Sunday, September 9, 2018

Applying Japanese Design Aesthetics to Design Thinking


As more businesses become flatter organizations, increase collaboration, avoid command and control models, and move more deeply into the practices of systems thinking and design thinking, the transformation that is occurring within has been quite profound. There are still tendencies presently among some organizations - whether corporations, churches, or political parties - to assert a more resolutely hierarchical structure and interaction with employees and clients, granted, but some of these have struggled to adapt to the social changes that have resulted from the freer access to information. British Petroleum, the Catholic Church and several self-declared political sacred cows all have assumed that they were well-ensconced and able to conduct themselves according to an eroding status quo, but have discovered this not to be the case.

The organizations that are getting the most attention for their achievements and perhaps even their bottom lines are doing so by taking a design-oriented approach to achieving their goals and assuring that their internal and external stakeholders feel involved, respected and - not to be overlooked among the touchy-feelies that might be associated with "collaboration" and "design" - satisfied.

In recent years, design-thinking has emerged as one of the approaches that has made significant contributions to those 21st century successes and its application has expanded beyond the development of products to the structuring of organizations, operations and corporate cultures.  The processes of design thinking infuse development processes with the collective creativity that generates a wider range of possibilities than can be generated by the sole genius or leader at the top of a hierarchy intended to generate the desired result, regardless of the realities that make success as intermittent as it is.

As design becomes a more influential guide or reference in business, the opportunity to explore a wider range of design aesthetics should be considered to expand the granularity with which products, processes or organizations are assessed and improved.

One valuable resource in the application of design would be the Japanese approach to aesthetics known as wabi sabi. The main tenet of this approach to design and art is the appreciation of things because they are incomplete, imperfect and impermanent. Acknowledging these three components of everything that we create or organization would be a valuable point of reference in the design process or the application of design thinking.  Most instances of corporate hubris can be traced back to occasions where this basic acknowledgement within wabi sabi has been overlooked.

The aesthetics have been further expanded upon to the point where there are lists of what is wabi sabi and what is "modern" for comparison and further explanation of how the concept applies to design currently.  I have provided a list adapted from Leonard Koren's book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers and from Richard Powell's Wabi-Sabi Simple.  I have also contributed further pairings (in blue) that would apply as we look more closely at organizations and the challenges that they face.


The lists may not get off to a resounding start with the proposal that wabi sabi is "private" while modernism is "public" but the orientation is one where "private" suggests a less ostentatious approach rather than a secretive one.  From there, however, the emphasis among the concepts associated witwabi sabi favours a more comprehensive view or process and a greater willingness to take a more democratic and collaborative approach.  The modernist approach is one that suggests the presence of an impressive veneer and, to use the modern parlance, spin rather than daring to acknowledge those principles that nothing is perfect, or permanent and that it is always changing.

Wabi sabi aesthetics, if applied to processes, systems and organizations, would help establish a disciplined and regular assessment of where things are and encourage ongoing assessment and adaptation rather than intermittent grand projects to replace those which have outlived their usefulness.  An aesthetic that makes us more knowledgeable of the flaws that will emerge over time, on their own schedules, will make us more attentive to the challenges that present themselves over time and equip us with the means to identify them and address them.

And that is just one way that designers and creative people can bring their aesthetics and approaches to bear in a broader, more nuanced manner.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Distraction, Presence and Wabi-Sabi

For much of my writing about wabi-sabi, I have found myself circling the terms "integrity," "authenticity," "veneer" and "facade" on a regular basis. I may not use these terms explicitly, but they have informed the posts I have added to my blog over the years. When I have focused on these, there has been an underlying aspiration to take the wabi-sabi aesthetic and expand it beyond its application in design to a broader interpretation that could apply to leadership. At the same time, however, I have been conscious of not striking the balanced Buddhist tone that other writers on wabi-sabi achieve.

This afternoon, however, I was struck by an oversight that I have cultivated over the years: distraction.

Much of what is happening in the public realm in 2018 is aimed at distracting us. The public discourse is clad in a fanfare and sensory overload that asserts that something is indeed a big deal and big deals in 2018 are as close to truth as we can get when we want to be distracted and so many organizations and public figures are happy to grant us this wish.

It would be interesting to determine how much of our economy, our carbon footprint or our time is devoted to nurturing or maintaining a certain level of distraction amongst us. The challenge there would be splitting the hairs and determining if something is indeed distracting us, or if it is sparking a thought or cultivating an advocacy of a public or personal nature to defend what we value.

Whatever energy we put into creating or consuming distractions is that they not merely give us a quick hit of an endorphin or some other neurochemical that alters our mindset, they may also dull our sensitivity to or awareness of subtler aspects of our lives. To illustrate this with a personal example, my palate is quite attuned to the explosive fat-bomb of flavour that a fudge brownie can offer but I struggle to discern the nuances of a glass of wine.  I digress.

In lives dedicated to responding to or seeking one distraction or another we are tuning ourselves out to the potential and realities of our own lives and the depth of the relationships we have, the routines that we can establish. My six-year-old son begins grade 1 tomorrow and the rituals the come with the end of summer are being entrenched with familiarity. I recall the sweater he wore last year, the Expos hat that bonds me to him, the weather, the emotions and I look ahead to tomorrow's variation on those themes. The sweater and hat still fit. The weather is cooler and shorts won't suffice. And he is so much bigger. The recollections of 2017 and tomorrow are snapshots that are and will remain vivid. The passage of time, the moment to check in on the memories from last year and what I anticipate occurring tomorrow all activate memories, experience and ultimately, a self that is more personal and more attuned to where, and who I am at a given moment than is the case when I am more striving to distract myself.

