Simple or empty? Japanese minimalist design according to Kenya Hara
Simple or minimalist design is often linked with Japanese Zen-influenced design. Are they similar, or are there any differences between the two? What is simple design anyway?
Conceptually, simple design must be an attempt to re-adjust the relationship between functionalities and additional design elements. More design frills make products fancier and luxurious to lure consumers, but too much of them can become noise that blurs the purpose of a product which can also compromises aesthetics. Simple design renews the focus on functionalities, and by doing so, let users re-discover the beauty of minimum essentials that represent the fundamental identity of a product.
Great simple product design attempts to move the x-axis leftward as much as possible in the above figure, but never sacrifices fundamental functionalities and beauty. That draws a line against plain or streamlined design, which focuses on cost efficiency above anything else.
Then what is a difference between simple design and its Japanese version? They both share the same philosophy to find beauty in essential elements. But are there any elements that make Zen-influenced minimalist design stick out from the crowd?
Kenya Hara, a renowned Japanese graphic designer, has an idea. He’s been advising Japanese brand MUJI for years, which is often dubbed commercial-Zen as it offers simple, versatile and functional products. According to Hara, traditional Japanese minimalism is not just simple, but also “empty.” But what is an empty design? Easiest way is to picture an empty glass. No one buys a glass – empty when bought – just to keep it empty. You buy it because you want to fill it with liquid: water, juice or beer. The notion of empty product is coupled with an expectation that YOU take action, fetch water and fill an empty glass. Emptiness is a vacuum/room intentionally made in a product so that you can use your own abilities, whether it’s physical or cognitive, to fill it.
Hara often uses cooking knives as an example to explain empty design. According to him, Zwilling J.A. Henckles is one of the culmination of simple design, whereas traditional Japanese knives are often focused on empty design. Henckles hails from Solingen, Germany, a city that has been producing knives for centuries. Both are highly rated as quality knives.
On the other hand, Hara points out that some traditional Japanese knives are not so user-friendly. For example, yanagiba bocho, which are designed to make sashimi (that is made by slicing out meat from raw fish), have long, straight blade and also straight handles. The grip is not sculpted to fit your palm, and the blade doesn’t have human-friendly curves that help smooth the action of cutting. Why is that? It’s because traditional Japanese knives are designed to maximize the result for a variety of fish and/or other ingredients that can have different firmness, texture and grains. Blades need to be angled and used differently depending on which ingredient you cut. If a handle or blade came with certain shapes, they could limit the flexibility and versatility.
Both types of knives delivers the fundamental functionalities exceptionally well, but in a different way. And the difference is where functionalities reside. In simple design, products themselves take care of them: easy, accessible grip and delicately curved blade. On the other hand, empty design expects YOU to master the skills of using the products – the combination of the potential both in design and user achieve the best performance, and none of them can be missing. It’s a little bit like musical instruments for professionals, which would sound beautiful if, and ONLY IF, played with appropriate skills. The gist of “empty” is “you do your part.”
With simple design, you can be the master and product could be your aide. But with empty design, you and the product are partners that work together to achieve the goal. Empty products won’t let you do the job easy, because they want you to achieve higher goals.