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Asymmetry and emptiness: lessons from the tearoom

Bookoftea Lessons are everywhere — even in something as seemingly unrelated to our lives as the traditional Japanese tearoom — we just need to stretch our imaginations a bit. A few principles from the Japanese tearoom or Sukiya are described simply and beautifully in the famous The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, a small book first published over 100 years ago. The Japanese conception of Sukiya, according to Okakura, may signify an Abode of Fancy, an Abode of Vacancy, and the Abode of the Unsymmetrical. "Fancy" in this case does not mean decorative, ornate, or posh, but rather refers to the artistic and poetic impulse for which the structure was meant to house. The tearoom is made for the tea master, Okakura says, not the tea master for the tearoom. "It is not intended for posterity and is therefore ephemeral." It's not that posterity is completely unimportant, only that "...we should seek to enjoy the present more." Recognizing the ephemerality of it all — whether we are speaking of the art of presentation or of the finer art of life in general — helps us to remain in the present, right here right now. This is the first simple lesson to take away. Yet it is the idea of vacancy and the unsymmetrical that may have more obvious and immediate utility for you in terms of design and visual communication.

Vacancy and emptiness
FM084 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
FM174 "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.

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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.

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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


Michelle Barry Franco

I am such a huge fan of Presentation Zen and recommend it to all of my clients and students - those slide images you have above perfectly illustrate why. People are inclined to create the ones on the left until they see the powerful difference in the ones on the right. I think people assume they need more design "skill" than they actually need to create slides that truly amplify their presentations (not to minimize the value of design skill in presentations - it's a true and large advantage.)
It is your images of the hotel room and the restaurant sign that really made me drop my jaw, though. That's one of those things I've been feeling for a long time (the dullness of so many hotel hallways and the strange attraction to simple designs without an ability to explain why), it is really cool to have such a great explanation for that experience.
Thanks for a really useful post.

Chuck Arnold

An excellent posting. I appreciate the "whack to the back of my head" to remind me of what I already knew intuitively. My designs have become very stale lately; and I've been wondering why. I'm pretty sure you've helped me find my answer.

I've also captured the beautiful and asymmetrical photograph of tatami mats to use for my work desktop; a wonderful reminder to show reverence for every moment. It has a feeling of what you see when you're sitting in seiza and bowing.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts on asymmetry and how important it is to keep an eye on everything around us.It will help me with my work. Greetings from Argentina

Jim Dickeson

I like both

asymmetry and emptiness.

Actually, asymmetry is practical.

Symmetry fights against you.

Plant shrubs symmetrically
on each side of a walk.

One under-performs, or dies.



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