How To Be A Samurai Designer

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In this article we’ll take a look at designing websites from a quite different perspective. We’ll discuss some pearls of samurai wisdom from the book “Hagakure” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and we’ll learn to apply them to our Web-based, computer-bound Western life to become true samurai designers. We’ll also get to know impressive examples of artworks that exhibit the samurai approach.

You may be interested in the following related posts as well:

Historical background

“Hagakure” (In the shadow of the leaves) is a collection of writings compiling the narrations of the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1719), who in his late years retired from his occupation and, as a hermit, recounted the wisdom of his warrior caste. Largely unknown for centuries, Hagakure became prominent in the 1930s and is considered today one of the most authoritative sources on the ethics of the samurai.

Extreme dedication: design to the death

As designers, we are confronted everyday with the problems of decision-making, dealing with bosses or, in the case of freelancers, clients, finding inspiration and making deadlines. With such a big load on our shoulders we all follow rules to help us carry it, realizing our goals in the process. Dedication is the first rule that comes to mind: the passion for what we do keeps us fresh and focused even through hardships.

No one was more dedicated to their profession than the samurai: they would fight to death to defend their master. Surely they can give us a few pointers!

How to approach problems

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.” Master lttei commented, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Among one’s affairs there should not be more than two or three matters of what one could call great concern. If these are deliberated upon during ordinary times, they can be understood.

Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark. However, if the foundation is laid previously, you can think of the saying, “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly,” as your own basis for action.

“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.” If you’re ever going to need one guideline in life, this is the one. Take a look at design, at your career, at your business. If you look closely enough you will be able to single out the two or three things that really matter to you. They might be the skills you’d like to improve, the weaknesses you’d like to eliminate, the design areas you’d like to explore next. No matter what they are, focus on them now.

Analyze the problems they pose and use your resources to come up with possible solutions. Approach these problems now, when they’re still not impending, and don’t rush it. You’ll have a very useful understanding of them at your disposal, so when they actually present themselves you’ll face them without hesitation.

As for the second maxim, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously”, it complements the first. It tells you that when you analyze matters of great concern you should pay attention to every small detail. Only by thoroughly dissecting a problem and by concentrating on all its finest aspects will you be able to solve it. Then you’ll be ready for the next step.

Make decisions quickly

In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.” When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.

It’s very common to find yourself wallowing in uncertainty during crucial decision-making. You consider many options, alternatives, outcomes and you can’t decide. In the meantime, valuable time passes and you risk ruining everything by overthinking. But if you follow the previous advice you won’t have to spend time entertaining all possible scenarios. Having dissected the problem well in advance means you’ll already know all its ins and outs, therefore making a decision will be much easier.

There is also something to be said about making decisions informed by instinct instead of long deliberation. What is instinct? It’s a complex and specific response to a situation that doesn’t involve reason. The way you respond depends on your genetic makeup and how you prepared yourself for environmental stimuli. We find that instinctive decisions are very often right. In other words your brain is faster and smarter than you at making decisions, let it do the job. If you want to make sure it takes the right decisions, though, you have to teach it right. Let’s make an example.

When you first make conversations in a foreign language it’s difficult to keep words flowing. You frequently pause while you think about the grammatical rules you need and your pace slows down, making your interlocutor feel awkward. Over a period of time, though, you grow accustomed to the new language, enough so that your brain takes over and forms complete, error-free sentences. It’s only when you doubt it and you mentally check for errors that you become confused and don’t know what to say. A similar thing happens when dealing with design problems. The knowledge you accumulated allows your brain to instinctively provide the best solutions for them.

If you train for war in times of peace you’ll have the leisure of making mistakes until you reach perfection. Then when you find yourself in battle, when time is a luxury and hesitation could mean death, let your instincts make the (right) decisions, in the space of seven breaths.

Expand yourself

A person who is said to be proficient at the arts is like a fool. Because of his foolishness in concerning himself with just one thing, he thinks of nothing else and thus becomes proficient. He is a worthless person.

This one might be controversial. Let’s try to explain it in a way that makes sense. What the samurai is saying is that some people dedicate themselves to one art so completely that they ignore everything else. Sure, they become masters in that art but the price to pay for that is a total lack of proficiency in anything else. This type of behavior is especially deleterious to freelance designers, who have to be proficient at many things. They have to wear the designer’s hat, the account manager’s hat, the agency owner’s hat, the accountant’s hat and so on. If they concentrate too much on design and forgo all their other duties they might be in for some nasty surprises. Lack of communication skills, for example, can endanger most jobs. Improper handling of finances might result in unexpected lean times. You get the picture.

