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5 Zen Principles for Minimalist Design

Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, technology, and creativity where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

Minimalism is all about breaking things down to the barest elements necessary for a design to function.

Minimalism is all about breaking things down to the barest elements necessary for a design to function.

Is Minimalism All About Keeping Things Simple?

There is no doubt that minimalism is one of the most influential styles today—from design to architecture, to music, to literature. In fact, there’s every chance that you’re a fan of minimalism even without knowing it. That brings us to a question:

Is minimalism all about keeping things simple?

Close, but not quite.

Minimalism is about breaking things down to the barest elements necessary for a design to function. It’s about taking things away until nothing else can be removed without interfering with the purpose of the design. Minimalism is thus all about reducing a design to only the most essential elements.

And contrary to popular opinion, the core ideas of minimalism have been around for much longer. The roots of what we call ‘minimalistic design’ can be found in traditional Japanese culture, with values in balance and simplicity. Japanese architecture, interior design, art, and graphic design have long employed minimalist aspects.

The roots of what we call ‘minimalistic design’ can be found in traditional Japanese culture. Japanese culture values balance and simplicity. Japanese architecture, interior design, art, and graphic design have long employed minimalist aspects.

The roots of what we call ‘minimalistic design’ can be found in traditional Japanese culture. Japanese culture values balance and simplicity. Japanese architecture, interior design, art, and graphic design have long employed minimalist aspects.

The Japanese Zen Philosophy of Minimalism

Dating back to the 12th century, the Japanese Zen philosophy carries visual principles such as Ma and Wabi-sabi. Ma literally translates to “negative space”, but is better understood as a person’s consciousness of space created by intervals. Wabi-sabi emphasizes austerity and integrity in using natural objects.

Western interest in zen, however, didn’t generate until after World War II, in 1960s New York. Artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, and Anne Truitt scoffed at lavish and overly decorative art, stripping their work down to only the most essential elements. They believed this revealed true form, and thus American minimalism was born.

Coming back to the Zen principles, a good starting point is understanding the Zen definition of user experience. User experience is a person's experience while interacting with the world in general.

The world can be his immediate family, neighbors, or dog. This experience ultimately settles down within his mind and gets classified finally as good, bad, or ugly.

And when we apply the Zen concepts to a profession like designing, it enhances the design and gives it a naturalness to gel in with the real world we live in. And any design which becomes an intrinsic part of our lives never fails to impress.

Thus, the goal of good design 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.

And the following Zen principles can help us in our endeavor to create a good minimalistic design:

  1. Be formless.
  2. Subtract until it breaks.
  3. Be consistent.
  4. Consider selective disregard.
  5. Simplicity.

1. Be Formless

Perhaps the best definition of formlessness was given by the eternal Bruce Lee:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back, but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents, it automatically finds the path of least resistance and follows it without effort or hesitation. It will find its way through and keep going if there is even the slightest crack or weakness.

In the same way, the formless designer absorbs and appreciates all the different approaches and essences of creation and obtains the fluidity to evolve quickly, delivering unorthodox solutions that open the door to great discoveries.

For example, while designing a mobile application, we tend to fall into the trap of designing for Android users and iOS Users. This limits our thinking and, subsequently, our problem-solving ability. But once we remove these constraints of Android and IOS and start designing for human beings in general, we reach a new level of awareness.

We become formless in our approach. Our design becomes natural, direct, and gelled with nature.

2. Subtract Until It Breaks

In Zen philosophy, every detail has significance, and everything should have a purpose.

So, when creating an extremely minimalist design, keep subtracting elements until the design stops working the way it should. For example, when designing a website, if you reach a point when the website fails to perform its function, you know you’ve achieved the most minimalist design possible.

A point to be noted is that the “breaking” is relative. It can be the technical breakage after subtracting but also a dip in the user experience. After subtracting to the bare minimum, you need to consider both aspects and ensure that your design is still user-friendly and delivers the experience you want the users to have.

Remember, in a minimalist design, every detail has significance. What you choose to leave in is vital.

3. Be Consistent

To the Zen practitioner, being consistent means being in a state of active calm, tranquillity, solitude, and quietude, which is the essence of creative energy.

And applying to design means creating a sense of familiarity and reliability in the application or craft by ensuring that the basic elements, their function, the content, and the placement of pieces are uniform throughout. Consistency is important because users can leverage their natural learning, thereby reducing cognitive load on subsequent use and friction of adoption.

Eventually, this consistent design makes any application or art using it intuitive and simple. And when any application is designed well with all logical information clustered together, it reduces the possibility of slips and errors, thereby giving users the confidence to explore the application in the way they want.

And the biggest benefit of a consistent application is that it follows the path of least resistance. Force met with force will only result in destruction. But when force is met without force, it can be grasped and redirected for a better purpose.

Always remember we don’t always need to give a jazzy potpourri of art to the user. We only need to give them a creation with which the users are comfortable, and they naturally gravitate towards it. And any user can only feel comfortable when symmetry and tranquillity are maintained.

Consider Selective Disregard

Consider Selective Disregard

4. Consider Selective Disregard

To the Zen practitioner, the subconscious mind and its behavior play a very important role in the further actions of any person.

For example, if you were to walk down a busy street, you would probably see and forget a handful of street signs. Those signs enter your peripheral vision but are subconsciously ignored because they are deemed unimportant or familiar. But if something seemingly important or unfamiliar enters your peripheral vision, you subconsciously shift your attention to it.

People thus make subconscious decisions about everything. To maximize productivity, users always work on the path of least resistance and ignore everything that isn’t important to them. This is called selective disregard, and as designers, this is an important aspect to be considered while creating a design.

The more elements on a design, the more users will ignore it. A design with few elements takes little effort to analyze, so users typically do so easily, allowing them to complete the task at hand as it was intended by the designer.

Yes, you may argue here; rather than removing the unimportant ones, I can just emphasize the important ones. This is nothing less than design hara-kiri. Users will be left even more confused and disoriented by the resulting clutter.

Remember, the decision about what’s important in a design and what’s wasting space is key to a successful design.

5. Simplicity

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

That said, as technology improves, it automates human efforts and makes processes more efficient. But the flip side is that it creates more interfaces and interactions between humans and computers. The more the interactions, the more cumbersome the technology becomes for usage.

Here is where good design comes in. A good design minimizes human and computer interactions to the bare minimum. And when there is no interaction, there is no user experience at all.

Yes, great designs have no user experience. They just Incorporate naturally occurring patterns and rhythms that merge with the user's daily activities. That is the ultimate sophistication.

And simplicity, in design, is all about minimizing and refining the process to the point it becomes obvious to the user. But that doesn’t mean stripping down complex tasks or losing important information.

Instead, it’s about finding a sweet spot between the art elements and their usability so that users find it easy to complete one task after another without breakage in rhythm. The core philosophy thus is to embrace the beauty and power of minimalism.

As Nicholas Burroughs has rightly said:

“Minimalism is not a lack of something. It’s simply the perfect amount of something.”


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan