Zen and The Art of Experience Design

Finding your way as a designer can be difficult sometimes. In this beautiful world that we live in, there are so many different ideas and iterations of those ideas, it is easy to get overloaded. Sometimes a set of guiding principles is all that is needed to get started down a path and find your way. If you are anything like me, it is easy to get distracted or find yourself in a place asking “How do I do this?” or “Am I doing this right?”

A well-designed user experience, website, or graphic captures a user’s attention and makes the interaction with it meaningful and unforgettable. But how does someone begin to design something that does just that? As I immersed myself in design thinking, different ideas, and aesthetics, one idea that grabbed me and would not let go was the concept of Shibumi. Shibui (渋い) (adjective), shibumi (渋み) (noun), or shibusa (渋さ) (noun) is a concept of simplicity and subtlety, natural beauty, and cohesiveness with that which surrounds it. I immediately fell in love with the concept and try to incorporate Shibumi principals into the graphics and websites that I create.

Originating in Japan, Shibumi is an integral part of Japanese aesthetics. Emphasizing simple and natural beauty, Shibumi concepts can be applied to a variety of disciplines in the design field. Such as fashion, architecture, graphic and web design, and user experience (UX) design.

Shibumi can be broken down into seven fundamental principles that designers and developers can use to convey better, more impactful messages.

The Shibumi Seven

Koko (Austerity)

Koko represents restraint and omission. One of my favorite movie quotes is from Ocean’s Eleven, when Brad Pitt is coaching Matt Damon how to talk and tells him, “Don’t use seven words when four will do.” As web designers and content creators, we want to design the next cool thing, develop new animations, or craft innovative content. However, what isn’t there can be just as powerful as what is there. The principal of Koko implores designers to show restraint, only including what is necessary. This means that users will only see what is useful, and they will have a better experience as a result.

Kanso (Simplicity)

There is beauty in simple, understated designs. Websites that users can understand and navigate within seconds offer more value than applications that have many complicated features that are difficult to utilize. The principle of Kanso forces designers to scrutinize what matters, and remove what doesn’t to make room for what does. Similar to what Apple has had so much success with in the past, emphasizing clean, simple designs and interfaces over packing in features.

Shizen (Naturalness)

The concept of Shizen refers to the balance that something strikes with its natural surroundings. A design that exhibits Shizen is distinct from its natural surroundings and blends into them effortlessly. Blending in with nature is a hard concept to work with, especially when dealing with digital mediums like web sites. However, designers can leverage natural patterns, shapes, and rhythms to create works that draw inspiration from nature. One of the underlying concepts inherent in the natural world is the flow or order of things. For designers, being mindful of the natural order of elements in a user interface or design and how to guide the flow of a user’s journey helps make interactions beautiful and seamless.

Yugen (Subtlety)

Mystery piques curiosity. Yugen is an essential concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. Sometimes, it is not what you put into a design, but what you leave out that draws attention and captures the imagination. Information foraging is a natural reflex for humans and an important concept in UX design, touching on the innate drive to find and hunt down what they are looking after. Giving users a sent to track rather than delivering what they want at their feed helps to keep them engaged and draw them through the story. Incorporating this concept means leaving out just enough information to pique curiosity, keeping users engaged, and allowing their imagination and instincts to drive them.

Fukinsei (Imperfection, asymmetry)

Drawing from nature again, often the most perfect things are imperfect. The concept behind Fukinsei reminds us that there is beauty in designs that aren’t over-polished. Some fantastic examples of this in web design lay in the brutalist design movement that is gaining steam and the glitchy, dystopian designs that always draw attention. UX designers can use Fukinsei by breaking up components on pages and arranging them in different ways. Reinventing layouts, while still allow for easy and intuitive navigation, injects a sense of fun and uniqueness.

Seijaku (Stillness, solitude)

There is wisdom in silence. Every day we are constantly bombarded with news, ideas, re-inventions of old ideas, and it can quickly get overwhelming. The concept behind Seijaku is to silence and re-center your mind so that thoughts can flow freely. For designers, this is a crucial concept as it reminds us to take a step back from what we are doing. Removing the constant barrage of articles, new ideas, clients, project milestones, and stepping back to calm your mind and take it all in. Stillness quiets the mind and opens the windows for air to flow, imparting new insights and soothing the soul. The concept of Seijaku also has a place in design. Take a second to step back and look at what you are presenting to your users. By curating what you are presenting, you remove the noise and give users a better, more focused experience.

Datsuzoku (Break from routine)

People are creatures of habit. I find comfort when I get into a routine and know how things are supposed to go and what I am supposed to do without thinking about it. Datsuzoku means leaving those routines behind, breaking out of your comfort zone, and re-invigorating your habits. Comfort stagnates growth. Every designer should strive to get out of there box, ask questions, challenge your thinking and processes, and grow.

The Shibumi principals lay a solid foundation for designers to build upon and find clarity within to better how we communicate with users. Taking the time to analyze and critically look at what we create through the lens of the Shibumi helps to cut through the noise and craft a better and more meaningful experience.

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