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I read an article months ago that introduced the concept of Shibumi within Zen philosophy. I enjoyed learning about it so much that I’ve gone back to it several times. After reading it again tonight, I thought it’s worth sharing.

Dear creatives, small business owners, freelance photographers, writers, musicians and audiophiles, this is for you. But first, let’s get personal.


design, design zen, buddhism, vagabond original



I’m gonna level with you. Sometimes I get a little stupid. I look at my to-do list, client projects, personal projects that I keep putting off, new skills I want to acquire and hone . . . soon introspection and thoughtful self-critique give way to the sullen self-consciousness of so many creatives. Then blamb-sauce. With little warning, I slip suddenly into a state of mind that can only be described as Donkey Brain.

Donkey Brain is stubborn, moody, melancholy, self-deprecating. He’s aware only of the level of difficulty, and which qualities he lacks.

He’s an ass.

The first step to overcoming Donkey Brain is awareness. Once you’re willing to recognize it in the moment and do something about it, you’re ready to reclaim yourself.


Sometime about 4 years ago, I spoke about this with a talented friend who works in the mental health industry (that’s secret code for “my therapist”). She offered a piece of wisdom that I have used to great effect when I’m in need of some Zen. Try it for immediate effect:

1. SET A TIME LIMIT – Give yourself a time limit to feel whatever you’re feeling (maybe start with 20 minutes).
2. CHANGE LOCATION – When the time’s up, get up and move yourself to some other place. Doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s not the same room.
3. CHANGE ACTIVITY – Do something else. Anything else. Doesn’t have to be productive, but it does have to be unrelated to the pile of thought-spaghetti you left in the other room.

There. You allowed your doubts and fears a voice for a few minutes, and heard what Donkey Brain had to say. You told him, “thanks for your concern.” Then you left the room and engaged your mind in something else. Anything else. Maybe you played some music, or watched some youtube, read a blog article, or looked out the window for a while. You’re ready to get productive again.


Back to the article I mentioned at the beginning. In it, the author (Matthew May) describes Shibumi, an aesthetic principle found within Zen philosophy:

[Shibumi] is an overarching concept, an ideal. It has no precise definition in Japanese, but its meaning is reserved for objects and experiences that exhibit in paradox and all at once the very best of everything and nothing: Elegant simplicity. Effortless effectiveness. Understated excellence. Beautiful imperfection.

He goes on to describe seven design principles of Shibumi. I’m including some images that, for me, seem to match some of the criteria (in no particular order):

shibumi, shibusa, zen design, donkey brain,


Koko emphasizes restraint, exclusion, and omission. The goal is to present something that both appears spare and imparts a sense of focus and clarity.

Zen lesson: Refrain from adding what is not absolutely necessary in the first place.


Kanso dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative, or fanciful. The overall effect is fresh, clean, and neat.

Zen lesson: Eliminate what doesn’t matter to make more room for what does.

shibumi, shibusa, zen design, donkey brain,


The goal of shizen is to strike a balance between being “of nature” yet distinct from it—to be viewed as being without pretense or artifice, while seeming intentional rather than accidental or haphazard.

Zen lesson: Incorporate naturally occurring patterns and rhythms into your design.


The principle of yugen captures the Zen view that precision and finite-ness are at odds with nature, implying stagnation and loss of life, and that the power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosure. Leaving something to the imagination piques our curiosity and can move us to action.

Zen lesson: Limit information just enough to pique curiosity and leave something to the imagination.

shibumi, shibusa, zen design, donkey brain,


The goal of fukinsei is to convey the symmetry of the natural world through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings. The effect is that the viewer supplies the missing symmetry and participates in the creative act.

Zen lesson: Leave room for others to cocreate with you; provide a platform for open innovation.


Datsuzoku signifies a certain reprieve from convention. When a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity and resourcefulness emerge.

Zen lesson: An interruptive “break” is an important part of any breakthrough design.

shibumi, shibusa, zen design, donkey brain,


The principle of seijaku deals with the actual content of datsuzoku. To the Zen practitioner, it is in states of active calm, tranquillity, solitude, and quietude that we find the essence of creative energy.

Enter meditation, which is an incredibly effective way to enhance self-awareness, focus, and attention and to prime your brain for achieving creative insights.

Zen lesson: Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.

*     *     *

What do you think? What do you do to get out of a rut? #donkeybrain #thoughtspaghetti



Photo Credit, top:

Photo by Jan Kunst
Found on

Photo Credit, collages – top to bottom, left to right:

1. Moroccan leather pouf | Found on
2. Bizen sake carafe | Photo by Studio KotoKoto
3. Untitled Photo by Ryan Ritchie
4. Paris, 1947-48 | Photo by Lucien Hervé
5. Shelving design | Found on
6. Terrarium | Found on
7. “West” by Clint McManaman
8. Elephant (source unknown)
9. “November” by [my lovely wife] Allison Tueller (Vagabond Original) | Found on
10. Tumblr Photo by David Habben, HABBENINK
11. Baby 81 Cover Art, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
12. “FAUX” by Jens Dan Johansen
13. “Prone to Wander” | Found on
14. “Bamboo” by Horimatsu
15. “The Mobster” by Blaž Šuštaršič of ER Motorcycles
16. Ensō by Kanjuro Shibata XX