Wabi-Sabi – Design to age

We’ve recent returned home from camping in France, along with a fairly large number of caravaners. I mention this because I noticed that caravans and campervans don’t appear to be designed to age gracefully. I’m not talking about whether or not they are ‘design classics’ but rather that they aren’t designed to easily allow user modification nor to keep their looks as they age and pick up the inevitable scratches, nicks and general wear and tear. They appear to have only been conceived up to the point of sale – working on the assumption that they will remain perfect forever – with no apparent thought for how they will be affected by use. That’s just silly. Stuff should be designed to take into account general wear and tear.


The Japanese have a useful concept to encapsulate this idea – Wabi-sabi (侘寂). Wabi-sabi acknowledges three core principles: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. In other words aesthetics is founded in the acceptance of transience – that beauty is in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

It seems to me that the same ideas should be applied to our technology products. Too many of our technology products are designed like hi-tech caravans. Lovely and shinny at the point of sale (not that caravans are lovely, but you know what I mean!) – but they don’t stand up well to wear and tear, and they don’t let users easily modify the system to work the way they want to work. They appear to have been designed without thought for how they will age nor how their users might wish to hack the system – to womble – to use the system in unexpected ways.

For software products this means designing small components loosely joined together by a lightweight framework, that support open standards, protocols and APIs; with interfaces that are simple yet flexible enough for users to create their own journeys and workflow.

But Wabi-sabi also tell us something about how to build software. The acceptance of a state of ongoing imperfection implies that attempting to design a solution upfront will be doomed to failure. Instead we should embrace the idea of the perpetual beta, evaluate what works in the real world and modifying the system as a result.

Photo: Stone Tiles, by abundanceguy. Used under licence.

2 responses to “Wabi-Sabi – Design to age”

  1. Wabi Sabi in the transient purely electronic and virtual worlds may well be an intrinsic property, if, and only if, they are deisnged n a sufficinetly abstracted and reconfiguable way. For instance, a site that relies upon integrated deisgn and content coding will age badly, it’s functionality degrading at the whim of the next update. Well designed, with a good seperation of functionality, design and content, it can evolve and accomodate all elements in it’s development.

    If we are doing our jobs well today, we should be delivering excellent content tomorrow.

    In the physical realm though, this concept is close to evaporatig entirely- Wabi Sabi is ironically least visible in Japan when we consider artefacts. The japanese consumer treats as disposable almost all technically driven objects. Weird.

    For Wabi Sabi look to big, tradition laden brands. Lieca cameras, for one. Also, there is a question as to whether as a concept it is incompatible with mass production- the wabi sabi is not just aging. it is aging in sympathy with the particular situation- a unique, individual situation.

  2. Hi Ant

    I largely agree – and a good point about aging in sympathy with the particular situation. But I don’t think its incompatible with mass production, even if there isn’t much drive given the current market. As you say companies like Lieca manage to pull it off.

    With software it seems to be compounded by the nature of software – which is, in the main very, very brittle.

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