Minimalist design and Zen gardens

Minimalist Product Design from Zen

The Japanese rock gardens  or dry landscape gardens, often called Zen gardens, are a type of garden that features extensive use of rocks or stones, along with plants native to rocky or alpine environments that were influenced mainly by Zen Buddhism and can be found at Zen temples of meditation.

The Japanese rock gardens ) or “dry landscape” gardens, often called “Zen gardens”, are a type of garden that features extensive use of rocks or stones, along with plants native to rocky or alpine environments that were influenced mainly by Zen Buddhism and can be found at Zen temples of meditation.

Japanese gardens are gardens in which the plants and trees are ever changing with the seasons. As they grow and mature, they are constantly sculpted to maintain and enhance the overall experience. The underlying structure of a Japanese garden is determined by the architecture; that is, the framework of enduring elements such as buildings, verandas and terraces, paths, artificial hills, and stone compositions.

Karesansui gardens can be extremely abstract and represent miniature landscapes also called mindscapes. This Buddhist preferred way to express cosmic beauty in worldly environments is inextricable from Zen Buddhism.

Dry landscape dry garden is a garden style unique to Japan, which appeared in the Muromachi period (1392-1568). Using neither ponds nor streams, it makes symbolic representations of natural landscapes using stone arrangements, white sand, moss and pruned trees.

The act of raking the gravel into a pattern recalling waves or rippling water has an aesthetic function. Zen priests practice this raking also to help their concentration. Achieving perfection of lines is not easy. Rakes are according to the patterns of ridges as desired and limited to some of the stone objects situated within the gravel area. Nonetheless, often the patterns are not static. Developing variations in patterns is a creative and inspiring challenge.

 Stone arrangements and other miniature elements are used to represent mountains and natural water elements and scenes, islands, rivers and waterfalls. Stone and shaped shrubs are used interchangeably. In most gardens, moss is used as a ground cover to create “land” covered by forest.

Other, mostly stone, objects are sometimes used symbolically to represent mountains, islands, boats, or even people. Karesansui gardens are often, but not always, meant to be viewed from a single vantage point from a seated position.

  The influence of Zen on garden design was (probably) first described as such by Kuck in the early 20th century and disputed by Kuiter by the end of that century.

Though each garden is different in its composition, they mostly use rock groupings and shrubs to represent a classic scene of mountains, valleys and waterfalls taken from Chinese landscape painting.

Today, ink monochrome painting still is the art form most closely associated with Zen Buddhism. A primary design principle was the creation of a landscape based on, or at least greatly influenced by, the three-dimensional monochrome ink landscape painting. In Japan the garden has the same status as a work of art.

 The beauty of one of Japan’s most popular Zen gardens has long eluded explanation. Now neuroscience scientists have found that its minimalist design suggests a pleasing picture to our subcontinents.

The 500-year-old Ryoanji Temple garden in Kyoto contains five outcroppings of rocks and moss on a rectangle of raked gravel. Using symmetry calculations the researchers have discovered that the objects imply an image of a tree in the empty space between them that we detect, without being aware of doing so.

The finding suggests that Japanese garden designers – originally priests – balanced forces from visual science.

The trunk of the hidden branched tree lines up with the preferred garden-viewing spot of ancient temple floor plans, repeating the calculations with random rock groups failed to generate any similar patterns.

Earlier work by Ilona Kovacs, a visual scientist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, showed that the human brain uses similar symmetry lines, like those of a child’s stick figure, to make sense of shapes.

In the Zen garden, you have even less to go on with just the best points, or rocks, along the symmetry lines. The brain may recognize the tree during meditation and other Zen states.

Through the years, people have come up with various interpretations for the rock clusters themselves, a mother tiger herding her cubs across a river, mountaintops poking through the clouds, and strokes of Chinese characters.

These logical descriptions miss the point;   the suggestive symmetry explanation fits the Zen mind better. It has always been thought that the priest-gardener’s layout was something that didn’t come from the conscious mind, but from a deeper level. They could have easily intuitively developed that kind of tree layout.

 The garden, like Mona Lisa’s smile, has intrigued visitors for centuries. Tour guides bringing visitors to the ‘best’ spot to view the garden stop exactly where the symmetry lines converge.

