Design Time, or Wabi Sabi and the Long Now

This is a talk I gave at the Stanford Design Loft on 4.4.2014.

or, Wabi-Sabi and the Long Now

The topic is time in Design
The way that beings exist in time.
What is it to exist in time?
And what is time in design?
How does our understanding of time, of what time is, impact the way we design?
How does it impact the specific kinds of the things we design?
What changes, when we change the way that we think about time, the way that we orient ourselves within and toward time?

By way of introduction, I’ll situate what I have to say about time and design in relation to three referents:

Tony Fry’s Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice (2009).
Design futuring? Creating futures through design. Fry proposes developing a “new practice” of design oriented toward what he calls “the Sustainment … a moment in time that unfolds as a continuous process.” [15]
Thinking about a steady-state, no growth economy obviously challenges language. What kind of moment is a continuous process?

The Clock of the Long Now (1993~)
The project of the Long Now Foundation – Stewart Brand, Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, et alia – to build an iconic, giant clock in the mountains of Texas (and Nevada) to “reframe the way people think” with an eye toward long-term thinking [3]. The idea is to inform, encourage, and inspire people to take responsibility for the future. Responsibility is key.

Wabi Sabi
Wabi Sabi is an aesthetic sensibility evidenced in many forms of Japanese life and art – from scroll paintings to ceramics, gardens, and, most thoroughly, the tea ceremony. It is notoriously difficult to summarize. For my purposes, wabi sabi is relevant as indicative of an appreciation for familiarity, continuity, and history, alongside an awareness of the passage of time and loss, loneliness, and melancholy understood within a religious frame. Wabi sabi valorizes an awareness of impermanence and fragility in objects, environments, and experiences.

Beyond these three frames, I’d like to try to consider time in design from the perspectives of its producers as well as its consumers or users.

A philosophy of design is a philosophy of time
and vice versa

The way we think of our relationship to time impacts the way we design
The objects we design as well as the processes through which we design them
Objects here in the largest sense: products but also buildings, cities, everything
Our relationship to wilderness is a problem in time – how long does it take to get there?

This is a matter of some paradox
The word design all but dictates a specific relationship to time, a philosophy of time.
Design is the timely art.
How could it be timeless?
Design cannot but be of its time.
Design addresses the problems of a specific time – a moment in history – with the tools and technologies of that moment.
When the technologies change, design changes.
When the problems change, design changes.
When the times change, design changes.

Design doesn’t age well.
It’s physical: Materials degrade, colors fade.
It’s physiological: A typeface loses effectiveness, starts to look stale, after a certain amount of time.
It’s psychological: We don’t feel quite right in clothes that have gone too far out of style.
This has to do with fashion, with being of the moment, just now in the modern sense.

The word modern
From the latin root modo
Meaning just now
Entered the English language in 1585
When Shakespeare was beginning his career

But even retro styling has been, at times, fashionable, of the moment.
Time impacts design, requiring new design.

Design is also time consuming. It takes time to design.
A design idea might come in an instant but that instant might take a long time and a lot of preparation to arrive. And then you have to make it, build it, get it out into the world.

Design is slow. In our fast world, design is often too slow.
By the time that we get permission to develop a project, initiate that project, research it, develop it, get buy-in and sign off, then actually do the job, the social context has changed.

Rem Koolhaas described the birth of AMO – the mirror of OMA from a situation in which “architecture was too slow to capture mutating organizations”:
“If we could not build a building for an organization that was in an absolute state of flux from a share value to the permanent buying and selling of its components and the constant imminence of mergers and acquisitions, we could at least imagine a conceptual model of a ‘structure’ that could, if not anticipate, at least accommodate almost any eventuality and actually exploit the given instability to define a new territory for architecture…” [Rem Koolhaas, Content 118]

The context of design – technologies and tastes – is changing so fast today that design can’t keep up, even though design itself is driving the change.

There is an existential dilemma proposed to the designer by the pace of change.
Time appears before the designer like a black hole sucking in content.

The economic category of durable goods is all but indistinguishable from its opposite: consumables.

All design seems like ephemera racing toward the dump.


