Zen & The Art Of Simplicity At Work

credit: Matthew May

The Zen aesthetic ideal of shibumi is reserved for objects and experiences that exhibit all at once the very best of everything and nothing: elegant simplicity; effortless effectiveness; beautiful imperfection.

Tracing the Zen Aesthetic, what sets shibumi apart as a powerful design ideal is the unique combination of surprising impact and uncommon simplicity.

It entails achieving maximum effect through minimum means, which, it turns out, is a universal pursuit that takes many forms: artists and designers use white or ‘negative’ space to convey visual power; scientists and mathematicians and engineers search for theories that explain highly complex phenomena in stunningly simple ways.

What these various forms all have in common, and what shibumi has at its core, is the element of subtraction.

Not only is the thought of subtracting something in order to create value a very different way of thinking (neuroscientists have shown using functional MRI scans that addition and subtraction demand different brain circuitry), it figures centrally in Zen.

The question that remains is, how does this elusive quality come into being? In pursuit of the answer, let’s take a look at the specific Zen design principles that frame and support the pursuit of shibumi, and then, at their practical applications to the design of business and work.

1. Koko (austerity).

The first principle is that of koko, which emphasizes restraint, exclusion and omission, embracing the idea that ‘not adding’ is a valid subtractive approach.

There is a wonderful photo widely available on the Internet of the young Steve Jobs (a Buddhist practitioner) circa 1982, sitting in the middle of the living room of his Los Altos house.

There isn’t much in the room, save an audio system and a Tiffany lamp. Jobs is sipping tea, sitting yoga-style on a mat, with but a few books around him.

The picture speaks volumes about the motive behind every Apple product designed under his command, and even helps to explain his aversion to buttons.

Beyond the obvious fact that iPods, iPads and iPhones are virtually buttonless, rarely, if ever can he be seen wearing a buttoned shirt.

Jobs even removes buttons from elevators in multilevel Apple retail stores.

Zen design lesson #1: Refrain from adding what is not absolutely necessary in the first place.

2. Kanso (simplicity).

Kanso dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative or fanciful and imparts a sense of being fresh, clean and neat.

Instagram, a wonderfully simple and fun iPhone photo-sharing application founded by CEO Kevin Systrom, is a great example of kanso in software design and functionality.

Instagram allows the user to snap a photo, choose a filter to transform the look and feel of the picture into a work of art, and share it through social media.

But Systrom’s first iteration (called Burbn) was a feature-laden app lacking a simple value proposition, and thus had few users. By cutting out the clutter and paring it down into a streamlined app people could understand and have fun within 30 seconds. Instagram reached two million users in only four months.

Zen design lesson #2: Eliminate what doesn’t matter to make more room for what does.

3. Shizen (naturalness).

The goal of shizen is to strike a balance between being at once ‘of nature’, yet distinct from it—to be viewed as being without pretense, without artifice, not forced, yet to be revealed as intentional rather than accidental or haphazard.

When UK-based urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie goes about designing “shared spaces” found around Kensington High Street and Sloane Square in London, he is taking a page from the shizen-inspired high-traffic intersections in the Netherlands that have been redesigned to be void of traffic controls.

In these shared-space intersections, curbs have been eliminated, asphalt replaced with red brick, and there are fountains and garden-like café seating right where you think you should drive.

When you come to such an intersection, you have no choice but to slow down, have some human interaction, and use your intelligence.

The result is an organic, naturally self-organizing order that leads to half of the accidents and nearly twice the vehicle flow. The only rule is driven by the context: first in turn, with all due respect to the most vulnerable.

Zen design lesson #3: Incorporate naturally-occurring patterns and rhythms when designing a solution.

4. Yugen (subtlety, implicitness).

The principle of yugen captures the Zen view that the power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosure: leaving something to the imagination creates an irresistible aura of mystery, compelling us to find answers.

The seduction lies in what we don’t know, and because what we don’t know far outweighs what we do know, we are naturally curious.

Apple used yugen in its marketing strategy for the original iPhone which, in the months leading up to its June 2007 launch, was hailed as one of the most hyped products ever to hit the market.

To hype something, though, means to push and promote it heavily through marketing and media.

Apple did the exact opposite.

Steve Jobs demonstrated it at Macworld ‘07 just once, giving a masterful and tantalizing presentation a full six months before the scheduled launch.

In between? Radio silence.

No publicity, no leaks to the media, no price discounts, no demos for technology reviewers, no pre-ordering.

The bloggers and Apple loyalists took over, interpreted and extrapolated, completed the picture resulting in over 20 million people expressing an intent to buy.

Zen design lesson #4: Limit information to engage human curiosity and leave something to the imagination.

5. Fukinsei (imperfection, asymmetry).

The goal of fukinsei is to invoke the natural human inclination to seek symmetry.

Nearly everything in nature is symmetrical—it’s the predominant organizing principle of the universe. But because it’s so prevalent, we often take symmetry for granted—until it’s missing.

David Chase, creator of the TV series The Sopranos, used this principle in the now-infamous final episode.

The Sopranos was an eight-year long series about a band of somewhat organized criminals in northern New Jersey run by one Tony Soprano. There was a great buildup to the final episode, made special because Chase himself wrote and directed it, and the audience would find out whether or not Tony would finally get ‘whacked’.

But the ending presented Chase with a true dilemma: if he killed Tony off, he would alienate half of his audience and squash his chances for a feature film; but if he let Tony live, he would disappoint the other half of the audience, because Tony was a really bad guy.

In the final seconds of the show—with 12 million people watching—just as something was about to happen, the screen went black. Credits rolled a few seconds later, and The Sopranos came to an end.

People sat dumbfounded, cursing their cable provider for signal failure, or blaming a spouse for not paying the bill. No one saw it as the ending, but rather ‘something gone wrong’, because they were robbed of traditional story symmetry.

The media uproar was deafening, with many calling Chase’s decision a cop-out.

Within 24 hours, though, Chase announced in a stroke of genius that everything one needed to know about the fate of Tony Soprano was embedded in that final episode; he had planted all kinds of clues.

Within three days, another 25 million had viewed or reviewed the show, and not one, not two, but three distinctly-different endings sprang up on the Internet, each with a logical argument for why that ending was correct.

By denying his audience symmetry, leaving the story incomplete and imperfect, and requiring audience participation to complete it, David Chase managed to triple his impact.

Zen design lesson #5: Leave room for others to co-create with you; provide a platform for open innovation.

In closing, while there is nothing easy about achieving shibumi, if taken together as a cohesive set of design principles, the concepts described herein will guide and inform your efforts. Keep in mind that very often in life, although something looks effortlessly simple, it takes a great deal of effort and refinement to reach such a state.


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