Posted by: Laura Phillips Garner | February 1, 2010

Wabi-Sabi Baby!

The Eco Zoo (top) at and (bottom) are two examples of wabi-sabi meets interface design, according to David Sherwin.

A friend of mine pointed to a lovely pottery vase she admired as we walked through Pottery Barn Saturday. The top of it had been painted a creamy white. The paint was chipping–on purpose.

“That’s wabi-sabi!,” I exclaimed.

I found examples of wabi-sabi all over the store as the Zen concept is already quite popular in modern home design. Other pottery vases with slight flaws in a variety of colors, worn wooden cubby shelves, and soft drink crates with faded logos were among the items for sale.

My friend and I are both marketing communicators, and I had mentioned wabi-sabi during lunch. I learned about wabi-sabi during a class discussion on Web design earlier that week. My classmate, Mark Tietbohl, had summarized and commented on an “A List Apart” article, “The Elegance of Imperfection” by Senior Interaction Designer and Author David Sherwin as his discussion contribution. Mark also gave more insight about wabi-sabi from Japanese business acquaintances that had explained it to him. Since, as a marketer, I want to engage Web site users so they stay long enough either to buy online or get the information they need about my brand to take action, I appreciated the potential of wabi-sabi as a design aesthetic for the Web.

Why infuse Web design with the qualities of wabi-sabi—asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of the natural process—at every stage of design? The Internet by virtue of its digital nature is logical and inherently cold. However, its users are human. They are emotional and organic. They are alive. To engage humans successfully in a virtual world like a Web site, that environment should reflect the natural world humans live in. This world is warm and, like humans, perfect in its imperfection.

Sherwin quotes Leonard Koren from his book, “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”:

“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things that are wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole.”

Sherwin proposes that Web designers facing a design problem add natural elegance to the three types of elegance offered by Jeremy Alexis of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design: logical, systemic, and formal or aesthetic. Logical elegance clearly expresses the reason for a Web site. Systemic elegance provides an information architecture, user experience, interaction design, content experience, and information flow that supports the site’s core idea. Formal or aesthetic elegance is the site’s visual form including its interface design. It imbues brand qualities into the visual language, content, and user interactions.

Natural elegance involves designing the “feel” of the Web site and how it interacts with the user over time based on the rules of nature. “…those sites that embrace the fourth type of elegance feel to users like living beings who speak meaningful words; they are a marriage of form, function, pleasing content, and personal feeling,” Sherwin said.

The pursuit of Web site perfection “is always a denial of the perfection that exists within ourselves in the physical world,” he cautions. “Receiving even a whisper of our own ‘perfect reality’ is the very experience that our users and clients have hired us to capture.”

The natural elegance of imperfection, is, in fact, what makes a design perfect. That’s wabi-sabi, baby. That’s wabi-sabi.

–Laura Phillips Garner


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