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"The Elegance of Imperfection" in A List Apart


The following essay is from a series of writings describing the intersection between Buddhist philosophy and design.

Many thanks to the expert editorial staff at A List Apart for their guidance, including Krista Stevens, Erin Kissane, and Carolyn Wood. Ric Ewing and Mary Paynter Sherwin contributed critical ideas and insights to the final piece.


Everything I know about the elegance of imperfection, I learned from the white porcelain plate I bought in Kyoto.

What’s so special about this plate? Before it was fired, it was perfectly round, but the artist intentionally roughed up the edges. It’s elegant, enhanced by anything that touches its surface: a bright green pear, roughly chopped chocolate, a pile of toasted almonds. Today, this plate sits on the desk in my home office. It symbolizes a crucial lesson about craft: utility is not contingent on perfection of form. In fact, the lessons I’ve learned about crafting elegant experiences—from the creative brief to user interface design—involve abandoning the desire for perfection entirely.

There is an anecdote, told and retold through translated Japanese literature, of a Zen master who is staying with a priest at a temple close to Kyoto. The priest is having guests over that evening, and he has spent much of the day in the garden—shaping the moss, plucking weeds, and gathering up the leaves in tidy arrangements, all in order to achieve the state of perfection the temple builders had originally designed...

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