Another way of looking at the above statement is this: don’t shut the world out. Even if you love design so much you could spend every second of your life doing it you have to stop and devote your time to other endeavors. Common things like people, music, cooking, traveling. You are not just a designer, you are a person first of all. This entails building a life in which design is just one of your passions and what you do for a living. Only by partaking of a large spectrum of life’s many offerings will you become a better person and thus a better designer.

Life is the foremost source of inspiration. Live it to the fullest and it will show in your design work.

Be prepared

In the “Notes on Martial Laws” it is written that: The phrase, “Win first, fight later”, can be summed up in the two words, “Win beforehand.” The resourcefulness of times of peace is the military preparation for times of war.

This is what we have learned so far: prepare for war in times of peace, so when you find yourself in battle you will be able to treat matters of great concern lightly, making decisions within the space of seven breaths. Now let’s add a new angle.

When studying the above mentioned issues of great concern, make it a point to ponder every aspect of them, including all of their possible outcomes. Practically speaking this involves depicting all possible scenarios you might find yourself in and solving beforehand the problems associated with them. Much like the Zen archer, who hits the target before releasing the arrow, the samurai designer solves design problems before they appear on the horizon. Armed with the superior understanding granted from having considered those problems when they were not pressing affairs, he can tackle them with successful resolve.

This is the meaning of the phrase “win first, fight later.”

Be adventurous

The proper manner of calligraphy is nothing other than not being careless, but in this way one’s writing will simply be sluggish and stiff. One should go beyond this and depart from the norm. This principle applies to all things.

This excerpt actually brings to mind a piece of Western lore, by the American composer Frank Zappa: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

If you believe your skills (and your career) should grow over time, if you believe progress in your art is a good thing then all of the above rules won’t be enough. If you follow them you will turn out good, competent work, but you won’t be pushing the envelope. And, frankly, sooner or later you will start feeling the urge to challenge yourself. But why wait until boredom sets in and forces you to break out of the norm? Start today. Take your skill set and the tools at your disposal and go to town with them. And when you come back, give your clients, friends and family your report about the trip. Or even better, invite them to come along for the ride!

Be intense

When I had Yasaburo write his poem on a square poem card, I stressed vitality in calligraphy with the following words: “Think as though you were about to write only one word spread over the entire card, tearing the card with your writing brush. Whether your calligraphy may or may not turn out presentable depends upon your vigor.”

Another great calligraphy quote. Intensity is the key here. All of your actions should be executed with intensity to maximize their effect. Command of the tools, solid preparation, decisiveness and a penchant for exploration should all come together in one precise, immaculate attack. Because it’s not just what you do, it’s also how you do it that counts. And sometimes you can even do away with form, with content, to concentrate on pure expression, provided the execution is strong enough.

Inspiration: samurai design

Let’s take a look at some artworks that exemplify the qualities we’ve discussed so far:

  • Lucio Fontana “Concetto Spaziale – Attese”

    A harsh but passionate gesture opens a window into the world beyond the canvas, making the history of conceptual art in the process.

  • Kazimir Malevich “Black Square” (1915)

    The quintessential painting of a world without objects. Still haunting after many decades.

  • Constantin Brancusi “The Endless Column” (1938)

    This striking sculpture has a ruthless but elegant architectural quality to it. Once again, a simple concept and a powerful execution.

  • Edvard Munch “The Scream” (1893)

    This iconic expressionist painting conveys a single idea, anxiety, through superb use of color and composition.

The rules presented here are none other than a call to arms: be skillful, be determined, be passionate. And when the samurai approach leads you to be a successful designer, please consider this ancient Zen saying: “when you reach the top, start climbing.”

Further Resources

If you’d like to dig deeper in the concepts discussed in this article, here are a few links:

  • Hagakure
    Wikipedia article about the book.
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
    Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film about a modern-day mafia hitman who follows the samurai code in his line of work. “Hagakure” is featured prominently and various scenes include narration from the book.
  • Yukio Mishima
    The late Japanese novelist, poet and playwright was inspired by the samurai in his work. In an extreme reaction to the decline of Japan’s moral status, he famously commited seppuku, the ritual suicide. Please don’t go that far.

