I first learned of wabi-sabi while studying traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony ("sado") fifteen 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 Japanese Tea Ceremony, I began to appreciate the aesthetic simplicity of the ritual, an art that is an expression of fundamental Zen principles such as purity, tranquility, and a respect for nature and a 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. By really seeing natural beauty for what it was, the Japanese were able to derive key ideals and concepts that are hard to explain in words and need to be experienced and felt to be best understood.
Wabi literally means "poverty" or lacking material wealth and all its possessions. Yet at the same time feeling free from depending on worldly things including social status. There is an inwardly feeling of something higher, then. 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, yet fully aware of its ephemerality and impermanence.
Some Westerns may be familiar with the term wabi-sabi through wabi-sabi-inspired design, a kind of earthy interior design which 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 such disciplines as architecture, interior design, and the fine arts. But we can apply the principles to the art of digital storytelling (presentations with AV support/integration) as well. It's a design philosophy, but also an approach and a way of thinking that transcends the design of things (including presentation visuals).
One ideal of wabi-sabi which is quite powerful and practical for us is the application of empty space. A graphic, for example, may be mostly "empty" except for 2-3 elements, but the placement of the elements within that space form a powerful message. The same approach can be applied to a room. Many Japanese homes have a washitsu, a traditional room with tatami mats which is simple and mostly empty. The empty space allows for the appreciation of a single item such as a single flower or a single wall hanging. The emptiness is a powerful design element itself. In this case, the more we add, the more diluted and less effective the design of our graphic, or living space, etc. becomes.
A style of Japanese painting called the "one-corner" style goes back some 800 years and is derived from wabi and sabi. For example, in the "one-corner" style, you may have a painting depicting a large ocean scene and empty sky. In the corner there is an small, old fishing canoe, hardly visible. It's the smallness and placement of the canoe that gives fastness to the ocean and evokes at once a feeling of calm and an empathy for the aloneness the fisherman faces. Such visuals have few elements, yet can be profoundly evocative.
Wabi-sabi embraces the "less is more" idea talked about today, yet often ignored. Visuals created with a sense of wabi-sabi, if you will, are ones which are never accidental, arbitrary, cluttered, or busy. They may be beautiful, perhaps, but never superfluous or decorative. They will be simple. They will be harmonious even if imbalanced. Steve Jobs' visuals are often profoundly simple.
Can we enhance our visual communication in a high-tech business world by examining old Eastern principles from centuries past? Sometimes the best gems are found in the most unexpected places...