Something Your Organization Can Learn from Zen Buddhist Design

Many years ago when I was a student in college, there was an exhibit in the city of zen buddhist sumi e paintings. The first time I visited the exhibit, I stood there for hours just staring at the works.

At the time, I didnt know what really drew me into those paintings. They were beautiful, organic, precise, and felt clear as air. I returned several times during the weeks they were showcased and continued to be fascinated by the works.

A year later, one of my courses focused on studying the design of sumi e paintings and I discovered why I was so drawn to them.

When you look at zen buddhist sumi e paintings, what you will often see on the surface are details of objects or landscapes that emerge from soft empty space across the compositionthe tops of mountains or branches and leaves that seem to float on the paper. Most of the painting is blanknothing.

By revealing less, the paintings pull you in, forcing you to internalize the composition by looking inward into your own imagination to fill in the negative space. Much like our childhood exercise of connect-the-dots, our mind has the tendency to create order and meaning out of something that may seem random and chaotic. We are wired to seek and create meaning out of these things.

So for me, when I see the details of the mountain tops floating in empty space in a sumi e painting, I imagine rolling clouds that move in and out sometimes revealing the valleys below. The painting allows me to create my own personal experience, my own story, and my own meaning. This is something we can learn to incorporate when communicating with audiences in the age of information overload.

I recently shared this idea with participants in my Story-based Strategy and Analysis presentation at the 2014 Nonprofit Leadership Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

I asked participants of the session to close their eyes and think back to remember their earliest childhood memory. Members shared their memoriesthe first time seeing their deceased grandparent at a funeral, multicolored sandals on their feet as a child, spilling a basket of Hershey chocolates in their classroom and more.

I reminded everyone that although most of us responded emotionally to each of these stories, we were not there to actually witness these memories. The images painted in our minds as others told their stories came from our own mental maps and images.

The idea was to think about our audiences own assumptions, values, and culture as we develop and design narratives and messages that can be personalized and meaningful for them.

Many nonprofits have the tendency to put everything forward. Websites, brochures, emails, and appeal letters become cluttered with information. Excessive copy and messages often times creates barriers rather than bridges between nonprofits and their intended audiences.

By revealing less, we provide opportunities for audiences to find more personal meaning to our cause. To do that, the design of our messages need to be thoughtful and researched.

At LimeRed Studio, we walk communities through a process of discovery to identify the best approaches to designing meaningful experiences for their audiences to support their cause.

Download some of our Story-based Strategy and Analysis worksheets to start thinking about this process or contact us and tell your story. Wed love to hear from you.

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