When you are distracting yourself, the intention is to be out of our minds, to tune things. Sometimes it is ideal to do this, but we are probably at a point where we may be encountering diminishing returns on the amounts of distraction that we surrender ourselves to. It is done at the risk of de-personalizing ourselves or sacrificing self-awareness. As we have seen in the public realm, distraction has served to undermine our collective potential to be active, engaged citizens. In other ways to may exacerbate our frustrations about finding our identity or achieving happiness or contentment.

In the Japanese film After Life (1998), recently deceased individuals are asked to identify a memory from their life that they would want re-enacted for them to take as the sole memory they would take with them to heaven. A late-teens, early-20's female says in her early debriefings that her preferred memory to reenact would be a trip to Disneyland. One of the staff members bristles at this and diplomatically works to bring the young woman around and increase her awareness and consciousness of other, more personal memories. To make the case, the staffer points out that 30 people had recently cited a Disneyland memory as well. Eventually, the young woman comes around to a more personal, sensually sharp memory of her mother during early childhood.

Such a memory (of distraction) is not a defining or particularly personal one. Beyond that, there is the likelihood of a sensory overload that numbs us and eliminates the possibility of not only fully absorbing the experience of a Disney visit but, as is the case with my grasp of wine, numbs our ability to appreciate the simple beautiful moments of the daily that -- if we are present enough in the given moment to reflect upon them -- beautify our lives. (Note: I need to thank filmmaker Gokonada for the tap on the shoulder regarding this overlooked character arc in After Life.)

Pausing to find, reflect upon and appreciate the inherent beauty of the moments that go into raising a child: watching him grow and savouring the moments of walks to school or home, are rich with details that are far more nourishing than any distraction. They are familiar and see easy to forget or overlook, however. The distractions may make for good photo album fodder or an amusing Facebook post, but may distort the reality rather than accurately represent it.

I've moved past the days when his stillness at night prompted a horrified hand to reach for the assurance of a rising and falling chest. Those moments, which are so familiar that they can either risk being forgotten or, with care come to be regarded with an intimacy that makes them echo with others who know those same experiences and enchant and comfort us. It is that intimacy, that fine-tuned, sommelier-level awareness of the emotional beauty of a moment that enriches our lives more deeply than the distractions we may pursue.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

With a Nod to Time's Passing

"The tap drip-drip-drips into the sink. Given a thousand years, it will erode a hole through the stainless steel with its soft but persistent caresses. The milk in the fridge moves, second by second, toward its "best before" date. It is an inevitable reminder of time passing and how, through the very act of existence, the unmarred, unspoiled purpose of things moves inexorably toward expiration."
Bradley Somer, Fishbowl, p 140-141.

As I reflect upon wabi sabi, I am not sure which I appreciate more: direct references and commentary on it, or passages such as the one above, which making an incidental comment on the transience that is such a key aspect of wabi sabi. These passing, more "Western" references to the essence of wabi sabi underline what Richard R. Powell says in his book Wabi Sabi Simple, "you may know it well, but never named it." (p. 2)

Reminded that the core principles of wabi sabi -- nothing is permanent; nothing is perfect; nothing is complete -- are not unique to a Japanese aesthetic or worldview, we can take a more critical look at the situations where these principles are ignored in the West.

While we are willing to accept the passage of time and the way it impacts us and our surroundings, we are still inclined to place inordinate faith in the new, especially if it is modern or technological. With these there is the hope that time and gravity can be defied by the new, whether it is genetic innovation, more powerful batteries, a management guru's new insight or a pre-fab composite that lures DIY'ers to Home Depot.

The temptation with the new is to presume that it is a panacea, or utopian with the solutions they offer. We know of the power of time and we are familiar with the gentle degradations it brings. Whether it is the graying of hair, the sprouting of crow's feet, and the peeling of paint or more existential declines spawned by tinctures of hubris, complacency or lesser, latent demons we rust -- individually, collectively or in the institutions we gather around. Decline is inevitable. It is noble to resist it and fight it off, but it is a battle best fought by attentiveness and vigilance rather than by late, drastic interventions that can as Somer put it in his quote above, mar or spoil the purpose of things, not to mention their essence or character.

The new, and especially the new and technological, enchant us with the promise of defeating time, at least on one front. The promise is often such that we presume them to be the ultimate step, that finishing touch that in itself will defy decay as well. The optimism of our neomania makes us confident that this new thing will not only enhance our well-being but defy the passage of time as well. We presume that new treatment will heal people indefinitely and the targeted scourge will not adapt, that new way of motivating or managing people will work with everyone and not cloy with cliche or simplistic approaches. We are certain everybody's Teslas will evade rust and decline.

That optimism reserved for the very new is not always instinctive or incidental, however. Sometimes it is part of the sell job that accompanies the new. The promise of the new or next decays quickly and the assertion that it will unshackle itself from the passage of time and evade the need for maintenance. There is the insistence of perfection, a promise that feeds into our desire to hold on to things more tightly: our youth, our strength, our appetites for more, for our delusions about our place and our potential to, like the new, escape the insistence of time. The siren call of the new tempts us regularly, luring us into futile consumption that will never fulfill the promise of youth but eventually amplify the extent of the inevitable decay.