Vacancy and emptiness
The tearoom is an abode of vacancy, says, Okakura, because it is devoid or ornamentation except for the bare minimum placed to fulfill an aesthetic need of the moment. The room is essentially empty. Just as two pieces of music can not be enjoyed at the same time, one can not comprehend or appreciate the beauty of the moment without a clear focal point or "central motive." Conflicting focal points would be a distraction. Abundance of vacant space allows for the clear existence of a focal point and the participation of the viewer to complete that which has been left incomplete or that which is only suggested. Whether we're talking about the aesthetic of the tearoom or our own work, there is no place for clutter and the superfluous as these harm clarity and introduce confusion. There is no place for the nonessential or "a vulgar display of riches" as Okakura puts it. The key idea here is simplicity, of course, but also the idea of embracing change. Life is in constant motion and the only thing certain, in fact, is change. The items used to create a central theme in the tearoom are not fixed, but like life itself, will change depending on the occasion or the season. The idea of emptiness itself, then, also hints of the potential for growth and improvement and possibilities, that is, of change. Our ideas and our presentation — whatever kind of presentation we're talking about — also must change to fit the time, place, and occasion (TPO, a common expression in business in Japan).
Appreciation for asymmetry
"Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination," says Okakura. There is a general absence of symmetry in Japanese art. Okakura notes that this is because the Zen (and Taoist) conception of perfection stresses the process "though which perfection is sought rather than perfection itself." True beauty, then, "could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete." Designs which are asymmetrical are more dynamic, active, and invite the viewer in to participate. An asymmetrical design will lead the eye more and stimulates the viewer to explore and interpret the content. Asymmetrical designs may evoke a sense of flow or movement. This kind of active engagement on the part of the viewer may lead to better recall of the content. It's important to remember that harmony is key and can be achieved in an asymmetrical design when care is given to achieving balance among the elements.
Lessons in asymmetry and empty space are all around
Once you become more aware of how emptiness (in the form of negative space) and asymmetry are used by designers, you'll begin to spot it everywhere.
ABOVE: (Left) The area in front of the lifts in a hotel in which I was staying in Japan. Each side is almost a mirror image of the other. It static and stable...and a bit dull. (Right) Moments later I came across this simple sign that got my attention on the streets in front of a restaurant. Its use of empty space and balanced asymmetrical composition are interesting and dynamic.
ABOVE: A couple of simple examples from the world of slides. The slides on the left have three simple elements aligned with the center axis. The slides on the right use the same three elements in a way that is more dynamic and the elements within the photographs become much more involved.
Related PZ posts
• Tokonoma and the art of the focal point
• Sumi-e, color, and the art of less
• Wa: The key to harmonious design
• 10 design lessons from the art of Ikebana
• 7 Japanese aesthetic principles to get you thinking
NOTE: Uncharacteristically there was over a three-week gap between posts. I have just returned from Japan from a sudden trip in May to the US to deal with the passing of my mother which I mentioned in my personal blog. I also want to apologize if you have sent an email recently that has gone unanswered. I am sorry that my response to email has been slow the past few weeks and I thank you for your patience. I'll do my best to reply soon.