Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional .
I grew up in a country where the myth of perfection is everyone's daily staple. From Palladio's symmetry to Vitruvius's six principles of design and da Vinci's studies of human proportions, the architecture and culture that surrounded me bowed at the great Western classics, acknowledged and idealized as the epitome of perfection. Like mathematics or engineering, the Western obsession with perfection reminds me of what I call the ultimate teddy bear—the comfort one finds when dealing with something that feels logical, quantifiable, analytical, objective, and, ultimately, controllable.
Truth to be told, while I learned to appreciate, and even be intrigued by, the idealistic worldviews of the Western classics, other ways of looking at the world won me over. Perfection has never felt attractive—it feels sterile, unforgiving, deceitful. This is why my heart skipped a beat when I first learned about wabi-sabi.
As a key concept of traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi derives from Buddhism's three marks of existence (Sanskrit: trilaksana), which are the three characteristics of all existence and beings: impermanence (aniccā), suffering (dukkha), and emptiness or absence of self-nature (anattā). In this line of thinking and living, everything is impermanent, suffering is a natural part of life, and nothing exists in and of itself, as dependencies link everything to everything else. Once one applies such teachings to notions of beauty and aesthetics, one sees beauty in what is not perfect, what is not finished, what is destined to not be—one understands and appreciates the wabi-sabi way.
|Wall in Merida, Mexico.|
In his lovely book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren  talks about wabi-sabi's material qualities: suggestion of a natural process, irregularity, intimacy, unpretentiousness, earthiness, murkiness, and simplicity. As a designer, the instinctive way of looking at wabi-sabi is to apply its characteristics to the design outcome. In that spirit, many designers and HCI scholars have explored how wabi-sabi could benefit their practice and thinking, from wabi-sabi-inspired UX design of business software  to wabi-sabi's role in sustainable design  or wabi-sabi in the context of interactive systems' design and development . I love that body of work, yet, as I reflected on it, I found myself wondering about alternative ways of applying wabi-sabi to one's craft, beyond the material qualities of the product.
One of the aspects of wabi-sabi that attracts me the most is the notion that all things are imperfect, as it challenges the contemporary, dominant way of thinking (especially in Western cultures) that perfection can be attained, that we should all aspire to be(come) perfect, and that we should all push to create perfection. In the design and development of digital technologies, this takes many forms: photo apps that make one look younger, skinnier, more radiant; conference-call filters to prettify or blur one's background; extensive onboarding mechanisms that focus on fixing users' limitations; or extensive work to ensure that users always achieve perfect outcomes when using digital products.
HCI seems to frequently focus on how to fix our limitations, how to make us perfect, and how to find remedies for our defects and deficits. When I reflected on that all I could think was: How exhausting and what a missed opportunity.
A second aspect of wabi-sabi that I deeply love is its focus on intimacy. In a world where technology, despite its original intent, increasingly divides and isolates us, intimacy feels like something we could all benefit from.
Imperfection and intimacy—what would happen if we were to leverage these two characteristics when defining products and services and when learning from those that will use them? What would happen if we were to focus on what one can achieve with others instead of on one's deficit? What would happen if we were to focus on how one makes oneself capable instead of what is limiting one's accomplishments?
As I reflected on the possible roles of imperfection and intimacy in our HCI practice, a seed of an idea started to germinate—the idea of a future product category that I hope someone else will dream of and develop.
This is a product that, while acknowledging our multiple and diverse imperfections, focuses on what one can offer and then leverages the power of others to make one capable of reaching further. Imagine trying to accomplish something and being able to reach out to a legion of complementary others available to help us attain our pursuits. Imagine that product being able to leverage others based on their own unique competencies and imagine numerous bonds and relationship suddenly emerging as a consequence of a product that can create mediations between imperfect complementarities—beautifully imperfect humans.
With that product one would go beyond the expected basics of achieving tasks, as one would emerge from the task with a new added value: relationships.
1. Koren, L. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (rev). Imperfect Pub, Point Reyes, CA, 1994.
2. Kongot, A. and Matz, A. Perfectly imperfect: A speculation about wabi-sabi inspired user experience design: Wabi-sabi inspired UX design. Extended Abstracts of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2021, Article 18, 1–6; https://doi.org/10.1145/3411763.3450370
3. Salvia, G., Ostuzzi, F., Rognoli, V., and Levi, M. The value of imperfection in sustainable design. The emotional tie with perfectible artifacts for longer lifespan. Proc. of LeNS Conference. 2010, 1579–1589.
4. Tsaknaki, V. and Fernaeus, Y. Expanding on wabi-sabi as a design resource in HCI. Proc. of the 34th Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2016, 5970–5983; https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858459
Daria Loi combines design strategy with experience research and innovation to enrich people's lives and humanize technology. She is vice president of customer experience at Fishtail and serves on the board of directors for DemocracyLab. She is also conjoint professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia, is on the executive council for CETI, and cochairs the Participatory Design Advisory Board. [email protected]
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