Design and ‘emptiness’

Muji 'salt plains' billboard

Over the past few weeks I've been on a quest for a new jumper. My requirements were nothing special: just a simple black round-neck cut from material of reasonable quality, no label, not too thick or thin.

I thought it would be easy, just a matter of popping into a couple of shops and selecting the one I liked best. But despite an extensive search I had no success in city centre Edinburgh. Everything that was available had too much 'personality': prominent labels, decorative collars, distinctive weaves, esoteric fabrics, 'patches'.

This dreary adventure concluded happily last week when, during a brief visit to London, I was able to get to the Muji store on Oxford Street, one of my favourite shops. As ever calm descended as I entered, and I was able to find a suitable jersey in a couple of minutes (and pick up a no-frills sturdy backpack - it's hard to find one of those as well).

You may well be familiar with Muji, a Japanese retailer that opened some stores in England a few years back (none in Scotland yet, sadly). They design unassuming, well made products ranging from clothing to stationery. The prevailing aesthetic is modest, simple to the point of plainness. Basic colours, unfussy durable materials. Unpretentious black jumpers.

I formed an instinctive liking for Muji products when my wife - who has spent some time in Japan - first introduced me to one of their stores a few years ago. I was sufficiently intrigued to investigate their design philosophy, and what a very splendid thing it is.

'Emptiness'

It has its ultimate root in the Shinto concept of 'emptiness'. Ancient Japanese shrines and temples feature empty spaces designed as dwelling places for gods and spirits. The space isn't a simple void: rather it is conceived as a region charged and crackling with electric possibility, a numinous space open to visiting deities, a force field of latent creativity.

This notion of emptiness making room for creativity is the guiding principle of the Muji 'no brand' philosophy. To a western eye craving novelty many of their products seem somewhat under-designed: there are no logos, no distinctive characteristics that might serve to distinguish them from similar goods offered by competing retailers. It's almost as if the design process has been cut-off one stage too early, just at the point when one might expect embellishments to be added to the basic, functional design. But that is the whole point: the end product reveals its worth over time in its essential usefulness. It can be adapted to the user's own purposes precisely because it doesn't have a strong personality of its own. It's an 'empty space' that facilitates the user's creativity.

This philosophy of emptiness has been expressed eloquently by the company's design director Kenya Hara in his books Designing Design and White (which I discussed in a blog post of a year or so ago, The idea of 'white').

Hara puts it nicely in one recent interview, distinguishing the eastern notion of 'emptiness' from western 'minimalism':

In the West, the concept of simplicity has become popular as it worked well with the modern development of technology, industrialization as well as the concept of practicality.

But our products don’t necessarily reflect that. They are not supposed to serve a specific purpose of a particular individual in an efficient, practical manner. Instead of making different tables for different age groups and social classes, we make one table that would fit anyone’s lifestyle. Our table blends well with its surroundings, from a simple studio to a lavish house. It’s entirely up to the person who purchases the table to use it the way she or he wants it, regardless of who they are, what they do, and where they live.

He uses a similar analogy in another interesting interview, comparing the plain design of a traditional flat handled Japanese knife with a well known American knife crafted for the shape of the hand:

Japanese cooks who have special skills 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.

Hara expands on these thoughts in this recording of an address to Google employees - well worth a listen if you've an hour or so to contemplate nothingness:

The Muji aesthetic is carried over into their advertisements, which are characterised by strong images with a simple reference to the company, no slogans or other text. The landscape image at the top of this post was one of a series of billboards that appeared a few years ago, with a similar theme: a solitary figure walking towards a bright horizon. The image conveys the sense of space characteristic of Muji products. And I like this one too:

Muji fashion advert

'No brand' web design

I've been trying to think through how all this might relate to my own field of design, web design, the development of web interfaces. I don't think there are that many to be drawn. And I'm aware that the 'no brand' concept is itself a form of branding: there's no such thing as a wholly 'pure design' free of all signification. But I think there are one or two interesting things to note. My thoughts thus far:

  • A web interface should be designed with restraint. A website is a tool with a purpose, but that purpose should not be promoted too aggressively. Give the user room to breathe, time to assess, space to use the interface at an unhurried, natural pace. Don't suffocate and choke through imposition of overly aggressive branding.
  • Make the design as simple or as complex as it needs to be. 'Emptiness' is not quite the same as the western idea of 'minimalism'. An 'empty' design might well be complex if that is what's required. But that complexity will seem natural, unforced. Don't cut essential functionality for the sake of misconceived minimalism.
  • Take care with colour and typeface selection. Go for clarity, a sense of openness and space. Even neutrality.
  • Try investing certain images with a sense of ambiguity, of intrigue. The Muji advertisement campaign was successful precisely because of the sense of mystery, of invitation, intimated by the selected imagery.
  • Craft an adaptable interface that submits to the specifications of the user's device: in a word, responsive web design.

Further thoughts to follow perhaps, in another post.

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