What can Tanizaki’s book 'In praise of shadows' teach us about digital product design?

I could not remember how I came to order this book on Amazon in January 2020, but let's say the recommendation algorithm worked its magic again. With not so much background on this book, first published in 1933, I set out to learn the Japanese way of experiencing both light and particularly darkness.
I never imagined that this book would resonate with me two years later and make so much sense of what I experience working in a Japanese design firm in Berlin. Here are some quotes and takeaways that stood out to me.

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In the shadows of product design

Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.

As Jun'ichirō Tanizaki says, the beauty is in unveiling the patterns that come out of a certain design. This translates into looking at how a product is integrated into our society and how it solves (or complicates) our current problems.

As designers, we look beyond the physical or digital product to uncover the user needs and what jobs the customer can achieve with a product or service. However, what matters more than functionalities is the repercussions of the product or service on the people, the planet, and the world.

The beauty for me is to see how users appropriate the product and how, over time, it becomes a complete part of our lives. Of course, it's not all light and positive, some designs can put us in the dark zone and push negative behaviours that harm our society or the planet. At Goodpatch, we are very conscious of the repercussions that design can have in the long term, and we put a lot of effort to prevent any externalities.

The beauty of a product lies beneath the surface

We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

Tanizaki explains, very poetically, the traditional Japanese approach to beauty and appreciation of shadows, darkness and minimalism, whether it is tarnished metal, unglazed pottery or a wooden toilet. Even materials used in the most ordinary things can have a special feel and beauty.

This vision has pushed me to look at the core of the objects around me and appreciate when they welcome use. How many times have you been excited about the visual appearance of a new application, yet the user experience was poor? An app can be beautiful, but a well-designed App addresses the user's most pressing needs first.

Whether it's a physical or digital product, I've learned that to design a good product that grows with its users over time it's essential to understand their behaviour. That's why approaches like Design-Thinking, which we use at Goodpatch, challenge traditional product development by incorporating rapid prototyping and iteration processes to stay relevant to the world and people around us.

How does the balance of darkness and light benefit today's digital consumer?

The appreciation of darkness and the will to reduce obsolete light made me think of two themes that I see around me: Dark modes in UI design and the exhibition Dark Matter in Berlin, which is all about light and darkness. So let's look into why dark tones are having a moment.

Dark mode

A trend that was first started for the comfort of coders, dark mode is now used by many designers and users to reduce the luminance emitted from screens, which helps prevent eye strain. More than a comfort for your eye or an aesthetic choice, using dark mode limits the environmental impact of a website by reducing screen light.

To go further in the direction of low-impact web design, limiting the use of fonts and deleting cookies are small actions that can impact a larger scale. More and more research is done to consider digital sustainability in web design. I encourage everyone to learn more about the environmental impact of being online as it consumes a lot of electricity.

Dark Matter exhibition

Digital experiments are increasingly being introduced into the art space, and a current exhibition that addresses the topic of In praise of shadows is certainly Dark Matter in Berlin. In the exhibition, the audience passes through different spaces where they can experience darkness and light mixed with sound and the movement of objects. The exhibition is seen as a living organism that evolves and changes over time, illuminating the darkness of the exhibition spaces in varied ways.

I find it fascinating to link the work of a Japanese novelist with modern installations, which were designed to trigger the audience's perception of light and darkness, just as in the book.

These were only a few points to learn from the Japanese perspective of light and darkness and to take this vision into account in future work. In your daily life, I also invite you to think about how different lighting affects your mood and how you can appreciate darker spaces.

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