Related posts

You may be interested in the following related posts as well:

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Andrea Austoni is an Italian freelance graphic designer currently living in Krakow, Poland. He specializes in icon design and illustration. He runs Cute Little Factory, his personal portfolio and blog.

  1. 1

    Very interesting article!!

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  2. 2

    Samurai? LOL, that’s interesting!

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  3. 3

    Very nice article!
    Samurai rules!

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  4. 4

    Cool =)

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  5. 5

    Smart article!

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  6. 6

    lol awesome

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  7. 7

    I think you misinterpreted the maxim “treat matters of great concern lightly”. It’s not so much about focusing on things now, as it is about not letting stress and over-thinking hold you down. It’s about rearranging the way you think about things, how you prioritize, IMO.

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  8. 8

    nice idea, but the article needs more illustration to fit with the content.

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  9. 9

    hahah samuraii
    nice , extreme

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  10. 10

    This two things worth the whole article and are absolute truths:

    In other words your brain is faster and smarter than you at making decisions. Make the (right) decisions, in the space of seven breaths.

    “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

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  11. 11

    So if you become a samurai designer, could you still be a code ninja?

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  12. 12

    This was a truly interesting article. Having read many texts on the subject of Samurai (it is a persona linterest of mine) I admire how the author managed to write across these main points in relation to the subject of web design.

    Great write up – thanks for being original ;)

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  13. 13

    Now that was cool.

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  14. 14

    ninja vs samurai

    |-)

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  15. 15

    Love this article… :)

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  16. 16

    as zillion blogs on the web publishing zillion new articles everyday, smashing magazine trying to publish articles they think it is different. In fact article is not different just the presantation … same things you read and hear day after day. and to be honest smashing magazine becoming ultra boring…

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  17. 17

    You don’t have to come and read it then. Just because you find it boring doesn’t mean that fits the opinion of any other.

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  18. 18

    and if you fail at design, commit ritualistic suicide. Have a friend close by to sever your head to alleviate the agony.

    and how dare you not mention the ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series, sacriligious up the yinyang!

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  19. 19

    Definitively love you guys :D

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  20. 20

    Very nice and interesting article!

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  21. 21

    Fun! Thank you

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  22. 22

    weird article. A little too off base for smashing magazine. Zzzzz

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  23. 23

    «Ghost Dog» by Jim Jarmusch is one of my favourite films. Thank you for this article.

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  24. 24

    Mentioned much before, not even kinda new. All those talks about art of war, Hagakure, Bible etc. mean nothing than an another article or site update you know. But who cares? SM Rulez, go on, Gyus!

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  25. 25

    Good article. Hagakure is full of contradictions though and open to many interpretations. You’ve done the right thing IMO by expressing the “Man of Action” sentiments. Of course this equally applies to “Women of Action”.

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  26. 26

    Well i have no intention to be a warrior, neither to train myself to be able to survive on a battle field, nor to take lives as a light matter…
    I found the attempt to match the samurai way that is a sophisticated feudal art of killing the enemy efficiently by hand for a master and the modern urban self employed logo designer of the XXI century that at worst kill budgets , a very long shot….

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  27. 27

    connecticut websites

    September 6, 2009 2:13 pm

    really?

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  28. 28

    I must admit, the Samurai picture reminded me of the third live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

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  29. 29

    f’ing nonsense. To post up a Malevich drawing as evidence of instinctual and reactive thinking shows that the author didn’t do his homework. I feel bad for the young designers trying to start their career out with this warmed over “quote a day” calendar crap.

    I just have a huge problem with this breathless, carefree “warrior” approach to design. These shoot-from-the hip cowboy types often end up getting ground up by clients and the machinery of the market. Designing with out really knowing what or why you are designing is a recipe for madness and bad design.

    What trumps instinct all the time is carefully honed knowledge about the fundamentals of visual communication and the problems associated with it.

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  30. 30

    Oh please … this is getting very pathetic. I am sick and tired of that self perpetuating myth that modern designers think outside the box and break new ground. Most modern art is equally boring and formed by group think as is most modern design.