But let’s turn this around. I’ve been talking about the way that time impacts objects.

Objects – things – also impact time.

Objects create time.
They structure our experience of time.
They take time, make time, save time
Think: labor saving devices
Time is money

The time of objects includes many different kinds of time.
Time spent waiting
A computer to start, files to compact or save, etc.
Coffee to brew

The time of a building
Time spent walking from the garage to the office or classroom, up the stairs, down the halls
The time saved by putting the washing machine close to the things that need to be washed

Organizational management strategies in interior design in the home and at work
The arrangement of space is time

Large scale this is the time of our cities, our civilization
Time spent in traffic, trains, airports, waiting rooms
Waiting for a stoplight to change

When time is money, time is speed: Speed is money
In business, we want to do things efficiently, but also quickly, more quickly than our competitors
We want the fastest possible means of communication to transmit our messages to our colleagues, clients and consumers.
Here I’m thinking of those fiber-optic cables that run to Wall Street to facilitate High Frequency Trading with a speed advantage of milli- and microseconds.

The point obviously is to arrange objects in space for our maximum benefit
To give us the most time – To make the most money
To help us enjoy the things we want to enjoy
Ivan Illich calls this conviviality
Tools for conviviality – objects and structures that help us live well


The time we’ve been talking about is the time of moments, of shorter or longer duration – microseconds in High Frequency Trading, hours spent in traffic.

Moments are moments we experience. We call moments of heightened experience events.

But time isn’t just moments. It’s also history, a sequence of moments.

When time is history, it’s less tangible, less obviously tangible anyway.

Objects embody history in several ways. Some of these ways are more visible than others.

Objects embody history superficially in styling, as in retro styling, attempting to look like a product from another era.

Even objects that pass for timeless end up bound to time. Here I’m thinking of suburban houses that have been designed to “look like a house”: copies of an imaginary English country bungalow from the 1830s. But there are other “classic” styles or stylings of just about everything.

The paradox of timeless design: that it is simultaneously bound to a time but also uprooted from specific temporal reference. It no longer refers to that time though it carries traces of it.

Modernism in design held out the hope that there might be one right answer, one ideal form for any given design problem: in other words that design might be timeless.

But is the other choice? What happens when we admit that objects embody histories?

How do we design objects so that they may be aware of or broadcast their histories or their place in history?
Charles Olson said, leave the roots on.

Museums and history books attempt to make history manifest, palpable, meaningful. But is that something that design should do?

There are of course many different kinds of history, different frameworks for the historical.
History might be personal, familial, cultural, environmental, geological even.

Stewart Brand observed that we live in several types or systems of time simultaneously, each embedded in another:


Fashion is art, design, popular music. It’s fast.

Commerce is business: it’s got to be fast; delays are bad for business. But if change happens too fast, business suffers: goods don’t get a chance to reach the market.

Infrastructure: Civic works, roads and bridges, buildings.
How long do buildings live?
Office buildings: 73 years
Homes: 50 years
Bridges: Golden Gate 75 and counting; Bay Bridge projected for 150 years
Governance – Political structures
Nature – Ecology, geology, cosmology – the time or pace of evolutionary change

What is it to begin to think in terms of natural, ecological, even cosmological time scales?
What is it to design in those terms?

Gary Snyder’s poem “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House” from Mountains and Rivers Without End [121-3]
A human life – 80 years
The life of a language – 500 years
Religion – 2,500 years [Hinduism: 3,500 years]
Bristlecone pine – 5,000 years

Some of these temporal frameworks or referents are themselves profoundly new.

Only a few weeks ago, cosmologists found evidence to date the Big Bang to 13.8 Billion years ago [Denis Overbye, “Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun” The New York Times (March 17, 2014)]

Less recently, during the 19th century, advances in modern science and technology profoundly changed conceptions of time and space.

In the natural sciences books like:
Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830)
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859)

Simultaneously cultural, anthropological, and archeological discoveries:
Epic of Gilgamesh (1855 / 1872)
Painted caves at Altamira (1879)

Technological innovations:
Steamship 1787
Railroad 1814
Telegraph 1832
Telephone 1875

When Hamlet said, “time is out of joint” in 1603, he was speaking from within a completely different orientation toward time than ours today.

