How an Ancient Buddhist Principle Can Help You Write Digital Age Copy

Philosophy is rarely out of place, even in copywriting

Dan Morales
Mar 16, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Rémi Bertogliati on Unsplash

Shibumi (shē-boom-ē) was the rage in a post-mid-century modern design trend decades ago, but its origins date back many centuries. What is shibumi? It’s a Japanese word that itself has no actual definition, but rather is a term meant to represent an ideal.

It’s the ancient Zen Buddhist principle of ‘effortless effectiveness’ or ‘understated excellence’ or my favorite, ‘elegant simplicity.’ Architect Sarah Susanka described it:

“When something has been designed really well, it has an understated, effortless beauty, and it really works. That’s shibumi.”

She continues, “The quality of shibumi evolves out of a process of complexity, though none of this complexity shows in the result.” It’s pure beauty. It needs no more and no less. It’s effortless being what it is, simple, elegant, perfect.

As a new know-nothing copywriter, I had to show my bosses how clever I was by jamming as many words in my ads as I could get away with. The more the better, I thought. But for digital writing, where space, character counts, and brevity are paramount, I was wrong, completely wrong and irked more than one art director.

After spending lots of time on painful revisions, I stumbled on an article about Zen principles for design (Koko, Shizen, Kanso, Seijaku, etc.) and wondered if I might try to incorporate these ideas into my creative. It became crystal clear when I was working in Austin on media for Samsung.

Their newest flagship device was up for launch, and they wanted media placements to hammer home that this new model came with embedded Near Field Communication chips. Since iPhones didn’t have NFC chips, it was a main strategic differentiator.

These new chips allowed users to share files just by touching their phones together. After trying it a few times, I realized Samsung had created the perfect, effortless way to share any picture, song, or file. They had created elegant perfection. Samsung had created shibumi.

I was so impressed, I set out to create an ad that was just as perfect, just as elegant and effortless as they had done with the act of sharing. After a bit of meditation, I wrote this simple banner. I drew it on a whiteboard frame-for-frame as it is below (keep in mind that this was an animated banner, with keyframes represented).

Photo by Razorfish

Shibumi is a guide to know when enough is enough — or more accurately — when to stop working and just let the creative be. That’s some serious Zen shit for a tinkering creative like me to embrace.

Of the hundreds of ads I’ve created in my career, this banner is the one of which I’m most proud. This little ad is so simple, yet accomplished so much.

It answered the client brief on sharing while it demonstrated a sweet new feature. It highlighted a consumer benefit with understated elegance. It elevated the level of the campaign. It told an instantly relatable story, intimate, and authentic. And it did it all with three words and a tagline.

The client loved it. She called it ‘iconic,’ and since Apple’s advertising was her benchmark, her words were humbling.

Now, shibumi is the final lens I use on my creative before calling it finished. My simple checklist:

  • Is it simple to the point of elegance?
  • Is the human story most salient?
  • Will it resonate emotionally? Which whom? Why not others? Can that be changed?
  • Does it have all it needs and nothing more?
  • Is it sticky? Can it cut through the noise and matter?

If I can answer each question with a yes, the piece is ready for my client’s eyeballs.

For short-form writing, such as digital, shibumi can be the ideal editing tool. Using it has evolved my work and my focus. It helps cut out the unnecessary, leaving the bare, simple elements with nothing more and nothing less.

Its simplicity works across all mediums, from broadcast to OOH to online, mobile and e-commerce, even point-of-sale.

Yes, an ancient philosophy has helped me create content that fits the digital age. But I’m not surprised.

Emojis are nothing new. The Egyptians covered the walls of their burial chambers with them.

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Dan Morales

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