Wabi-Sabi’s simplicity Matt 31 Oct 2005

12 comments Latest by Klemensowski

Wabi-sabi is the Japanese philosophy that embraces a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered but don’t sterilize,” says Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. For a good summary, check out A Culture of Simplicity, a brief article by Koren.

It’s interesting to see how much this ancient Japanese philosphy relates to the world of interface design and programming. “Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking…unpretentious…Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern.” Inevitable looking…that’s a great way to describe smart interfaces.

Other tenets of Wabi-Sabi that resonate: The emphasis on subtle details, even if noticed only by vigilant viewers. The importance of looking closely. The effectiveness of small doses. Having quiet authority without having to be the center of attention. Simplicity. Working with a limited palette and keeping features to a minimum. Realizing something’s “interestingness” has nothing to do with how complex it is.

More Wabi-Sabi ideas from A Culture of Simplicity — relating to design, programming, and the importance of less — after the jump.

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular and enduring. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.

Like homoeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small doses. As the dose decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more profound. The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently, to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow down, be patient and look very closely.

Things wabi-sabi are unpretentious, unstudied and inevitable looking. They do not blare out “I am important” or demand to be the centre of attention. They are understated and unassuming, yet not without presence or quiet authority. Things wabi-sabi easily coexist with the rest of their environment.

Simplicity is at the core of things wabi-sabi. The essence of wabi-sabi, as expressed in tea, is simplicity itself: fetch water, gather firewood, boil the water, prepare tea, and serve it to others.

The simplicity of wabi-sabi is best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence…Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness”, the quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again.

Wabi, Sabi and Shibui
The Slow Lane

12 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Steve Akers 31 Oct 05

So an app built on wabi-sabi principles would require the user to “slow down, be patient and look very closely?” And anyone who doesn’t like the app would be considered “vulgar” because they aren’t able to see its beauty?

Nick 31 Oct 05

I think the meaning intended was opposite Steve. Builders of wabi-sabi interfaces need to be slow down, be patient, and look closely at what they’re doing expressly so that they can get out of the way of users who may be (and most likely are) moving quickly, be very impatient, and clicking wildly. It is my understanding that wabi-sabi is a state of “designing for use” more than just a state of use itself.

grasshopper 31 Oct 05

wabi sabi brought back to the tea service:


having these “rustic” items around me (my morning coffee cup) does create a peaceful state of mind… that hopefully fosters creativity… and better design. Unclear if it works but I’d like to think so.

Steve Akers 31 Oct 05

Nick: That’s a much better way to look at it. :)

I do think, however, that maybe the best way to apply wabi-sabi to software is more in terms of the development process. To quote Koren, wabi-sabi deals with the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete… of things modest and humble.” To me, this sounds a lot like agile development. As requirements change, wabi-sabi could helps us find beauty in the work-in-progress.

not going there... 31 Oct 05

I can’t bring myself to say it.

Alex Bunardzic 31 Oct 05

I do think, however, that maybe the best way to apply wabi-sabi to software is more in terms of the development process.

I wouldn’t limit wabi-sabi to only the software development phase. It is very applicable also to the software consumption phase. Compare the web 2.0 experience with a corporate-induced ERP experience. A grand product, such as SAP, that proposes to bring the harmony of the spheres into people workaday environments, is being shoved down their throats. The product gets introduced, is very disruptive, causes major traumas to the organization, etc.

All this is diametrically opposed to the soft touch of wabi-sabi apps such as del.icio.us. The wabi-sabi apps of the web 2.0 era slowly and imperceptibly creep up on you, and before you know it, you’re cooked (er… hooked)!

Steve Akers 31 Oct 05

Alex: Not sure I could would want something with the scope and impact of SAP to creep up slowly and imperceptibly at all. It’s best if the users get it as quickly as possible.

The UI should be simple enough to understand right away. Koren write, “The problem with bad craftsmanship is that it needlessly distracts from the purity of your communication; it draws away energy and attention; it raises questions in the reader’s mind that shouldn’t be there.” I think this is what Nick was getting at above.

Walt Morton 01 Nov 05

While it is easy to focus on the “simplicity” and “minimalist” aspects of wabi-sabi, there are other aspects that can be equally if not more important to inform the processes of creative people. If you read Koren’s book and other W-S works, it is clear that a major part of wabi-sabi is celebrating randomness, mistakes, accidental juxtapositions. The fractal cracking pattern in the glaze of hand-fired pottery is very wabi-sabi, the perfect machine finish is not wabi-sabi.

In America, there is usually top-down control of the creative process from some kind of “director” who is trying to get their “vision” to manifest itself through the creative process. There is a struggle to “get it right.” It’s a fools errand, much of the time — struggling to control the creative process (nature) is not wabi-sabi. Very often you’ll see people with a fixed idea that something should be a certain way. Wabi-sabi thinking is to let a thing develop “it’s own way.” And to be OK with that. And the artist who is secure enough to give up control to the universe, to accept accidents, mistakes, unexpected outcomes, and randomness to enter the work can find valuable tools in concepts that are “problems” for most Westerners.

Mikael 02 Nov 05

This book does a good job assisting us in simplifying and sloganizing something that people are obviously really to anxious to really experience.

Someone said:
“If you read this book and ‘get so much out of it’ and ‘apply it with marvelous results to your daily life’ or ‘learn to accept imperfection in myself and others’ you will probably not have a clue to what I’m saying.”
And I have to agree…

Adrian 02 Nov 05

The nearest thing to wabi-sabi software I can think of is Clay Shirky’s idea of Situated Software:


The philosophy is based around one-off craft production, not industrialised mass-production.