In 1650 Irish Archibishop James Ussher calculated the age of the earth based on the number of generations listed in the Bible, giving the moment of creation as the night before Sunday October 23rd, 4004 BC.

Set this against the scientific, cultural, and technological changes of the 19th century and you have period of radical contrast and convulsive change.

It is unsurprising that Stephen Dedalus should have proclaimed, in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

F.T. Marinetti was saying much the same thing in the Futurist Manifesto (1909) when he declared museums to be cemeteries. “Admiring an old picture is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn.” “We stand on the promontory of the centuries! … Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

One hundred years later, it is hard to be quite so enthusiastic about the speed of life and of change in our times.

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock observed the “death of permanence” in 1970.
Paul Virilio invented the science of speed, Dromology, in Speed and Politics [1977]
James Glick’s Faster is now old: it’s from 1999

These are catalogs of dread.

Global transportation and telecommunications networks have fundamentally altered our experience of speed, pace, and time.

Yet we can sit in a high-speed train reading newspapers from around the globe on our mobile devices about religious fundamentalists denying the fundamentals of history as modern science describes it.

The times of modern times are conflicted times, opposed senses of time.

Even with all of this speed – or rather because of it – time itself has become the most valuable thing of all: leisure time, down time, free time.

We’re caught between two economies of time

One Fast and Furious, the other slow
Slow as in slow food or, more recently, slow fashion

The slow food movement proposes that we eat at the pace of good, clean, fair food
Eat locally and seasonally – without the speed of transportation
Eat at the speed of cooking
The time of slow food includes time growing, cooking, and eating

The subtitle of Peter Reinhart’s Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor.
Slow rise is a method of making bread, letting yeast develop favor without chemical inducement or preservation
It’s also a metaphor that carries outside the kitchen into life

But how?

However appealing, the idea of slowness does not offer a fully compelling alternative to the speed of contemporary life. It’s an unworkable or at least incomplete philosophy of time for design.

And this is the core question. Modern science, social science, and applied science – i.e. technology – effectively shattered previous conceptions of time.

How can we conceive of a new conception of time and of our relationship to time and history, of the relationship of our objects and things to time and history?


For all of the changes of the last one hundred and fifty or more years, our ideas about time are thousands of years old. They derive from the philosophical and theological notions of the Axial age – an historical moment caught between intensified urbanism and simultaneous mass mobility. The ideals invented in the Axial age were ideals that could travel.

The great book on the problem of history is Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (1949). The book is a comparative history of ideas of history, particularly in the ancient world. It documents the beginning of the idea of history, of time as we know it. The movement proceeds from a mythic Great Year through cycles of Great Years or Ages to the invention of linear history progressing from a beginning toward an (potentially redemptive) end. The drama of history is a spiritual or religious drama, a story of god, though god or the gods are increasingly absent as the story unfolds. In the mythic Great Year the gods are reborn with each year. In linear history, god was present at the beginning and will be present again at the end.

In between – nothing – a material world devoid of spiritual content that human beings must work in order to survive.

The Greek philosophers had a similar idea. For Socrates, the things of the world are second-rate material copies of the abstract forms or ideas of those things. Material copies pass away, ideal forms endure forever.

The ephemeral and the durable are concepts with their roots in ancient religions and philosophy. Their roots might be so deep as to have been all but hard-wired into our biology through evolution. In a natural world of constant change, frail beings favor persistence, reliability, durability. We want things to last because we know that nothing does.

It’s a bit of bad faith that infects the best of intentions.

As in the subtitle of Bill McKidden’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007)

Whatever a sustainable future may be, it won’t be durable.

It won’t be ephemeral either. As always, the binary opposition is a false opposition. Depending on the scale of measurement, all things can be seen as either ephemeral or durable.

The fantasy of the ephemeral may have been pushed to its limits in the throwaway culture of the 1950s, valorized by Reyner Banham, when the idea of “planned obsolescence” was popularized for the automotive industry by industrial designer Brooks Stevens.

