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.


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