Zen and the Art of Design / by David Sherwin


A carpet of clouds flows over the mountains, sending sheets of rain into the valley. I am staring at a painting that’s come to life, like a Sumi-e masterpiece. In this rendition, however, power lines extend across a far-off peak, and an unused baseball diamond is exposed through a break in the evergreens. Half-visible through the branches is the top edge of the Daimon, an ornate red gate built and then rebuilt on the spot where Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was said to have first entered the community of Koyasan, led by a black dog and a white dog that were lent to him by a manifestation of the hunter-god Kariba-myojin.

I yearned to capture the scene in a photograph or a rough pencil sketch, but I had hiked up the muddy path with only my passport and an umbrella. My wife had sent me out into the rain while she napped in our room at Hoon-in, one of the many monasteries that allow travelers to rent lodging and to observe their daily practice. During our first week here, she had watched me take almost a thousand photographs and journal obsessively while we wandered through many of the places I’d idealized after taking an abiding interest in Buddhism, from the popular Shingon sect rooted in Koyasan to the more direct practices of Zen Buddhism that I have been studying over the past few years. But that afternoon, weary of seeing a camera glued to my eye socket, she noted that I seemed to be more focused on shooting photos than experiencing each place and taking pictures when so moved.

She was right. I had been a glutton for images during our first days on Mt. Koya, as I took in the staggering beauty of it all: the ringing of prayer bells from more than 70 temples at dawn, noon, and dusk; the feel of centuries-old wood continually tested by brutal winter months when the mountain roads become impassable; the morning meditation with syllabic chanting of the Diamond Sutra leavened by the pungent waft of incense; and the small shops selling pink and blue tea cakes or mochi expelled from large machines designed to pound rice flour into hand-wrapped treats. This place could not be captured in my sketches and raw files — and yet there I was, blindly recording what I had not even taken the time to sit with, to observe and understand in mind and body.

This was an ongoing problem in my life, one I had hoped the trip would help me resolve.

Thinking is Work

I was traveling through central Japan on a brief sabbatical from my work as a designer. But being a designer is something that one cannot easily escape. Everywhere I go, I long to reshape what’s around me into some new and improved (albeit imagined) form. While riding the Tokyo subway, I could not stop myself from filling my notebook with ideas for all sorts of things that would help these sleepy-eyed salarymen, such as briefcases that doubled as pillows and fit perfectly into the seat gaps on the green JR Line, and a series of vending machines that would sanitize and refill bottles with drinks commuters could carry and reuse on their daily commute, thereby saving millions of plastic bottles and aluminum cans from being produced and recycled. (Of course, I was not naive enough to believe that the latter innovation would be accepted without cultural friction.)

Design is work. Thinking about design is work. Pondering what should be thought about in order to design is work. Back at home, cutting vegetables for a stir-fry dinner, gears continued to whir in my mind regarding the problems my masters had set before me. It wasn’t until I’d been meditating for some time that I understood, on a fundamental level, how work — and its analog, design — is closely intertwined with thought and reflection.

Observing Is Not Work

As a designer‚ I have spent an increasing amount of time observing others. This includes my clients, as they wrestle with difficult business problems; my subjects, as I guide them through usability tests, empathizing with their frustration and delight; and my colleagues, as they cast off failure after failure in search of the most elegant solution to a thorny design challenge.

Observation, however, is not work. It is direct experience, which does not necessarily require a critical eye to appreciate. “What can be met with recognition is not realization itself, because realization is not reached with a discriminating mind,” the Zen master Dogen once wrote. Or, as poet and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer noted in Beyond Thinking, an introduction to a collection of Dogen’s teachings: “In our daily zazen [meditation] practice, we entrust ourselves to the wholeness of our experience, to all of experience, moment by moment. …We sense it, feel it, are it, as it is true of everything else which we come into contact throughout the course of our lives; and yet as soon as we think we know it as an object or an experience and begin to define it or take credit for it, we lose track of it.”

In our busy lives, it is often a struggle to tease out the act of observation from that of reflection (thinking and pondering). In practice, we routinely skip reflection to arrive at a design idea in one lightning-fast gesture. But the germ of the idea is always the observation — that is what leads to genesis. Glimmers of great ideas usually emerge from seeing the relationships between seemingly disparate things, without distraction. In Matthew E. May’s book In Pursuit of Elegance, and in the article he wrote for this issue on page 72, he relates an anecdote about the use of observation as a tool in Toyota’s factories: “…a new associate in a Toyota plant is sometimes asked to observe a particular operation while standing within a circle drawn on the floor known as an ‘Ohno circle,’ named for the engineering pioneer Taiichi Ohno. Ohno often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area and make a line employee stand in that circle all day to watch the process, directing them to observe and ask why over and over. …Because you can’t move or take action, you start to ask, ‘Why is this occurring?’ …When the person would report to Ohno any observations made, problems discovered, and solutions recommended — as well as the rationale for them — Ohno would just look at the person and say, ‘Is that so?’”

I find Ohno’s final question quite telling, because it strikes at the heart of the issue: If your observation is not true to the situation, then all of the problems and solutions that you’ve derived from that experience are inaccurate.

Questioning Our Patterns

This, to me, is the secret to the greatest leaps made in design. Human ingenuity is only bounded by what we can identify as an opportunity through unmediated experience. The act of identification with what you observe is not work — but observation itself is the surest path to discerning human intent. Design then follows from that intent, and with it, our work begins.

This may sound reductive, but we are too often caught up in the patterns that shape our daily lives to question them. We must learn to observe them without filtering everyday moments through our preconceptions. We can submerge our hands in the river of lived experience, but as soon as we try to grab hold of the water, it flows out of our grasp. Some may feel sly and cup their hands to trap the water, but they will only see what the liquid reflects. Others stare into the river, but only see what rocks and creatures struggle beneath its surface. But those who choose to observe the river without preconception can shift their idea of self out of the way of what they observe. They become the river. Then, in that observation, they can capture more directly what they have experienced and share it with others. It can become the work.

The words of Dogen glimmer in my memory: “Do not treasure or belittle what is far away, but be intimate with it. Do not treasure or belittle what is near, but be intimate with it. Do not make light of or a big deal of what you see with your eyes. Do not make light of or a big deal of what you hear with your ears. Rather, illuminate your eyes and ears.”

Back on Mt. Koya, I’m standing in a cloud. A path stretches up the slope, bounded by small prayer gates that vanish into the distance. Part of me wants to continue on, to explore what might be visible from a higher elevation. I could wait until the wind shifts the cloud mass into the next valley or hope for the sun to emerge and burn off the moisture. Or I could return to the near-empty streets of the Buddhist community down the path I have already tread. None of these choices will exist past this moment. No matter which one I choose, it will be appropriate. Life must be experienced first, then designed.

Originally published in frog’s Design Mind magazine, then republished in Good.Is, and PSFK.