Principles of Design #56 – Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-Sabi is a design principle that is also a (Japanese) world view, philosophy of life and aesthetic principle. Wabi-Sabi centres on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, and is based on beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”. It derives from one of the three marks of existence from Buddhism: impermanence. [The others are suffering and absence of self-nature.]

The term brings together two very distinctive Japanese concepts: wabi is the transcendental beauty achieved through subtle imperfection, and sabi is the beauty that comes with time and ageing. The Wabi-Sabi aesthetic is characterised by asymmetry, roughness, irregularity, simplicity, economy, modesty, intimacy and an overall appreciation of the ingenuity and integrity of nature. For designers, this means objects and environments that embody naturalness, simplicity and subtle imperfections and irregularities in order to create a more meaningful feeling of beauty.

The concept is embodied by a simple story. In late sixteenth-century Japan a student of the Way of Tea, Sen no Rikyu, was asked to tend the garden of his master, Takeno Jo-o. Rikyu cleared the garden of rubbish and raked the grounds thoroughly, and then when the garden was finally perfectly groomed, he shook a cherry tree causing flowers and leaves to fall randomly to the ground. This is Wabi-Sabi!

Such an aesthetic, based on principles of impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection, is contrary to traditional Western aesthetic values which prefer symmetry and durability (of materials). By contrast, Wabi-Sabi promotes the asymmetry of nature and perishable natural materials. This does not mean that disorganisation and untidiness are valued. Wabi-Sabi favours natural order rather than artificial order and certainly not disorder. Nature is ordered by crooked and curved lines and not straight lines and right angles.

With the rise of sustainability as a global issue, Western aesthetics have evolved closer to Japanese aesthetics, with clean and minimalist designs becoming more popular, along with natural materials (e.g. wood, stone) and muted natural colours (e.g. brown, green, grey, rust). However, the emphasis in the West is on sustainability and recycling of materials rather than overall aesthetics.

Wabi-Sabi is a humble aesthetic (or rather an aesthetic of humbleness), but also highly sophisticated and very different to the innate biases of Western culture and designers have usually kept the style only for Asian contexts or for more sophisticated Western audiences.. However, there is much to be said for incorporating some of the aesthetic elements of Wabi-Sabi more broadly, as arguably Apple have done with a focus on simplicity and minimalism (but not irregularity and naturalness). Impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness when used subtly make designs interesting and with a more natural feel than is the norm. Colours and materials drawn from nature and more organic forms and symbolism can create unique and naturally beautiful environments that are appreciated by all.


Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden & Butler

Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren

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