ZEN design method

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{{#css:/skins/DDG/DDG1.css}} The basic principle of the ‘ZEN’ design method is: ‘Do not focus on the desired product for quite some time’. The primary focus should be on desired qualities, both in a material sense and in a social interaction sense. Thereafter, it is time to start thinking about problem solving, but only after moving the design brief away from the actual required product to a more abstract level. At this point it is good to identify the user ritual involved, for which a newer and richer scenario can be developed. Testing the validity of this “new” ritual can be done by acting it out, using existing products.

Now that the whole context of the desired product(s) in terms of its desired qualities (material(s) and interactions) is established, it is time to design the product(s) involved.

This is done using the basic design process, but with the information one has acquired this process takes place on a different level of experience. It has moved away from practical level to a more philosophical level: The quality domain.

Finally, after completing the design process, it is time to build models. The validity of the new ritual and its product(s) can now be tested by actually performing the ritual, using the products.

A more detailed explanation of the ZEN method

Figure 1: The ZEN design method (Bruens, 2nd ed. expected 2011)

Ask a designer to design a toothbrush and you will end up ... getting a toothbrush. Usually the designer will first try to collect as much information as can be found about toothbrushes. Some research may be done about the desired quality of the brush and the ideal procedure of the brushing process. Collages with toothbrushes and happy smiling white toothed people may support this process. But soon, even after a vibrant ideation- and conceptualization phase, the designer will end up with concepts of ... toothbrushes.

Now, ask a designer to design a way to clean your teeth. The first question that comes to the mind may be: Why not a toothbrush? But soon the designer will get the hang of it and will come up with very unique and special ways to clean teeth. Who needs a brush? Why not a water jet? Or something you can chew on? Here, at this more abstract level of approach of the actual problem - sticky teeth - there is more room for innovation. The outcome may still be something like a toothbrush, but this time the whole concept will be based on a more solid foundation. And indeed, innovation as such (something totally new and desirable) may have a bigger chance. Besides all these, there is one very important aspect that the ZEN design approach takes into account: The ‘quality of the moment’.

The following example illustrates that our present wealth is also our poverty. We are used to getting a cup of coffee at work in the morning, spit out by some buzzing machine. We hear some clicks and some howling, and then a spur of hot coffee hits the plastic or paper cup, milk and sugar included at our desire. If we are lucky, the cup is printed with some memory of Grandma’s teacups instead of a commercial advertisement. And after the absent minded drinking of the coffee during a phone conversation, we throw the cup away, never to relive that moment again

What are the qualities that are lost here? Earlier, there used to be a rich ritual around coffee drinking. There were porcelain cups involved, silver spoons, a sugar bowl, a wooden tray and a special tin canister with the smell and sound of real coffee beans. There was the grinding of the coffee by hand, the boiling of the water in a kettle on a stove accompanied by the anticipation due to the aroma of fresh coffee. The sharing of such an experience in the company of some nice people - enhancing social interactions - has been lost completely in the solo coffee machine ritual and what remains of the original ritual is hardly gives satisfaction. It is like taking a medicine.


All of us have small daily rituals that guide our existence. The way one gets out of bed, followed by the way one takes a shower, the coffee break at work, the cigarette after sex, the exchange of presents during Christmas, the eating of a biscuit with sugar sprinkled over when a child has been born (which is a typical Dutch ritual), all those short or longer rituals can make a moment more special. Routine is broken, social interactions are guided; the sheer quality of existence is enhanced.

There are many fields where we have lost the basic qualities of life, too hasty as we are to live it. Think of the consuming of fast food instead of a meal of fresh ingredients at a well-laid table, think of playing computer games instead of board games. Think of emails instead of hand written letters in colourful envelopes, think of preparing your own jam or smoking your own fish instead of buying it. And how about baking your own bread?

Many qualities have been lost and perhaps, it is time to treat the lost accompanying rituals like we treat endangered species! We ourselves are the endangered species in this respect.

Why is it called the ZEN design method? Has it got something to do with Buddhism?

This design method has been developed by Ger Bruens, over a period of 15 years during the Master elective course called `ZEN’ (working title). The full name of the elective is: ‘ZEN and the art of design’, and it refers to the book by Robert Persig (1974): ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’. This philosophical book was a cult book in the seventies as it sold over 4 million copies in 27 languages. The story is about a man on a motorbike trip through different states of the USA with his young son on the back seat. He is searching for the meaning and concept of quality. The book is filled with philosophical observations related to mechanical problems that occur during the trip. It is a great book which talks about a personal crisis, the search for truth and the meaning of quality. As the search for quality is the main focus of the elective too, quoting the title of the book for both the elective and the method developed there, seems appropriate.

When do you apply the ZEN method, is it suitable for solving all design problems?

Figure 2: Zaha Hadid Architects’ proposal for a Bridge Pavilion, Zaragossa, 2008

According to our experience, the ZEN design method is applicable for all kind of design briefs. Even a mechanical designer building a bridge may find it useful, as a bridge does not only facilitate efficient passage from A to B but it also touches our imagination and experience on other levels. Colour and material contribute to that. The desired quality of the bridge to be built is more than what can be captured in a list of requirements. To handle this design process, the ZEN method holds a promise.

In short:

The ZEN design method with its primary focus on rituals and qualities may be the preferred method for designers who would like to achieve innovation in terms of functionality, culture and social interaction.

References and Further Reading

  • Bruens, G. N. (2007) Form/Color Anatomy, Den Haag NL: Lemma Publishers.
  • Persig, R. M. (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, New York, USA: William Morrow & Company.
  • For more examples, see the 'Course Documents' for the elective course ‘Formstudy 4’ on http://blackboard.tudelft.nl (only with a TUDelft NetID).
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