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Kanso, Shizen, Shibumi

Zen itself is not concerned with judging this design to be good or that design to be bad. Still, we can look to some of the concepts in the Zen aesthetic to help us improve our own visuals with an eye toward simplicity.

Kanso (Simplicity)

A key tenet of the Zen aesthetic is kanso or simplicity. In the kanso concept, beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission. Says artist, designer, and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana, “Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.” When you examine your visuals, then, can you say that you are getting the maximum impact with a minimum of graphic elements, for example? Take a moment to consider the slides that you have used in the past—did they embody the spirit of kanso?

Shizen (Naturalness)

The aesthetic concept of naturalness or shizen “prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement,” according to Dr. Kawana. Restraint is a beautiful thing. The best musicians, for example, know never to overplay but instead to be forever mindful of the other musicians and find their own space within the music and the moment they are sharing. Graphic designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to communicate the particular message for the particular audience. Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy…and common. The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr. Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens, says, “The designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole, the interest of the viewer is lost.”

Shibumi (Elegance)

Shibumi is a principle that can be applied to many aspects of life. Concerning visual communication and graphic design, shibumi represents elegant simplicity and articulate brevity, an understated elegance. In Wabi-Sabi Style (Gibbs Smith Publishers), authors James and Sandra Crowley comment on the Japanese deep appreciation of beauty in this sense:


“Their (Japanese) conceptualization relegates elaborate ornamentation and vivid color usage to the bottom of the taste levels…excess requires no real thought or creativity. The highest level of taste moves beyond the usage of brilliant colors and heavy ornamentation to a simple and subdued refinement that is the beauty of shibumi, which represents the ultimate in good taste through conscious reserve. This is the original ‘less is more’ concept. Less color—subdued and elegant usage of color, less clutter.”

In the world of slide presentations, you do not always need to visually spell everything out. You do not need to pound every detail into the head of each member of your audience either visually or verbally. Instead, the combination of your words, along with the visual images you project, should motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination, helping him to empathize with your idea and visualize it beyond what is visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him. The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Simplicity

  • Subtlety

  • Elegance

  • Suggestion (rather than literal description)

  • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced)

  • Empty space (or negative space)

  • Stillness, tranquility

  • Eliminating the nonessential

All of these principles can be applied to slide design, Web design, and so on.

Wabi-Sabi Simplicity

I first learned of wabi-sabi while studying sado (Japanese tea ceremony) many years ago in the Shimokita Hanto of Aomori, a rural part of northern Japan—a perfect place to experience traditional Japanese values and concepts. While studying sado, I began to appreciate the aesthetic simplicity of the ritual, an art that is an expression of fundamental Zen principles such as purity, tranquility, a respect for nature, and the desire to live in harmony with it.


The ideals of wabi-sabi come from Japan, and the origins are based on keen observations of nature. Wabi means “poverty” or lacking material wealth and all its possessions yet, at the same time, feeling free from dependence on worldly things, including social status. There is an inward feeling of something higher. Sabi means “loneliness” or “solitude,” the feeling you might have while walking alone on a deserted beach deep in contemplation. These two concepts come together to give us an appreciation for the grace and beauty of a scene or a work of art while remaining fully aware of its ephemerality and impermanence.

Some Westerners may be familiar with the term wabi-sabi through wabi-sabi-inspired design, a kind of earthy interior design that is balanced, organic, free from clutter and chaos, and somehow quite beautiful in its simple presentation, never appearing ostentatious or decorated.

The ideals of wabi-sabi are most applicable to disciplines such as architecture, interior design, and the fine arts. But we can apply the principles to the art of digital storytelling (presentations with AV support or integration) as well. Wabi-sabi embraces the “less is more” idea that is often talked about—and often ignored—in today’s society. Visuals created with a sense of wabi-sabi are never accidental, arbitrary, cluttered, or busy. They may be beautiful, perhaps, but never superfluous or decorative. They will be harmonious and balanced, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical. The elimination of distraction and noise can certainly help begin to make visuals with greater clarity.

A Zen garden is also a lesson in simplicity: open space without ornamentation, a few rocks carefully selected and placed, raked gravel. Beautiful. Simple. The Zen garden is very different from many gardens in the West that are absolutely filled with beauty, so much beauty, in fact, that we miss much of it. Presentations are a bit like this. Sometimes, we’re presented with so much visual and auditory stimulation in such a short time that we end up understanding very little and remembering even less. We witnessed a large quantity of stuff, but is it not the quality of the evidence and the experience that matters, rather than, say, merely the amount of data or the length of the experience?

Living in Japan all these years, I have had many chances to experience the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden, practicing zazen (meditation) in a Kyoto temple, or even while having a traditional Japanese meal out with friends. I am convinced a visual approach that embraces the aesthetic concepts of simplicity and the removal of the nonessential can have practical applications in our professional lives and can lead ultimately to a more enlightened design. I do not suggest you judge a presentation visual the same way you do a work of art. But understanding the essence of Zen simplicity can have practical applications in your creative work, including the design of your presentation visuals.

  • By stripping down an image to essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning…

  • —Scott McCloud

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