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Emptiness and Simplicity

  • Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.
  • —Paul Rand

When an embryo begins its process of cellular division to create organs, a neural stem and body, it starts as a flat circle before spontaneously folding and curving into a shape best described as a container (Figures 1.18 and 1.19). Within this protective vessel, cells migrate to their appropriate positions to form the parts necessary to emerge as a new life-form. Emptiness is a requirement of life to develop.

Figure 1.18

1.18 A fly egg showing gastrulation, an early embryonic process that takes place in most animals. This process transforms the embryo from a relatively simple shape (ball or sheet of cells) into a multilayered structure.

Figure 1.19

1.19 The collective behavior of hundreds of cells simultaneously migrating to create a furrow that will become the container within which body parts form. The egg itself is made up of about 6,000 cells at this stage.

As a human, you emerge from this container of emptiness as an impressionable, perceptive, creative, sensual, and problem-solving species. Your innate abilities are called emergent properties. They come into being as needed, just as your cells coalesce and transform into the necessary body parts at exactly the right time.

  • In emptiness, forms are born. When one becomes empty of the assumptions, inferences, and judgments he has acquired over the years, he comes close to his original nature and is capable of conceiving original ideas and reacting freshly.
  • —Stewart W. Holmes and Chimyo Horioka, Fifteen Zen Tenets

Your given abilities are sourced within. They are already part of who you are. You can enhance these integral aspects of yourselves with training and education, but every human comes into the world equipped to exist within, expand upon, and contribute to the world just as they are. Your inherent abilities "emerge" through the experience of living and your personal interaction with nature. At their most useful, these gifts are complemented and expanded—rather than managed and compressed—by learning, beliefs, practices, and experiences. When a personal quality is complemented by an outside source, it allows you to contribute from the center of who you are by extending you into the world through your work; when managed, it becomes filtered through a perspective generated from a source outside of yourself that may or may not agree with your own.

The homogenization of individual abilities and perspectives through a common filter creates redundancy and noise, because it is simplified into a singular response. Instead of giving options that come from subtle and different perceptions, one answer is offered. This reduces complexity but doesn't necessarily provide the most effective response to a problem. The more possibilities offered, the better the chance to address the issue. When you design solutions based on a response that stems directly from the issue rather than a simplified one-size-fits-all answer, the probability exists to discover a more workable, more aesthetic, solution.

Emptiness and simplicity are related concepts that contain subtle but significant differences. In the Eastern hemisphere of the interconnected earth, the idea of emptiness is one of emergence. It is a Zen concept of possibility. Its power lives in the potential of becoming. By contrast, emptiness in a Western context is perceived as lonely, despairing, or alienated.

Emptiness as a Philosophical and Visual Design Application

A perfect example of how to integrate emptiness and simplicity into design has been accomplished by Kenya Hara, author and creative director for Muji, a Japanese household retail company. Kenya uses the principle of emptiness in a variety of design solutions he creates for products, advertising graphics, and industrial applications for the company (Figure 1.20). Muji is based in Japan with stores in several other countries. The name Muji is derived from a phrase that means "no-brand quality products." The company's philosophy is founded on recycling, minimal production waste and advertising, and a simple shopping experience. Muji's philosophy is part of the developing anti-branding movement and has a subtle but significant difference to the idea of simplicity.

Figure 1.20

1.20 Using the unobstructed view of the Mongolian horizon split perfectly between heaven and earth, this Muji poster communicates and , or the receptivity of emptiness and equanimity, or "evenness of mind."

Hara describes Muji's advertising as "not dispatching information from one entity to another, but facilitating the mutual exchange of information. In effect, Muji's advertising and products offer an empty vessel for the audience to supply the meaning themselves." With minimal branding and packaging, users provide their own interpretation, which emerges from a highly personal interaction (Figures 1.21 and 1.22). This strategy includes a range of responses from different sensibilities: old/young, male/female, professional/homemaker. As Hara says, "Some customers buy Muji products because they like the ecological sensitivity of the company, the low cost, the urban aesthetic and simple design, or just because the products do the job described." Muji's philosophy includes them all. It is a philosophy that has risen out of necessity: The Japanese have long practiced a conscientious and open-design aesthetic in all they create to accommodate limited resources and space, which is reflected in Muji's advertising design. It's minimal, unobtrusive, and relaxed.

Figure 1.21

1.21 A Muji house ad provides a background of emptiness so as not to impose the advertiser's assumptions on the customer. It becomes a "fit" for anyone who cooks. "House" (left side, written using one Japanese character); MUJI (right side, written using four Japanese characters).

Figure 1.22

1.22 A Muji clothing ad. "What happens naturally" (left side, written with 11 Japanese characters); MUJI (lower-right side, written with four Japanese characters).

"Emptiness" as a design principle in Western culture is less common. Western culture is obsessed with specifics: bottom lines, literal interpretations, and hard results. Most Western commercial transactions are quite pointed in their direction—that of end purchase—and most advertisements are a gross overture to that result. But there have been instances of minimalist design that express an appreciation of the ideas of emptiness and its simplicity, such as those produced by TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles for Apple Computer. By identifying Apple's core philosophy with the rebels and geniuses that changed the world by "thinking differently" (Figure 1.23), the campaign established Apple as the ideology of the future. Apple was perceived as saving the day by making technology accessible to anyone. This move repositioned it well above its competition and far beyond the status of "product" by connecting the user into a world of possibility.

Figure 1.23

1.23 The phenomenal success of the TBWA\Chiat\Day "Think Different" campaign (1997) turned Apple in a new direction with a brilliant example of integrating the principles of emptiness, simplicity, and aesthetic.


Although similar in its presentation, simplicity is a different concept than emptiness. Simplicity reduces information rather than acting as an invitation to the viewer's response. Simplicity distills information to its essence and provides an answer with a single conclusion. Necessarily sparse, it contrasts with emptiness by distilling information to its absolute rather than allowing for multiple interpretations. Emptiness is always simple, but simplicity is not necessarily empty, in the context that it contains an expectation of response or a directive.

Each has a different use. When you're driving toward road construction at 45 MPH, you don't want to guess what to do. There isn't time for that. A simple sign that tells you exactly what is expected of you is necessary in this situation (Figure 1.24). Road signs are simple and direct, and are specifically for the purpose of providing information quickly. They give an instant and clear answer: right, left, stop, go. A symbol is also simple (Figure 1.25), but it doesn't direct you to a definitive answer; rather, it invites your response, so it is not necessarily an answer but a question in and of itself.

Figure 1.24

1.24 As a literal example, a sign conveys an either/or simplicity that directs a response. It is literal, direct, and can't be mistaken for anything else.

Figure 1.25

1.25 A symbol conveys both/and ambivalence to allow a personal interpretation or choice. Symbols are usually broadly understood to represent a generality just as the yin yang represents opposites while also leaving room for the viewer's personal interpretation.

Advertising has been doing this since its inception: When you want to establish a relationship with your viewer that invites their interpretive response, use ambiguous, symbolic language. When you want to give viewers a directive, clearly tell them what to do. An example of this using the same product for different end means is a car advertisement that tempts you with the freedom of the open road, the sexy lines, the indulgent extras; essentially, an escape from your day-to-day. On the other side of the coin is the car commercial that pushes the discount, the low annual interest, and the fast-talking "buy, Buy, BUY RIGHT NOW before this deal is gone." See the difference?

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