In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart admit that “throwing something away can be fun”[109]. But they change the terms of waste from simply throwing things into landfills to throwing them back into the nutrient cycles from which they were originally extracted, whether natural or technological. Waste in their model equals food.

“Industry need not design what it makes to be durable beyond a certain amount of time, any more than nature does. The durability of many current products could even be seen as a kind of intergenerational tyranny. Maybe we want our things to live forever, but what do future generations want?” [114]

“Intergenerational remote tyranny [is] our tyranny over future generations through the effects of our actions today.” [43]

In Cradle to Cradle, the ephemeral and the durable are both relative terms that designers can use as heuristics. Designers should ask, among other questions, how long should it last? And what happens after the end?

Considered in this frame, we begin to discern a pre-history and a kind of post-history to the life of objects, particularly considered as materials:
-the geological eras that passed in the formation of a stone used in a fence or the formation of a metal
- the human eras that passed in the invention of a technology of manufacture
- the eras of cultural life that determined the necessity for a type of object and the shaped its form
- the time embodied in this particular iteration of a “timeless” form
- the time the object spends with me or my family
- and its future, in the family or beyond it

The form of an object functions as a kind of vortex of material energy gathered and given shape but ultimately destined to dissipate, to disseminate outwards, in entropy.

This is all well and good. I’m in complete agreement.

My concern is that Cradle to Cradle doesn’t quite go far enough. It gives designers some useful guidelines but those guidelines are difficult for consumers to see. As a consumer I like the idea of goods that can be returned to a nutrient cycle without undue degradation or expense but I’m not inspired by many of the goods themselves.

In place of the process of change, and the trauma of history, Cradle to Cradle proposes a smooth continuum of utility.


If Cradle to Cradle fails to inspire some designers, we can look to the Long Now Foundation for a range of activities specifically intended to inspire long term thinking, and thereby environmental responsibility in diverse forms, including design.

Animated by Stewart Brand, Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, Alexander Rose, Peter Schwartz, Esther Dyson, Mitchell Kapoor, Paul Saffo and others, Long Now is obviously focused on and by the problem of time and time consciousness.

The central project is the clock of the Long Now – a clock projected to chime daily for 10,000 years.

“If a clock can keep going to ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?” [Kevin Kelly, “Clock in the Mountain”]

If the modern moment was a moment just now, the long now aspires to extend its moment from 10,000 years in the past to 10,000 years into the future.

What is the life of an object measured against the 10,000 year scale?

I think about this when buying cheap furniture: do I want this lamp to be in the family for the next 10,000 years? (Only partly a joke: temporary stuff tends to stick around longer than you think it will.)

The clock and affiliated activities offer a kind of forum for long-term thinking. Different projects within the forum explore different aspects of long-term responsibility in different ways. The project raises a lot of questions, only some of which generate productive technical results.

The clock itself is intended as an icon, a durable good that marks time.

For Brand, the project grew out of his earlier work as an environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly among other publications. It’s also more or less directly related to his thinking about time and architecture in How Buildings Learn.

The point of that book and the associated television series was to observe that buildings live in time, they change through adaptation, renovation and maintenance, or rather that they can. Prestige architects too often design buildings as if they were timeless, often to disastrous effect.

How Buildings Learn asks how do you design building that can last and answers – design it so that it can change.

Some prescriptions:
Start small
Leave room for growth (i.e. leave it unfinished both in details and in total structure)
Make the structure sturdy (durable)
But flexible and easy to repair and maintain

This is all good advice. But what does it look like? Or, put differently: “What would an aesthetic based on the inevitability of transience actually look like?” [71]

The book includes a lot of pictures that help answer that question.


Partly this is a question of designing things so that they can show time.

On this point, Roland Barthes’ marvelous essay on toys from Mythologies. It was written in the mid-1950s but still resonates, and in new ways.

Barthes begins with the observation that French toys are “essentially a microcosm of the adult world… reduced copies of human objects … [that] prefigure the world of the adult.”

French children – like children around the world – spend the time of their lives – childhood – pretending to be little adults, beings from a different time and from a different time of life. It’s adulthood now but smaller.

