7 Design Principles, Inspired By Zen Wisdom

Want to become the next Steve Jobs—or just understand his near-spiritual devotion to simplicity? This primer, outlining the main tenets of Zen design, will help.

One of the best-known photographs of the late Steve Jobs pictures him sitting in the middle of the living room of his Los Altos house, circa 1982. 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 less-is-more motive behind every Apple product designed under his command.

As Warren Berger wrote on Co.Design, Jobs’s love for elegantly simple, intuitive design is widely attributed to his appreciation of Zen philosophy (Jobs was a practicing Buddhist). But while many people might be familiar with Zen as a broad concept, far fewer are knowledgeable of the key aesthetic principles that collectively comprise the "Zen of design."

To understand the Zen principles, a good starting point is shibumi. It is an overarching concept, an ideal. It has no precise definition in Japanese, but its meaning is reserved for objects and experiences that exhibit in paradox and all at once the very best of everything and nothing: Elegant simplicity. Effortless effectiveness. Understated excellence. Beautiful imperfection.

James Michener referred to shibumi in his 1968 novel Iberia, writing that it can’t be translated and has no explanation. In his 1972 book, The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi talked about shibumi in the context of art, writing that a true work of art is one with intentionally imperfect beauty that makes an artist of the viewer. In the 1979 best-selling spy novel Shibumi, the author Trevanian (the nom de plume of Dr. Rodney William Whitaker) wrote, "Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances."

Shibumi was first introduced to the West by House Beautiful in 1960. Nearly 40 years later, architect Sarah Susanka reintroduced shibumi in her 1998 book The Not So Big House: "The quality of shibumi evolves out of a process of complexity, though none of this complexity shows in the result. It often seems to arise when an architect is striving to meet a particular design challenge. When something has been designed really well, it has an understated, effortless beauty, and it really works. That’s shibumi."

The process may be complex, but these seven Zen principles can help you approach shibumi in your own designs:

The Shibumi Seven

1. Austerity

Koko emphasizes restraint, exclusion, and omission. The goal is to present something that both appears spare and imparts a sense of focus and clarity. In the world of mobile apps, Clear is a great example, and according to Co.Design’s John Pavlus, is "interesting for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t sync. It doesn’t tag. It doesn’t "intelligently" sort anything. It also doesn’t have any obvious clues in its gestural interface for how to actually use the thing."

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

2. Simplicity

Kanso dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative, or fanciful. The overall effect is fresh, clean, and neat. Instagram may just owe its popularity to kanso. CEO Kevin Systrom’s first iteration (called Burbn) was a feature-laden app lacking a simple value proposition and, as such, had few users. By streamlining it so people could understand and have fun with it inside of 30 seconds, Instagram gained 2 million users in only four months, a rate of growth faster than Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter.

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

3. Naturalness

The goal of shizen is to strike a balance between being "of nature" yet distinct from it—to be viewed as being without pretense or artifice, while seeming intentional rather than accidental or haphazard.

Designer Noé Duchaufour Lawrance captured the essence of shizen in his Naturoscopie collection of furniture intended to re-create and abstract nature’s sensations: light filtering through trees, the setting sun, shadows of passing clouds. As he explained it, he wanted to "go beyond literal transcription of nature."

Zen lesson: Incorporate naturally occurring patterns and rhythms into your design.

4. Subtlety

The principle of yugen captures the Zen view that precision and finiteness are at odds with nature, implying stagnation and loss of life, and that the power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosure. Leaving something to the imagination piques our curiosity and can move us to action.

Yugen has figured centrally in the Apple marketing strategy, ever since the original iPhone. In the months leading up to its June 2007 launch, it was hailed as one of the most-hyped products in history. 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.

Between the announcement and the product launch, there was nothing but radio silence: no publicity, promotion, leaks to the media, price discounts, demos for technology reviewers, clever advertising, or preordering. There was essentially an embargo on official information, with only the Jobs demo available to reference online. The blogosphere exploded, resulting in over 20 million people expressing an intent to buy.

Zen lesson: Limit information just enough to pique curiosity and leave something to the imagination.

5. Imperfection, Asymmetry

The goal of fukinsei is to convey the symmetry of the natural world through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings. The effect is that the viewer supplies the missing symmetry and participates in the creative act.

There was a huge buildup to the last episode of The Sopranos, the popular HBO series about a band of loosely organized criminals in northern New Jersey, led by one Tony Soprano. The big question was whether Tony would be whacked or not.

In the final tension-filled seconds, everyone’s screen went black, and the credits rolled. It was a no-ending ending. The media went wild, accusing the show’s writer, producer, and director David Chase of copping out, until he announced the following day that everything anyone needed to determine the fate of Tony Soprano was in the episode.

People went back and watched the show, again and again. Viewership went from the initial 12 million to 36 million in three days. Three distinct endings emerged on the Internet. By leaving the story incomplete and denying his audience conventional story symmetry, but embedding enough clues for someone to connect the dots, Chase made everyone a creator and tripled his impact.

Zen lesson: Leave room for others to cocreate with you; provide a platform for open innovation.

The last two Zen principles deal with the concept of a "break." There are two kinds of break: Those you make, and those you take.

6. Break from routine

Datsuzoku signifies a certain reprieve from convention. When a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity and resourcefulness emerge.

Imagine that you get a flat tire while you’re driving. If you’re normal, you curse out loud. That curse signals a break from the ordinary, which, being creatures of habit, we don’t much care for. But now suddenly you’re wide awake, with senses on high alert, and you’re aware of a problem requiring your full attention to solve.

