How Ancient Japanese Buddhist Principles Help Me Write Digital Age Copy

Just as the best art directors and designers develop their own design philosophy, I have my own ethos for content and copywriting which I have adopted over the years.

Shibumi (shē-boom-ē) was big in post mid-century modern design decades ago, but its origins date back many centuries.

What is shibumi? It’s a Japanese word that itself has no actual definition, but rather is a term meant to represent an ideal.

It’s the ancient Zen Buddhist principle of ‘effortless effectiveness’ or ‘understated excellence’ or my favorite, ‘elegant simplicity.’ Architect Sarah Susanka described it:

“When something has been designed really well, it has an understated, effortless beauty, and it really works. That’s shibumi.”

She states, “The quality of shibumi evolves out of a process of complexity, though none of this complexity shows in the result.”

It’s pure beauty; it needs no more or no less; it’s effortless being what it is: simple, elegant, perfect.

As a young writer, I was compelled to jam as many words as I could get away with into my ads. The more, the better, which was not always a good thing for a ‘digital’ writer who had space, character and word counts to constantly consider. I was out to show how clever I could be with copy.

After much time spent on painful revisions, I discovered Zen principles (koko, shizen, kanso, seijaku, etc.) and started to incorporate them into my creative. Shibumi is as much an ideal as it is a guide to know when enough is enough – or more specifically – when to stop working and just let the creative be. That’s some serious Zen shit for a tinkering creative like me to embrace.

It became crystal clear to me when I was working on media for Samsung.

Their newest flagship phone was being released and they wanted advertising to hammer home that this new model came with embedded Near Field Communication chips. Since iPhones didn’t have NFC chips, this was seen as the main strategic differentiator.

These new chips allowed users to share files just by touching their phones together. After trying it a few times, I realized Samsung had created the perfect, effortless way to share any picture, song or file. They had created elegant perfection. They had created shibumi.

Being so impressed, I set out to create an ad that was just as perfect, just as simple and effortless and elegant as they had made the act of sharing. I wanted to create my own shibumi.

After a bit of meditation, I wrote this simple banner. I drew it on a whiteboard frame-for-frame as it is below.

For the hundreds of ads I’ve created in my career, this banner is the one of which I’m most proud. This little ad is so simple, yet it meets the brief’s objective on sharing, it demonstrates a product feature, it highlights a consumer benefit, it conveys understated elegance, it tells a story, it connects on a human level, and it does all this effortlessly, with three words and a tag.

By applying Zen principles my work had achieved shibumi. And the client loved it.

Now, shibumi is the lens through which I filter all my work prior to calling it finished. Is it simple? Does it have all it needs and nothing more? Is it effortless for the receiver? Does it convey beyond the sum of its parts? Does it possess an understated elegance? Is it perfect as it is? If I can answer yes to these questions the piece is ready for my client’s eyes.

For digital writing, where space is a valuable commodity, shibumi can be the ideal editing tool. Using shibumi as a guiding principle has evolved my work and focus; it boils down the unnecessary, leaving only the bare, simple, elegant essentials, with nothing more and nothing less. It’s simplicity works across all mediums, from broadcast to OOH to online, mobile and e-commerce, even at point-of-sale.

It’s beyond ironic to ascribe an ancient philosophy with helping me create content for the digital age. I don’t get how it works, but it does. What I do get is that I’m a better writer—and better person—for having adopted this ethos into my work and life.