Barthes is critical of the practice. Why not let children shape the activities of their own world?

The last paragraph of the piece (it’s only four paragraphs) looks at the materials. “Current toys,” he says, “are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature.” He’s talking about plastic and metal, which he says, “destroy all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.”

Wood, on the other hand, is “an ideal material, because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. … it is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor.”

“Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in dwindling, not in swindling out like those mechanical toys which disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.”

It’s a Romantic view of wooden toys, to be sure, but pertinent here. It might be called the paradox of wooden toys, the paradox being that wooden toys are both “objects for all time” precisely because they dwindle with age rather than break or fail catastrophically. Through play a child alters “little by little the relations between the object and the hand.”

The timeless object turns out to be closely bound to time, to wear and tear, to the minor alterations of daily use.

The design challenge is to make an object that carries the transformation of ages on its surface and within it, that shows where it’s been and suggests where it might be going.

This is where the wabi sabi aesthetic comes in.

As noted, wabi sabi is an aesthetic sensibility evidenced in many forms of Japanese life and art – from scroll paintings to ceramics, gardens, and the tea ceremony. And it is notoriously difficult to summarize.

Leonard Koren’s Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994, 2008) is a condensed and useful primer. Allen S. Weiss’s Zen Landscapes (2013) digs deeper.

Wabi sabi is relevant here in particular for the way it venerates impermanence, incompletion, and imperfection. These are its core attributes.

Wabi sabi bears some similarity to Modernism – notably through the notion of truth in materials – but it is in more and more meaningful ways distinct.

Koren summarizes some of these distinctions on pages 26 to 29.

In contrast to the values of Modernism, Wabi sabi is:
Private, intimate
Personal, idiosyncratic
Variable and unique
Without progress
Present oriented
Respectful of the uncontrollability of nature
Nature over technology
Organic form
Natural materials – local
Accommodates degradation and loss
Enriched through corrosion or contamination
Thrives on the expansion of sensation
Ambiguity and contradiction
Function and utility are deemphasized
Points beyond materiality
Rooted in recognition of time passing
[Koren 26-29]

Wabi sabi objects show where they came from materially and physically, they show traces of the hands that made them, and the hands that have used them.

The objects become more valuable, more venerated the more they have been used and collected signs of wear.

At a certain threshold of such signs, in recognition of their fragility, tea cups may be placed in a special box, the box affixed with labels marking dates of use and users with indications of appreciation. As time passes the boxes themselves may become valuable and placed in their own boxes.

This practice is opposed to that of a Western style museum, which sets objects behind glass.

In its highest form, the tea ceremony proposes a unique moment, the creation of a situation unique to its participants, orchestrated for their appreciation by their host. The moment is unique but it is saturated with history, saturated with time.

Objects in wabi sabi do not deny time, they carry it, manifest it, bring it to light in its passing.

Significantly, to the extent that wabi sabi and the tea ceremony become codified forms of practice and appreciation, the depth and meaning of the aesthetic are lost.

The aesthetic resists that loss through its forms, which show their values and purposes directly.

Wabi sabi is mysterious because the passage of time is mysterious but it is not esoteric.

More problematic is our evolutionary imperative to denigrate impermanence, to deny time.

Vilém Flusser claims that a new culture may be possible through design. My suggestion is that wabi sabi might be helpful as a heuristic for guiding the emergent values of that culture.

Select References

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Noonday, 1972).
Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn (Penguin, 1994).
–, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (Basic Books, 1999).
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (Princton University Press, 1949).
Tony Fry, Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice (Berg, 2009).
James Glick, Faster (Vintage, 2000).
Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (Harper & Row, 1973).
Rem Koolhaas, Content (Taschen, 2004).
Leonard Koren, Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994, 2008).
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002).
Bill McKidden, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007).
Peter Reinhart, Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphorrr (Running Press, 2005).
Gary Snyder, “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House” in Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, 1996).
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (Random Houes, 1970).
Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics (Semiotext(e), 2006).
Allen S. Weiss, Zen Landscapes (Reaktion, 2013).