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zen rock garden with lines drawn in the sand

The 7 Principles of Zen Applied to Design


Simplicity and elegance: concepts from Zen adapted for design.

The principles that govern Zen Buddhism cover all dimensions of life, including of course, design and architecture. The temples and gardens representative of Zen culture in Japan embody the concept of shibuimi, an elusive, empty term, that nonetheless alludes to beauty, elegance, imperfection, complexity —but also simplicity— and the natural state of things.

The architect Sarah Susanka wrote: “When something has truly been designed well, it has discrete beauty that is manifested effortlessly and works. That is shibuimi”.

Although aesthetic tastes may vary, most people aspire to elegance and simplicity, two of the hardest attributes to accomplish. Zen, with its millenary tradition, inspired in the rhythms of nature, meditation and silence, is indubitably a good starting point for those who wish to reflect upon ideal harmonic designs, in this manner, attributing space not only with an aesthetic dimension but also a liveable one. We present the 7 basic principles to take the Zen philosophy into the sphere or design, according to the observations of Matthew May, expert in innovation and design.

1. Austerity

The concept of koko stresses the importance of absence and omission. This refers to the effect a no has on space. Bare and non-ostentatious but at the same time focuses and clear. Only what is truly necessary should be added, thus giving place to the void and all its habitable potential - Limiting the décor allows for the limitless to emerge.

2. Simplicity

Exemplified by the concept of kanso, simplicity suggests that beauty and usefulness should not be expressed excessively; it is not necessary to gloat or to decorate exorbitantly. Thus a feeling of freshness, order and cleanliness is achieved. This very characteristic seems to appear in Apple products (Steve Jobs was a known admirer of Zen Buddhism).

3. Naturalness


Expressed by shizen, naturalness in design seeks the equilibrium between being a part of nature and at the same time, different —architecture that adapts to its environment also incarnates simultaneously artistic intention. Incorporating natural light, vegetation, wind and topography to the design, with a single intentional trace or a subtle symbolic presence, is a rhythmic distillation formula characteristic of the highest art form.

4. Subtlety

The importance of not revealing everything in a single impression. Insinuation, imagination and seduction of the forms that do not fully reveal themselves exert on the viewer a magnetic power. Again facing the vices of excess, subtlety allows perception to become more acute and access higher states of consciousness —by not being burdened with the excess of information.

5. Imperfection, asymmetry


Nourishing itself from paradox, the idea behind the Zen concept of fukinsei, is communicating nature’s symmetry by framing it in an evidently asymmetric and unfinished design. It is the glance, in an act of gestalt, which provides the work with the missing symmetry, thus participating in a creative act and making the aesthetic experience an immersive one. So Zen leaves space open for co-creation.

6. Break in the Routine

Not just in terms of the finished piece but also for the creative process, the datsuzoku concept calls for a rupture with conventionality. Zen emphasises the opportunity that accidents and out-of-the-ordinary events represent. This can be translated in the general planning of the space or merely as inspiration for it.

7. Stillness

The principle of seijaku takes the properties of meditation and transports them into design. Meditation is one of the great tools to achieve calm, concentration and encourages states of great alert and creativity, hence a source of inspiration for design. Physical spaces are an inseparable reflection of mental states.

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