Fukinsei is rather unique to the Japanese design aesthetic, and can almost be equated with imperfection. It is representative of life, and embraces the incompleteness and imperfection of existence. Parallels can be drawn to the arts and craft movement in the West, where being handmade and having minor imperfections is interesting, but Fukinsei runs deeper. At the same time, Fukinsei does not mean that design should be lopsided, but a balance has to be struck across the entire subject.

“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).”

As mentioned by Reynolds, Shibui is likened to the Western concept of Minimalism. In an Eastern context, it could be how the gentle ripples in the water emphasize the beauty of a lotus flower, or how the carefully manicured lines within a Zen Garden create direction and meaning without being significant.

Shizen“Shizen (自然) Naturalness. 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.”

Shizen, in my opinion, is the the deepest and most philosophical one. It does not mean to replicate nature, nor does it mean to let nature take dominance. It means to CREATE a natural state through human intervention, and thus requires a great affinity with nature itself which can only be attained through a deep understanding and appreciation of nature.(Did that make sense? If not, you need to meditate on it :D)

YugenYugen (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.”

Yugen is a very beautiful principle. It is prevalent in many cultures, such as the veiled dancers of Persian history, or the brief revelation of a wrist or ankle by Geishas to arouse and attract their patrons. It is to tease the viewer or user into imagination by presenting them a small taste of the whole object. It also covers representative elements and symbolism within the Japanese design aesthetic.


“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 is a simple principle. It represents a surprise, something unexpected.  Buildings floating on water, animals frolicking in the absence of people, that is what Datsuzoku expresses. Truly, it is the escape from routine and the ordinary.

Tranquil Snow 11597“Seijaku (静寂)Tranquility or an energized calm (quite), stillness, 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?”

Seijaku, as Reynolds mentions, is about stillness and solitude. It is about both external and internal peace. One could liken it to meditation, but how could we represent this stillness and tranquility in our modern world?

A fleeting, permeating essence that flows and envelops, an enchantingly beautiful memory, a slow, elegant dance and the soft touch of life and the world; that is Japanese design.



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