Japanese design is lauded for the beauty it finds in simplicity. Often, we describe it with words like minimalist, elegant, and subtle, with objects that fool our eyes; something could weigh a ton but still be seen as airy and light. This isn’t a coincidence; Japanese aesthetics are rooted in ancient ideals that act as guidelines for how they look and feel.
Some of the principles guiding Japanese design are wabi-sabi, miyabi, shibui, iki, and yūgen. Here’s what they mean:
Wabi-sabi: This is the most well-known of the Japanese design principles and refers to finding charm in things that are “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” One example of this is the centuries-old art called Kintsugi. Here, broken pottery is repaired using a special lacquer dusted with powdered metals like gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than hiding the uneven fragments, Kintsugi emphasizes and celebrates them.
Miyabi: Miyabi is translated as “elegance” or “refinement.” Although it’s not as popular as wabi-sabi, it is one of the traditional principles in Japanese aesthetics.
Shibui: When you talk about simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty, you’re speaking of shibui.
Iki: Like other design principles, iki treasures restraint and sophistication. It’s not overly refined or complicated, and it appreciates nature’s own creations—but it doesn’t refer to things found in nature.
Yūgen: Yūgen is often hard to describe, as it signifies an awareness of the universe that’s too powerful for words. Japanese playwright Zeami Motokiyo put it best when he explained yūgen, “To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds…”
Of all the principles, wabi-sabi is the most well known, and it exemplifies the feeling you have when you look a product of Japanese design: a mindful approach to life. This is influenced by Japanese Buddhism, which all things are considered as either an evolving form or disappear into nothingness. In this case, “nothingness” means potentiality, where things grow and change but are never complete.