How To Be A Samurai Designer

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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 … More about Andrea ↬

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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.

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.

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 Reading on SmashingMag:

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.