Wabi-sabi is a traditional Japanese aesthetic that embraces becoming over being, subtle flaws over perfection, modest quiet over glaring loudness. It sounds pretty much like the antithesis of “Western” aesthetics from classical Greek monumentalism to today’s colorful glossy advertisements.

Cherry blossoms in Vancouver

The beauty of furtive experiences: Cherry blossoms in Vancouver.
(photo: CC-BY-SA-3.0 by Wikimedia Commons user InverseHypercube)

Things shouldn’t advertise their value but should simply provide their intended value well. The teacups in Japanese tea ceremonies do not bear any logo that could increase their perceived worth other than by their intrinsic qualities.1

Consider a sturdy oak table that shows decades or centuries of use, its edges and contours smoothed and rounded by countless people sitting at the table for dinner, drinks, and games. Or the wrinkles of an old man, telling stories of a rich life lived. Or even my iPhone’s scratches,2 which make it so much more personal to me than when it came, flawless, out of some factory. (Some of the scars even remind me of embarrassing anecdotes of our shared existence, and make me laugh.)

Life is not just happiness, warmth, light, and communion, so neither is wabi-sabi. In his fine little book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren’s recites a poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241) that expresses wabi-sabi wonderfully:

All around, no flowers in bloom  
Nor maple leaves in glare,  
A solitary fisherman’s hut alone  
On the twilight shore  
Of this autumn eve.  

In our machinized, digital world, wabi-sabi can give us interesting insights into why we all seem to love paper – with its quiet smooth texture – and the seeming perfections of nature, like the symmetry of flower petals or the vast one-ness of the sea set to an aural backdrop of the waves irregularly hitting the shore.

Embracing the principles of wabi-sabi can lead us to better design. One iOS app that springs to mind as a prime example of wabi-sabi is Paper for iPad. Its user interface is reduced to the minimum in functionality and color, the beautifully textured paper invites us to cherish the notebooks just like their real-world counterparts, and the way the brushes bleed on the paper makes me want to squeak in joy.


  1. In that vein, I admire Apple’s decision to forgo placing their logo on the iPhone’s front side. 

  2. Like John Gruber, I carry my iPhone without a case in my front right pants pocket, with the screen facing inward. I tuck it in upside down with the home button on top, so that when I take it out, my thumb is already pressing the home button (I don’t know if Gruber does this as well).