    Commerical design still has to have one mantra only: Form follows Function.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Form_follows_function

    Especially web design is function design. It’s 99% about making accessing and processing information easy. It’s not bleeding cubism or deconstruction.

    There is also a huge difference between conceptional art and commercial design – so it’s rubbish to blow up young designers heads but even only implying to go extreme.

    And finally – before you drag something out of a culture and make it a design “paradigma” learn to understand it’s content and context first.

    The Hagakure is a rubbish book – certainly not a golden treasure for designers. Or how would you translate the following “wisdom” into commercial design work? “If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured.”

    Plus the Hagakure was written and spread in a time period when the classic sword wielding savagery came to an end. So basically the Samurai class at that time was dreaming of the good old days, but was more and more structured into doing “nothing”. Japan became 19639 isolationist and entered a period of relative peace. But that meant that the Samurai codex was mostly restricted to rituals instead of battles.

    After being forced to “open up” by the Americans in 1854 – Japan made a huge leap forward (in that context it was a huge leap in contrast to China’s similar, but disastrous program). Within 75 year the country transformed itself from a medieval society to an industrial one. The class system was abolished (including the “great” samurai).

    But as always in times of extreme change people are afraid and have a identity crises. Strong role models are sought to bring moral support and guidance in times of uncertainty. The samurai became one of Japan’s role models in the 1930′s – which was especially practical for the military, because it helped to build up the warrior ethic for common people for the coming war.

    So please … include such facts in design philosophy related articles and don’t just eat the propaganda without knowing the context. A good designer knows history and context. Especially symbolism and associations – that are so important in design and art – often have a detailed history. If you don’t know these things you can’t “think outside the box”, because you don’t know “how big the box is and where it came from”.

    Anyone who has worked with Japanese companies / people know that they are overall not know for their creative brilliance and out of the box thinking. Japan’s culture is based on a lot of social pressure to conform. It’s form of “dedication” was always meant as a way to comply, not to excel. Social pressure always generates anti-conformists – like has happened big time in Japan. The last 20 years there is a slow transition to a more freer and individualistic Japan, but that also means a move away from that idiotic Samurai code (and it is idiotic, it has always been a psychological system to support combat, killing and dying).

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  31. 31

    You forgot the most important advice from Hagakure:

    “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succesion of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue.”

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  32. 32

    “design to the death” The ritualistic suicide element makes this a pretty ‘blech’ article :(

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  33. 33

    htttp://www.reynoldsdigital.com

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  34. 34

    Very Very interesting article. Nice way to apply Samurai rules to design…

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  35. 35

    Very creative article . . . COOOL ! Samurai X

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  36. 36

    Sidian M.S. Jones

    September 7, 2009 2:46 am

    I’m afraid the entire three paragraphs regarding matters of small/great concern really miss the mark completely of what those quotes are about.

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  37. 37

    Hi, I’m the author of this article. First of all I thank everybody for leaving such passionate comments. Second of all I’dlike to point out that the article doesn’t present Hagakure in its entirety as a textbook reference, it focuses on parts of it that I translated to design.

    Orangeguru, the article has been edited by Smashing Magazine to include the words “web design”. I made no such specific reference in the original. The title mentions designers, which include overall graphic designers, package designers, product designers etc. There is more to design than websites and it is unfortunate that the article was narrowed down to it. I had nothing to do with it.

    Sidian M.S. Jones, I’m waiting for your take on those quotes.

    Hagakure might contain terrible, ridiculous quotes. Yet they were not mentioned here. The Bible has horrible content, too, but people are free to choose from it what speaks to them.

    Lastly, please have a sense of humor and don’t get too built up about this “pathetic” article.

    Thank you

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  38. 38

    @orangeguru

    I didn’t read all your post LOL… your first line put me right off.

    You seem to have too much time on your hands….I doubt your a very good designer ;)

    Get out a little mate….see the sunshine!

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  39. 39

    this is total ass

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  40. 40

    really great :D but for me it’s only a tip of the ice of the iceberg :) read somthing about ZEN people :)

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  41. 41

    Insert generic “It doesn’t appeal to me, it’s not serious enough, It can be misinterpreted and so it SHOULD be misinterpreted, too literal, not literal enough, not-my-bag-so-its-crap, I just like to look at the headings and pretty pictures, title dictates all content and so isn’t worth a read” comment.