Suddenly everything you normally take for granted becomes vitally important: How the car handles, the shoulder of the road, safe spots to pull over, traffic around you, tire-changing tools in your trunk, immediate avenues for help.

These are all the resources you need for a creative solution. They were there all along, but it was the break that brought them to your attention. (Click here for 11 ways to manufacture those breaks.)

Zen lesson: An interruptive "break" is an important part of any breakthrough design.

7. Stillness, Tranquillity

The principle of seijaku deals with the actual content of datsuzoku. To the Zen practitioner, it is in states of active calm, tranquillity, solitude, and quietude that we find the essence of creative energy.

Enter meditation, which is an incredibly effective way to enhance self-awareness, focus, and attention and to prime your brain for achieving creative insights. Leaders at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and all meditate. Oracle chief Larry Ellison meditates and asks his executives to do so several times a day.

Zen lesson: Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.


While there is nothing easy about achieving shibumi, if taken together as a cohesive set of design principles, these seven Zen principles can at least put you on the right path. The goal is not to attempt to incorporate every Zen principle into a given design, but rather select those aligned to your goals and use them to guide and inform your efforts.

What sets shibumi apart as a powerful design ideal is the unique combination of surprising impact and uncommon simplicity. At the core of this blend, and what all Zen principles have in common, is the element of subtraction. It may therefore help to keep close the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

[Images: Buddha, Bonsai, and Driftwood via Shutterstock]

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  • tarun

    Matthew, thanks for the article. Could you kindly help answering two fundamental questions -

    1. How to identify what is absolutely not necessary?
    2. How to identify what does not matter and what does?
  • Marc Posch

    ... and then throw everything overboard and make it different. There are no design rules!

  • Nina Craig

    I enjoy your article and the reminder of discovering why we work. Is it for financial stability, yes...but also my inner motive to do the work that I love in its purest form (where it no longer seems like work...but purpose)

    I begin each design project with a return to that essence. Simplicity, calm and working with no effort as a Butcher cleaves a bone. I envision a pleasant cooperation with the client, the work and the result then allow the project to flow from there.

  • krzystoff

    Matthew, that was a terrific summary of Zen principles,  It is somewhat ironic that whilst Apple's hardware and
    general image embraces many of these principles, iOS and many
    Apple-designed apps are the antithesis of Zen.I am sure you would find that a majority of designers would practice a Zen, Minimalism or other reductionist approaches if the general public was conscious of the benefits.  unfortunately, consumerism favours the complete opposite approach -- simplistically paints these elegant forms as 'blandly austere', 'lacking in creativity / imagination' or 'deficient' -- marketing excels at prevaricating the opposite of truth to a largely naïve public, so honest design rarely makes it.  However, many futurists postulate that we will soon reach a new Renaissance of minimalist living, once the ills of growing information overload becomes widely evident.

  • Homero Buendía

    I am quite curious to know more about the new Renaissance of minimalist living you mention. Any reference you could share? :)

  • Tweberfree

    When I look at beautiful designer rooms devoid of "things" all I can think about is the people living in those spaces. Where do they put their "stuff"? Beautiful as it may be, it's just about impossible for average folks to live that way.

  • Ed Carp

    Excellent article - but the quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was better expressed by Lao Tzu centuries earlier: "To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day."

  • Dereknrob

     I am a designer. Have 2 design degrees and have worked in corporate design for over 13 years. To thing we all need to remember the end of the day, we were "hired" and given (or have agreed upon) compensation from an individual or group for services or some value added item which must be quantified and felt an equal exchange in "fairness/value" to both sides. Cheesy...perhaps. But SO IMPORTANT to remember since we are in a Capitalistic economy.

    If we "see how their resulting design evolved" I'm afraid we'd have nothing quantifiable as a value add in our current capitalistic society. I'm not taking a stance against capitalism, nor am I making a case for 'ZEN' design...however, I personally believe there is a needed paradigm shift within each of us as to what we are working for. Some might need the monetary motive to feed themselves or family, others will asses their motive to be different. As a society, the "United States culture" I believe is at a tipping point. It's possible we can change the generally global perception of being a culture of "mass consumers of excess" to one more closely resembling the principals outlined in the article, but to make the shift authentic and then also happen, defining what that means must come from each of us, be done by each of us, and for only ourselves. Example:

    First generations of any civilization live/work to survive. Motive = Survival of self
    Next of kin(s) [which may be many generations later], work to provide for and launch opportunities of a better life for their children than they had. Motive = Monetary ($ will make life easier at this stage in a Capitalist society--often working and not always happy at work, but doing it not for yourself, but for betterment of offspring)
    I feel we've been at this stage for too long. I don't foresee having children as it's not a passion of mine. So for me, to do what my parents did is incorrect, and upon my personal redefinition of 'motive' would be socially and ethically irresponsible. If my motive continued to be monetary like my folks, my already over consuming self, had started to be self consumed instead. I've been reassessing my own personal motive for years and it's scary to break from the expected path.

    I've stuck to freelance for over a year now and find myself doing this same assessment but on a project basis. It's fascinating to apply this 7 principals model at a societal level as well as a project based level, let alone as the author applies to a design level.

    Matthew speaks to aligning goals when designing products, lets apply this '7 principals' not only to design of products, but also ourselves, our personal motive, and make the shift happen - starts with us, Danny.

  • DS Wadeson

    Interesting article. Ironic though that it's about applying to design principles a way of life that, overall, advocates a simple way of life that would eschew things like pointless apps and unnecessary products of capitalism entirely... 

  • Roy Niles

    “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”Perfection is when there is nothing left in either case, it seems.