Wabi Sabi in product design

MC Dean
Designing Atlassian
4 min readFeb 7, 2015

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Wai-Sabi in interior design (MC Dean)

Wabi-Sabi, simply put, is the ability to see beauty in simplicity, the ordinary and the imperfect. English is too clumsy a langage to explain it fully, and I am too much of a clumsy writer to do so well, but you can think of them like this:

Wabi: The ability to make do with less; A “wabibito” is a person who can make something out of less parts than anyone else. It means content with little, and taking pleasure in the ordinary.

Sabi: The gift of time; To grow old gracefully and with dignity.

Wabi-Sabi aesthetic is also described as “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”. The beauty of those things is found in their simplicity, their unpretentiousness, their humbleness. They are unencumbered by anything unnecessary but not to the point that they look or feel clinical, rather their raw essence alone is left. They are not the center of attention but are unassuming and command a quiet authority. Wabi-sabi isn’t just about the aesthetic though. It’s also about the object giving you a feeling of serenity and having a connection to the object.

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.” (Tadao Ando)

Wabi-sabi in Life:

I’ve always loved the wear on my beloved denim jeans and old shoes. The wear on my moleskins that I’ve dragged around the world with me. My cherished old family photographs, yellowing and frayed at the edges. My old children story books from when I was small. I love asymmetrical things and simple design. I find magnificent beauty in less. I found joy in fewer possessions, less waste, big passions, being in nature and an uncomplicated life. Not striving to have it all and not trying to predict what my life should be like next year or next month or next time. Learning to be content in the present, and finding enjoyment in every day things. Wabi-sabi exists in my life, and I wager that it has its place in yours too.

Wabi-sabi in experience design and Lean/Agile teams:

As experience designers and as members of Lean/Agile teams, I think we are (or can be) very Wabi-Sabi in our work:

  • Our work is never finished, and so always incomplete
  • We try to fail fast
  • We try to limit waste
  • We never release anything that is perfect
  • We try to keep our experiences simple and unencumbered, without losing the humanity in them
  • We strive to keep them subdued and honest
  • The work we do will always evolve and age, and we will work with the downsides of design decisions we made earlier
  • We never do “big upfront design”, so our worldview is ever-changing and intuitive
  • Our emphasis is always on working code and not on beautiful looking documentation. In this sense each artefact is one of a kind
  • We know that our design will evolve, so we think about the present moment rather than projecting far into the future
  • We work in iterations, in an organic way
  • We adjust to change easily and avoid deliberations
  • If we can do it with less, we do
  • We pay attention to the ordinary (all those habits people develop to deal with bad design)
  • We ensure our software “fails gracefully”
  • Users “wear in” our designs and their relationship with the product changes over time
  • The more people use our designs, the more they connect to them (like your relationship to your email account)
  • We reuse code and design elements where we can
  • The team has a history and a shared knowledge that seeps into the product

Resources:

BERG London have a beautiful blog post written by Tom Armitage on Wabi-Sabi right here.

Leonard Koren wrote a book called “Wabi-Sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers”. (I ❤ it)

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MC Dean
Designing Atlassian

Head of Product @The Mintable | Designer | Maker | Meditator