A miniature dry landscape garden

There have been many attempts to explain the karesansui garden’s layout. Some of these are:

The gravel represents ocean and the rocks represent islands.

The rocks represent a mother tiger with her cubs, swimming to a dragon.

The rocks form part of the kanji for heart or mind.

A recent suggestion by Gert van Tonder of Kyoto University and Michael Lyons, of Ritsumeikan University, is that the rocks form the subliminal image of a tree. The researchers claim the subconscious mind is sensitive to a subtle association between the rocks. They suggest this may be responsible for the calming effect of the garden.

The term minimalism is also used to describe a trend in design and architecture where in the subject is reduced to its necessary elements. Minimalist design has been highly influenced by Japanese traditional design and architecture.

Minimalist architecture simplifies living space to reveal the essential quality of buildings and conveys simplicity in attitudes toward life. It is highly inspired from the Japanese traditional design and the concept of Zen philosophy.

Zen concepts of simplicity transmit the ideas of freedom and essence of living. Simplicity is not only aesthetic value, it has a moral perception that looks into the nature of truth and reveals the inner qualities of materials and objects for the essence.

The Japanese aesthetic principle of Ma refers to empty or open space. That removes all the unnecessary internal walls and opens up the space between interior and the exterior. Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by the design element of Japanese sliding door that allows to bring the exterior to the interior. The emptiness of spatial arrangement is another idea that reduces everything down to the most essential quality.

The Japanese aesthetic of Wabi values the quality of simple and plain objects. It appreciates the absence of unnecessary features to view life in quietness and reveals the most innate character of materials. For example, the Japanese flora art, also known as Ikebana has the meaning of let flower express itself. People cut off the branches, leaves, and blossoms from the plants and only retain the essential part from the plant. This conveys the idea of essential quality and innate character in nature.

Product Design

  Minimalism is a design trend that started in the 20th century and continues today, most prominently through companies like Apple and various graphic and visual designers. A minimalist design is a design stripped down to only its essential elements.

The unofficial mission statement for minimalist design came from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:

Less is more.

Another motto was from designer Buckminster Fuller:

Doing more with less.

There is not much else to add to that, other than reiterating that minimalist design is more of a principle than visual design. It does not matter if you are designing a website, a flyer, a user interface, a piece of hardware, a house, or anything else – you remove the unnecessary and keep only the essential elements.

Naturally, the focus on simplicity also spilled over into consumer products, with designer Dieter Rams (also more on him below) using minimalist design in products for Braun. IKEA, the Swedish furniture company, is another example of minimalist designed consumer products. The furniture is so simple that it is designed for everyday people to be able to assemble with ease, often without even needing instructions due to it being self-explanatory.

In addition, of course, minimalist design carried over naturally into the digital realm, with visual and web designers applying minimalism principles into their own designs and designs for clients. In a minimalist design, every detail has significance. What you choose to leave in is vital.

Knowing the history and key figures of minimalist design is nice and all, but knowledge without action is useless (outside of entertainment purposes, of course). So here are some resources on the right practical approach to minimalist design.

Principles of Minimalist Web Design

 Less is more – use only elements that are necessary for your web design; the end effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

 Omit needless things – don’t include unnecessary elements in your designs; include only what’s necessary to the content and function of your website (including certain design and graphical elements that directly affect readability and usability).

 Subtract until it breaks – remove elements until your design stops working the way it should (stops being user-friendly or stops delivering your intent experience); the point right before that is when you’ve achieved the most minimalist design possible.

 Every detail counts – what you choose to leave in is vital, so think of the feeling you want visitors to have, then include only the details that will create that feeling (funky, modern, clean, sophisticated, and so forth).

 Color minimally – use only the colors that interact well with each other and create the feeling you want visitors to have.

 White space is vital – do not try to fill every space, instead use white space to emphasize certain elements over others.

The Ins and Outs of Minimalist Design – a Design Shack article that looks at key aspects of minimalism in web design and showcases examples from designers who got it right. The key aspects it covers are:

 Typography – choose clean, simple fonts with a high level of readability.

 Strong grid alignments – a readable and pleasing arrangement of content; our eyes are familiar with this pattern, and we want items to line up in a predictable manner.

 Contrast – increased contrast can drastically improve your design’s readability and user-friendliness.

 White space – emphasize where you want viewers to look while making them feel comfortable and less claustrophobic.

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