An Ancient Buddhist Principle Helps Me Write Copy in the Digital Age

Just as the best art directors and designers develop a design philosophy, I have my maxim for content and copy which I have adopted over the years.

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

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

Some have described it as ‘effortless effectiveness’ or ‘understated excellence’ or my favorite, ‘elegant simplicity.’

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

Architect Sarah Susanka

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 consider always. I was out to show how clever I could be with my copy.

After spending too much time making 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 accurately – when to stop working and just let the creative be. That’s some severe Zen shit for a tinkering creative like me to embrace.

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

Architect Sarah Susanka

It happened when I was working on Samsung.

Their newest flagship phone was ready to launch, and they wanted media to hammer home that this new model came embedded with Near Field Communication chips. Since Apple iPhones didn’t have NFC chips, this was a significant strategic differentiator.

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

Samsung had created an almost effortless way for people to share. I thought it was brilliant. At that moment, it struck me. I owed my client an ad that was just as elegant and effortless. That’s what I set out to create.

After some meditation in a dark office phone booth, I joined my art director partner in a conference room and shut the door. In what I can only describe as a “moment of Zen,” I said nothing, stepped to the whiteboard and drew frame-for-frame what is below.

“Think you can comp that up?” I asked my wide-eyed AD. She smiled big and nodded her head enthusiastically. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s so simple. It’s great.”

For the hundreds of ads I’ve created, this is my favorite. It may seem like a simple banner, yet it achieved so much. It met the creative brief’s objective on sharing. It demonstrated a product feature while it spotlighted a consumer benefit. It elevated an established campaign. It conveyed understated elegance. It told a relatable story. It spoke of connecting on a human level and did all this with three words and a tagline.

Our CD loved it. We shared it to our client. She loved it so much she asked that we follow the same tone and voice throughout the entirety of our creative and all media that was to follow. At one point she called something that I written “iconic.” Since we were going up against Apple and their iconic advertising, I was very humbled.

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

Shibumi is now the lens I use to filter my work before calling it finished. Is it simple? Does it have all it needs and nothing more? Is it effortless? Does it convey beyond the sum of its parts? 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 this principle has evolved my work and focus; it boils down the unnecessary, leaving only the bare essentials. Its 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 to an ancient philosophy with helping me create content for the digital age. I don’t know how it works, but it does. What I do know is that I’m a better writer—and a better person—for having adopted this principle throughout my life.