Creative Rebellion Essays: Digital Wabi-Sabi and the Perfection of the Imperfect

For a couple of decades, I’ve had a beautiful little book called Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. It’s really wonderfully printed and designed and I’ve given it out as a gift to my design team as well as friends over the years.

In case you’re wondering what wabi-sabi () is, according to Koren:

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.”

It has a very long history but in short, in the 16th century Kyoto (the then capital of Japan) was involved in civil wars (not unusual as the country was almost always in the chaos of war due to belligerent warlords expanding their fiefdoms). During this period a true Japnese aesthetic developed, moving away from the idealization of Chinese aesthetics (ie: symmetry; unblemished ceramics; intricate patterns of red) towards the appreciation of things that, comparatively, would be considered crudely made. Perhaps the defining moment for wabi-sabi came via Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), the great tea master of chadō (茶道) who first served under the warlord Oda Nobunaga and then after Nobunaga’s assassination, he served under his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a man of peasant ancestry, who rose to unify the nation. Rikyū designed and developed the archetypical tea room, with its misshapen exposed wood (often misshapen), rough mud walls, thatched roof and a low entryway that forced all, elite and commoner, to bow down to enter, thus symbolically making all who enter the same status. Hideyoshi preferred the classic Chinese gold-leafed tea room and never trusted Rikyū’s admiration of all things humble (which probably reminded Hideyoshi of his humble origins). Ultimately, Hideyoshi became annoyed to the point of making the great tea master commit seppuku (ritual suicide) at the age of 70, based mostly on trumped-up charges of being too independent and making money off of selling tea utensils.

So, you may be asking, what does this have to do with modern life or design or anything for that matter? Hang on a bit more and I’ll explain.

Koren mentions that there are three “spiritual values” for wabi-sabi:

  1. All things are impermanent
  2. All things are imperfect
  3. All things are incomplete

When I was first starting off in design (at Wired Magazine), I often wondered what “digital wabi-sabi” could look like. And, years later, now that I work with product design, I realize that the basic tenets listed above are relevant for the work my team and I do.

All things are impermanent

Applications and websites all live in the aether or, more prosaically, the cloud. Designs I made even five years ago have changed, mutated and evolved during that time. If I didn’t screengrab the projects and companies I worked for I’d have to use the Way Back Machine to track them down.

All things are imperfect

This is the essence of the MVP (minimum viable product), which, according to Wikipedia is:

“…a version of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers and provide feedback for future product development.”

All initial launches of any digital product are just the beginning of, oftentimes, a multiyear rollout or even and indefinite rollout, especially features that are continuously deployed on the underlying framework.

All things are incomplete

This is similar to the above imperfect tenet but nuanced in its differentiation. While things are imperfect they are, over time, striving towards an ideal of perfection. This will never be reached. Like the universe, all things are in a constant state of “becoming or dissolving.” There is no end.

Also, expanding on Koren’s book, he mentions the moral precepts of wabi-sabi as:

  1. Get rid of all that is unnecessary
  2. Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy

Get rid of all that is unnecessary

This ties into the notion, in product design, of keeping things simple. Design is communication and utility. Decoration is distraction.

Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy

Much like all who enter the tearoom have to bend or crawl into the space, thus making everyone equal, so does making an excellent product makes you think in an egalitarian manner: you are not designing for just one class of people (material hierarchy) but you are designing for all people. So design for inclusiveness and diversity and let everyone into the tearoom of your application or website.

And with the above values and precepts, I feel that product design can embrace the evolving nature of reality and its intrinsic impermanence and flow of living and dying and being born yet again, probably infinitely in the cloud.

And that is imperfectly perfect.


Books I’ve read on this subject:

Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren

In Praise of Shadows by Junichi Tanizaki

Zen and Japanese Culture by D.T. Suzuki

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo

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John S. Couch

John S. Couch

John S. Couch is Vice President, Product Design at Hulu.