Ode to Emptiness

POSTED BY Izzie Zahorian on Jul 31, 2012

Earlier this year, my bag was stolen. It was a bag I'd bought in July 2009 at MUJI in Soho, down the street from where I worked. This was no ordinary object, but the most perfect embodiment of 'form follows function' I'd ever seen. It served as my companion for my summer in New York and became an emblem for my experiences thereafter.

Never before had I owned such an intuitive, sturdy, and beautiful bag. There was a spot for everything and not a detail extraneous. The bag, in its minimalism, could be many things to many people. Depending on the owner, the inner pocket held notebooks or napkins, some keys or an apple instead. The bag's plain aesthetic appealed to both sexes and its neutral design served as a canvas for where things could go, rather than where they should go.

This idea illustrates the Japanese concept of emptiness and the design philosophy behind the bag's universality. Simplicity in the West infers a single, suggested path, whereas emptiness in Japan offers a blank canvas to engage with. Take, for example, two different approaches to the design of a cooking knife, as described by Kenya Hara:

"Here are two well-made simple tools. The Western style knife has the path of a finger grip. The Japanese style knife, no. At first glance, the design of the gripless knife seems to lack common courtesy to the user. But it is within this universality, the user can hold it from any angle. [1]

Japanese cooks prefer knives without any ergonomic shape. A flat handle is not seen as raw or poorly crafted. On the contrary, its perfect plainness is meant to say, “You can use me whichever way suits your skills.” The Japanese knife adapts to the cook’s skill (not to the cook’s thumb). This is, in a nutshell, Japanese simplicity." [2]

Many examples of emptiness exist in Japan across architecture, objects, and ceremonies. Surprisingly, very few permeations of the emptiness aesthetic exist in Japan's digital realm. According to iA's Oliver Riechtenstein, Japanese web design is lagging about 8 years behind the rest of the developed world [3].


Although emptiness in Japanese web design may currently be unrealized, the concept is trending for websites and apps made by American and European agencies. In contrast to the glitter-trail cursors and elaborate loading screens we saw in the 90s, this new age of design seems to get out of the way of content so that users can get what they need. Besides a committment to the reduction of elements, there are other trends that lend themselves to great user experience:

Fluid experiences from device to device. One of the worst things is to go to a website on your phone and have to resize and scroll each time you reload a page. I just want the content. Apps like Instapaper and iA Writer remove distractions so you can experience content pain-free. It is a blank slate of sorts, and extremely functional while still offering a beautiful, immersive experience. 

Immaculate typography. "Typography is not about making or choosing a nice font," says Reichtenstein, but rather about designing for optimum performance. In designing iA Writer, optimum typographic performance involved not just kerning and leading, but designing subtly different versions of their typeface so that it rendered perfectly and perceptively the same from screen to screen [4]. It's this attention to detail, imperceptible to most users' eyes, that makes for a fantastic user experience.

Paying homage to the medium. In Japanese woodworking, this means going with the grain of the wood, never against it. In working with the grain of the web, one might consider the infinite scalability of its edges, the ease of vertical scrolling, and the gestures unique to each device. Though less expected than typical hyperlinks, gestures for smartphones and key-commands for desktop can provide a more efficient, enjoyable way for users to navigate. Additional properties of time and motion add dimensionality and breadth to UX.

Images via iA and Hara Design Institute

WRITTEN BY Izzie Zahorian

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Aug 1, 2012 at 9:24am

It's interesting to me that American and European web design is using this concept rather than the Japanese.