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The Shibumi Seven

Zen Calligraphy Shapes

Zen Calligraphy Shapes

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 of Design principles, a good starting point is shibumi. It is a 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.

Sarah Susanka defines 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 goal is not to incorporate all seven Zen principles into any given design. Your objective, rather, should be to pick those which best align with your desired outcome to guide your process and final design. The process may be complex, but these seven Zen principles can help you approach effortless perfection in your own designs.

  1. Koko (austerity)
  2. Kanso (simplicity)
  3. Shizen (naturalness)
  4. Yugen (subtlety)
  5. Fukinsei (imperfection, asymmetry)
  6. Seijaku (stillness, tranquility, solitude)
  7. Datsuzoku (break from routine)