Theories behind Japanese Design

Aen, the guy who banged out the design of this site has an interesting write up of the theories behind the Japanese approach to design and aesthetics.

Also called Wabi – Sabi (I know I had to re-read it after thinking it was Wasabi too), the Zen principles of Aesthetics are derived from the Buddhism beliefs of Anicca or Impermanence where “everything, without exception, is constantly in flux, even planets, stars and gods”. (Wikipedia)


Asymmetry, odd numbers, irregularity, unevenness, imbalance is used as a denial of perfection as perfection and symmetry does not occur in nature.

KANSO (simple)
Elimination of ornate and things of simplicity by nature expresses their truthfulness. Neat, frank and uncomplicated.

KOKOU (austere)
Basic, weathered bare essentials that are aged and unsensuous. Evokes sternness, forbiddance, maturity and weight.

SHIZEN (natural)
Raw, natural and unforced creativity without pretence. True naturalness is to negate the naive and accidental.

YUGEN (subtle profound)
Suggest and not reveal layers of meaning hidden within. Invisible to the casual eye and avoiding the obvious.

DATSUZOKU (unworldly)
Transcendence of conventional and traditional. Free from the bondage of laws and restrictions. True creativity.

SEIJAKU (calm)
Silence and tranquility, blissful solitude. Absence of disturbance and noise from one’s mind, body and surroundings.

Source: Aen Direct

It’s pretty interesting, more so if you read each principle while mentally referring it with your favorite Naoto Fukasawa design or any Japanese design for that matter. You will find that it all falls together and makes perfect sense. My favorites include Fukinsei: Asymmetry and odd numbers, Kanso: Frank and uncomplicated, and Yugen: Suggest not reveal what is hidden within.

Powerful stuff to start your design day with.

  • Paul Fagan

    January 24, 2015 at 11:18 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing this, best explanation of Wabi Sabi nearly anywhere!

  • Seane

    September 21, 2010 at 3:55 pm Reply

    Japan and for that matter most of Asia have an integrity that is simple and calming. I think this comes about from so many people and such a hective environment that their homes must be inspirational and a place of calm.

  • Aen

    June 21, 2007 at 11:26 am Reply

    The quote just sucks me in. I feel like that paragraph just defeats the purpose of my Wabi Sabi series. As untranslatable and profound as Wabi Sabi seems, this is perhaps the best and most apt paragraph ever to put Wabi Sabi into understandable English.

  • Design Translator

    June 21, 2007 at 11:18 am Reply

    Thanks for the quote. Tadao Ando is one of my favorite architects of all time. I have all his books.

  • Aen

    June 21, 2007 at 5:13 am Reply

    “Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.â€

  • Design Translator

    May 23, 2007 at 7:42 am Reply

    Hi Mac,
    Thanks and please keep in touch!

  • Mac Oosthuizen

    May 23, 2007 at 12:13 am Reply

    Great find. I recently saw the Super Normal exhibition and even though it’s not technically on Japanese design, it was joint curated by Fukasawa with Jasper Morrison. This is like an un-official manifesto for that exhibition. Now I just need to print it out.

  • Design Translator

    May 9, 2007 at 7:39 am Reply

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for visiting, and your laptop cases are wonderful. I am very impressed of its simplicity in its design and can imagine the leather texture. Divine!
    Please keep intouch and I will definetly be keeping track of your blog.

  • Nick Comer-Calder

    May 9, 2007 at 4:08 am Reply

    I’m excited to find someone else who believes that design is about simplicity and integrity. Also very pleased to have these principles of Japanese design expanded. I’d come across the basic principle in Alain de Bottom’s Architecture of Happiness but AEN has helped deepen my understanding.
    Simple, austere and calm are characteristics I sought for in my designs for guitar, violin and laptop cases I’ve been working on. I’ve also worked with contrast – modern materials (carbon fiber) combined with traditional (leather); austere brown exterior combined with simple but luxurious silk velvet lining.
    You can see the designs on my website and read more about my design philosophy on the blog

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