7 Japanese Concepts! — Quotidian — 383

(Transcript of video originally posted on 26 Mar 2022)

While working with my students, we encountered this book. It is called
“The Sciences of the Artificial”. Authored by one Herbert Simon. We have seen a lot many definitions for the word “Design”. In this book, the author asks “Do you know what Design is?” and answers with :-
It is the transformation of existing conditions… into preferred ones!”
How profound! How succinct! The transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones!

Namaste! Konnichiwa!

In the Japanese world, design and design aesthetics have always enjoyed a special respect. A special place. We have talked about some concepts earlier too. Today, we are going to see SEVEN Amazing Concepts, identified by some special Words. That is what we are going to see today.

First, this concept of Zen. A beginning. An end. A push and a pull. A yin and a yang. A balance. An unfinished nature. We have encountered these earlier. Even this brush stroke… starts and doesn’t end. It is rough cut. They call it Shibumi. What is Shibumi? Being, without the pain, the unhappiness, the struggle of becoming. The act of Being. If your design can reflect THAT sentiment, you are achieving Shibumi. Understanding, rather than knowledge. And, that perfection should seem effortless. And, there should be honesty. I am sharing what exactly is! There is a transparency and an honesty in what I am showing you. All this together strive to make the viewer the artist! Let me repeat it for you! Listen carefully! A viewer who is enjoying a particular design, … the viewer, becomes the artist! That is the ideal called Shibumi. There are seven principles behind this. Let us look at them one by one!

The first one is called Koko. Austerity. A hermit performing penance won’t have an iPhone in his hand. Because, he will only have what he needs. Absolute needs. And he will not have anything else that is not part of his absolute needs. Omission. Exclusion. Rejection. Only what I need. Minimalist. The focus is on sparseness. The focus is to bring clarity. That is Koko. Almost spiritual in nature.

This design philosophy comes directly from their temples. You don’t need to go anywhere else, looking for examples, except Google.com itself!
When you visit that website, you are shown nothing. But, you know it can show you EVERYTHING. That is the beautiful balance of Google’s design! I know everything, but I will let you ask me!

Compare this, this beautiful example of Koko with… this is another website. Supposed to be a search engine. But, the moment you enter it, to the extent of making you forget what you came looking for,… it bombards me with so much content.. Thinking it is smart. Thinking it knows what I am looking for.

This is anti-Koko. This is also called the Signal To Noise Ratio. How much beauty, how many meaningful messages, versus, how many meaningless, irrelevant junk and distraction. This is an important concept even in Electronics. How much Signal. How much Noise.

So, if this is the message, this is good… this is not that good…. this is getting worse… that’s too bad! Too much noise.. I lose track of the original signal. So, this is anti-Koko.

The next design philosophy that Shibumi tells us about is called Kanso.
Kanso is again related to Koko and it is simplicity personified. We talked about the removal of the unnecessary, didn’t we? Along the same lines, we have “Less is More”. “Simple is Better”. If you want to convey or depict a specific beauty or a particular utility, don’t overstate it! Say what is needed. Stop just a little short of a hundred percent. And let things take care of themselves.

The best example that I consider for Kanso is the iPod Classic. It appeared in the market exactly twenty years ago. 2001.. 2002.. When it came, it wasn’t the first music player. It was available only in two colors, while the others were available in many more colors. It had lesser storage capacity than the others. In fact, to delete a song, there was no button. You had to connect it to a computer. Features are FEWER! But, they gave the best LISTENING experience. They focused on the Less is More philosophy. They focused on Kanso.

Next we come to, Fukinsei. Fukinsei is asymmetry and imbalance. You get the feeling as if this is NOT supposed to be standing, this is supposed to tip over and fall, it is imbalanced, … The viewer adds something in his or her mind and fills it up. It is a collaborative creation between the designer and the consumer. Nature is not symmetric. If you look at anything in nature, in commonplace, here and there in the world, it will NOT be symmetric, if you look at it with exact measurements. It will not be rigid. So, that rigidity, that asymmetry, can we embrace? Can we be perfectly imperfect! Can we celebrate that beauty of nature?

So, take a look at this picture. Yes, beautiful flower, but compare this with.. this Fukinsei image. Same sunflower. But, you see that we have followed the Rule of Thirds and positioned it in an imbalanced manner? We have placed it in one corner of the grid? Our mind is doing some magic to fill out the rest of the space and providing the balance we are looking for. Fukinsei.
Again, another design philosophy from Shibumi.

The next design philosophy is Shizen. This is drawn out of Nature. And strives to show it naturally as much as possible. Show the colors of Nature. Show the twists and turns of Nature. Show the imperfections of Nature. Only in Mathematics, you can get straight lines and correct dimensions and symmetry.. Bring the incompleteness of Nature into your design, and respect that natural world. That is what Shizen says. Avoid manmade elements. Show it raw. Show it unpolished. As it is found in Nature.

Just take a look at this as an example. This is the famous Rock Gardens of Japan. Zen Gardens, or Rock Gardens, they call it. If you need to stand a tall rock here, what would our guys do? They would polish it exquisitely smooth, probably cut some lettering on to it, and stand it up. It is so artificial. On the other hand, as it was in the mountains, broken, imbalanced, chipped, affected by rain, having some holes here and there.. unearthed as it is, installed as it is… THAT is Shizen.

