Wa: The key to clear, harmonious design


If there is one principle that reveals the essence of the Zen aesthetic found in Japanese traditional art and design — and life in general — it is harmony. The kanji that has been used by Japan for the past 1300 years or so to represent this concept is 和 (wa). Wa is also the adjective used to describe things which are Japanese or in the Japanese style such as Wafuku 和服 (Japanese clothing), Washitsu 和室 (Japanese-style room), Washi 和紙 (traditional Japanese paper), and Washoku 和食 (Japanese cuisine), as I mentioned before. Aesthetically, wa is fundamental to all good design, yet it goes beyond aesthetics. Wa also reads as “gentleness of spirit” (和らぎ), so harmony refers to form but it also refers to an internal feeling or approach to art and to life. The particulars will change depending on the case and circumstance, but the concept is the same: in all things harmony. The idea is since harmony exists inherently in the cosmos and on our planet, we can benefit ourselves and others by learning from lessons found in nature. Wa has direct applications for our personal lives, our relationships, and our whole approach to life and work. Here are just seven things to think about as you strive to bring more wa to your own design solutions.

(1) Embrace economy of materials and means. Traditional Japanese construction and interiors used only natural, available materials, and in art and design too recycling was common. Waste and excess is at odds with wa. Think, for example, of tatami mats that comprise the floor of a Japanese room (washitsu) which were historically made from leftover straw from the harvest. There is a trend now emerging in Japan that embraces the use of more natural and recycled materials under the banner of “eco” or sustainability. How can we bring the principle of economy to our design work? One way is by practicing restraint. Yokusei 抑制 (control, restraint) and setsudo 節度 (moderation) or seigen 制限 (limit) are forms of self-restraint we can practice. It’s hard not to give in to the habit of adding more when less would do; this is where restraint comes in.

(2) Repeat design elements. Repeating some elements not only contributes to unity in a design, it’s a clear consequence of restraint. You made the conscious decision to limit your palette and techniques and still express the message (or solve the problem) within the self-imposed constraints. We need variety but we need similarity too. Repeating selected elements — just as nature does — contributes to harmony and clarity.

(3) Keep things clean and clutter-free. Shintoism has been called a faith of purification, and historically at least, there was a belief that kami (gods) would not enter a house that was unclean or otherwise in a state of disorder. Disorder is at odds with nature. Consumerism since the war has made for many a clutter-filled house in Japan, but there is a trend toward returning to the good parts of the past: less stuff, more space, natural materials. In design, we must do what is possible to pare down and keep things clean, clear, and clutter free.

(4) Avoid symmetry. Symmetry is not bad — and often it is necessary — but in many areas of design it is derided at the easy and boring answer. The natural world — the mountain or the forest —  is full of beautiful asymmetry. Balanced asymmetry is natural, and in the natural world is where spontaneity lives. Symmetrical designs lack the feeling of movement or spontaneity that we find in nature. Creating balance and harmony in an asymmetrical design is usually a more challenging and creative approach.

(5) Avoid the obvious in favor of the subtle. To the Japanese, there is no beauty in the obvious or the overly direct. Indirectness and subtly, after all, is the stuff of poetry. And should not design — like life itself — be the stuff of poetry? The art of suggestion can be seen in many aspects of Japanese art, design, and language. Think of ways you can design with clarity while also including elements that are subtle and suggestive.

(6) Think not only of yourself, but of the other (e.g., the viewer). Harmony in relationships exits when people put themselves in the other’s shoes and think of the greater good of the group. Wa does not exist where one thinks only of oneself. Think for yourself? Of course. Think only of yourself. No. All good designers know this: it’s not about me, it’s about them (or “us”).

(7) Remain humble and modest. Many of us mistakenly feel that strong confidence cannot exist alongside humility and modesty. This is a mistake. True confidence exists only where you also find humility and modesty. Where these are lacking, you see a kind of faux confidence that feels insecure, overly individualistic, and inharmonious. Think of the character Yoda from Star Wars. Yoda embraced all three characters among many others: Humility, modesty, supreme confidence. Be like Yoda.

This slide below contains a quote from The Book of Tea that touches on the importance of humility and other subtle aspects of wa.