    A large chunk of the SM audience need to lighten up, do you come on here specifically to complain?

    @orangeguru – What’s pathetic is that you felt the need to write a blog post in the comments section.

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  42. 42

    wow…what’s up with all the harsh comments? It’s just an article. If you don’t like what you’re reading…stop reading!
    Some of you folks have way too much time on your hands.

    @Andrea, nice article -

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  43. 43

    Even though this is an “out there” post for Smashing, take it for what its worth. If you got nothing from what you read, move on. If you gained a bit of inspiration, better for it.

    no reason to be nasty

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  44. 44

    I’ve followed some of the Bushido code for design since 1996. It has freed me of creative blocks many times.

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  45. 45

    Now that was cool.

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  46. 46

    Very well done, well thought out article. Impressive and thought provoking work in spite of the naysayers.

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  47. 47

    @Ross:

    I didn’t read all your comment LOL… your first line put me right off too.

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  48. 48

    @Andrea Austoni:

    Did you research and write something about historical context? If not then your article writing is not very samurai.

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  49. 49

    I think Andrea makes a good point about taking inspiration from texts where you can, even if it ends up being without the entire context and history. There’s no need to take on all the baggage and simply dismiss something as not applicable because of it’s context. In fact, sometimes the best way to be inspired is to ignore the context, apply the words to your life, and gain context later – in that way you have two points of view to consider instead of one.

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  50. 50

    very very interesting article.

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  51. 51

    Craig M. Rosenblum

    September 8, 2009 4:06 pm

    long live the 47 ronins!

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  52. 52

    waw, it’s a fully great article..

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  53. 53

    Very very interesting article! I love the most of the stuff that come from the extreme orient, and the samurai are in. I never tought that the mentality of that select group could make us, designers, better in our profession. I enjoyed the examples and the part of the seven breaths. Thanks a lot for the text!

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  54. 54

    We went with the samurai thing all the way, getting inspiration from Japanese culture and design for the look and feel of our webdesign studio website – Netkata.

    Would be nice if you guys could feature some Samurai/Japan inspired layouts too :).

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  55. 55

    let it be known on this timestamp i am officially coining the term “wapp” to mean any “web based application”. world, you are welcome.

    oh and great article, i love the far east school of thought.

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  56. 56

    I really enjoyed this, am going to rent Ghost Dog tonight.

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  57. 57

    I liked the article. Thanks.

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  58. 58

    Very cool article! Loved it, and inspiring! thanks!

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  59. 59

    Unique article. I always heard about Ninja web designer, but this time it’s a Samurai! =)

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  60. 60

    “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.”
    “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously”
    make the (right) decisions, in the space of seven breaths.
    Life is the foremost source of inspiration.
    “win first, fight later.”
    “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
    “when you reach the top, start climbing.” or wont stop climbing ever

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  61. 61

    Hi there, my fellow designers!

    *It is said that what is called “the spirit of an
    age” is something to which one cannot return.
    That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to
    the world’s coming to an end. For this reason,
    although one would like to change today’s
    world back to the spirit of one hundred years or
    more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important
    to make the best out of every generation.*

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  62. 62

    This is an excellent piece of inspiration that can be helpful to people from all walk.. Recently I have been reading 33 strategies of war where Samurai has been mention couple of times so this was very interesting how it could be implemented in a form of art..

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  63. 63

    Very nice article! Thanks!

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  64. 64

    Good & Inspiring Article!
    “Mantap!”

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  65. 65

    This is a remarkable scandal. ,

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  66. 66

    America’s Talk continues to air Bruce’s program at the same time each night. ,

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  67. 67

    I really enjoyed this article. Very inspiring.
    Thanks!

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  68. 68

    Nice, extreme …. powerful
    sharp as the samurai sward.

    @orangeguru

    Form follow Function – Bauhaus school sets that model but they didn’t forget the Form for it’s influence on humans. the article is not about art or design it’s about people who designs ” any type “.
    its a psychological article on designers.

    lolz ;)

    cheers

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  69. 69

    Thanks for the inspiring article. Great stuff!

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  70. 70

    Awesome article, thank you for sharing.

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  71. 71

    Samurai rules!

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  72. 72

    Because of this article
    I watched Ghost Dog..
    and also ordered the Hagakure.
    Will read it.
    Checking this post & comment, after 2 years

    Love!

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