If you want to look at the world of design, if I were to put up a word in my slide, and underline it like this… Do you like this, … or like it better if it is underlined like this?! Do you realise that there is some raw beauty in the second this? That is Shizen.

Yugen! Yugen is … profoundness. This is carrying something much more than just the design.. There are some inner meanings. Some philosophies. There is a backstory. If the design can make you think all this.., if the artist is able to kindle that feeling in you.. that is Yugen!

We have looked at many a Miss Universe, a Miss World. But, do you agree that there is something special about this photograph? There is a lifetime of struggle.. There are a thousand stories — inspirational, motivational, tragic, perhaps fun, stories.. Do you see the mockery in her eyes? If an image or a design makes you take pause, and think about the past… We have reached here, but what are all the things that transpired before I reached here? If we can make you think that, Yugen! Similarly, we have reached here. What is the future? Where next? What is going to happen? If we can give that sense of expectation, Yugen! The universe is a very large, very interesting place. We are trying to squeeze and fold it into two dimensions. But, we fail. Because, we do not imbibe Yugen in it. We need to bring a historical reflection into it. Almost spiritual. A sense of mystery. Yugen!

Then we come to Datsuzoku. If you want to look for a one-word equivalent for it, it is the Design of the Unexpected. A break from the daily mundane quotidian routine… a parting from that daily habit… You don’t need to see the same thing here that you see everywhere else! Something unusual, not ordinary, something different! Something off the beaten track. Something that breaks convention. That philosophy? That is Datsuzoku. Some people complain of the Creative Block, inability to be innovative… It seems all they need to cure them of it is two pills of Datsuzoku! Because, when you start thinking off the beaten track, innovation and creativity simply emerge,
it seems. At MIT, a very famous architect by name Frank Gehry. They engaged him. They said, “We want a building. Make it interesting!”. “Oh, okay”, Gehry said.

“Interesting is what you asked for. Interesting is what you shall get!” and he went about designing this interesting building! Look at that! No straight lines! It looks like a crumpled Pappad. In fact, most buildings look the same from the front and the back. I will show you the back of the building.

This is the back of the building! So, Frank Gehry said, “I will introduce cylinders, I will introduce reflections, I will introduce steel, I will introduce red brick, I will make them not right angles, but inside, I will have an auditorium, I will have a gym, I will have a hostel. And that is the Frank Gehry — created Stata Center in MIT. Datsuzoku. The design of the unexpected.

Finally, we come to Seijaku. Seijaku is calmness. Solitude. Quietness. But, beyond all that, it is active calmness, energetic quietness… So, what is this active calmness, energetic quietness? An action has happened. The next is yet to begin. The quietness in that gap! An episode has ended. The next hasn’t started yet. The calmness that comes in between. A particular activity has ended. You reach a crescendo. You reach a climax. You pause there for a moment. We have climbed this small mountain. How far we have come! How much farther to go! That half-breath we take while we pause? That moment! In a dance, when the dancer is en pointe! The moment she pauses at the tip of her toes! In a musical movement, the power of the pause, the power of the silence…. …. …. THAT silence! That is Seijaku. If you design an interface, or a series of interfaces, or a storyboard, for an App or a product, you can actually look for such moments, and you can give that empty space, that freedom, … That … Hey, I have nothing to see, and you are making me think, and what am I thinking? I am thinking about what I have achieved till now. Thank you! That is Seijaku.

So then, we have Koko. We have Kanso. We have Fukinsei. We have Shizen. We have Yugen. We have Datsuzoku. And finally, that active calmness. We have Seijaku. These comprise what the Japanese call the Shibumi Seven.

By the way, these things that look like hieroglyphics.. Kanji script they call it… Not our Kanchi! There is one problem though, with this script. We kind of tend to see… Ah. this one looks like a house.. This should be representing a house? Looks like a snake. Is this a dragon then? What we end up doing is, we color the word, add a picture to it, and we try to draw meaning from it.
In fact, in 1959, Kennedy himself committed this mistake. This is what he said. Crisis — “The Chinese representation of that word, is made of two components, he said. One that means Danger and another that means Opportunity. If you combine both, it is a crisis! So, you may see a crisis as a danger, but you can also sense that there is an opportunity.. It is all in your hands.” he said. It was a pretty motivational speech. But, the Chinese couldn’t stop laughing after hearing this. That is because, the Chinese Script and the Japanese Script that is derived from it, simply do not follow all such nonsense. Do you know what crisis really means? It is making your sister cry. If you make your sister cry… Sis.. Cry.. Crysis… crisis… you are in crisis. How silly this deduction sounds!? That is exactly how foolish it is to say Danger and Opportunity form Crisis in Japanese! Because, that is not how the letters and the ideograms are split up.. I learned this just yesterday! Anyway, thank you, we will meet again!

How do we meet again? We are following that Pi Sequence. And, this will be our sequence for the month of April! Thank you!

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​Welcome to Quotidians — a humble attempt to bring a smile to your face… as I connect the commonplace everyday nuggets into meaningfully connected insights.

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Rajendran Dandapani

Rajendran Dandapani

Business Solutions Evangelist at Zoho Corp. President at The Zoho Schools Of Learning.

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