Simplify and Improve Your Designs with the Bonsai Tree Method

Want to simplify and improve your designs? As is often the case, sometimes the best design inspiration comes from outside of the design field. In this case, you can look to an ancient Japanese art form: bonsai trees. You can simplify and improve your designs with the Bonsai Tree Method.

The thousand-year-old Japanese bonsai tree tradition is an art form of cultivating a miniature tree in a pot. Both the pruning and shaping of the tree as well as contemplation is meant to be an enjoyable activity for one’s self, rather than for the purpose of producing food, planting in a garden, or something. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to cultivate a bonsai tree – it’s a personal thing, with whatever helps you to enjoy and contemplate the best being the right way for you.

Neato. So how exactly do bonsai trees help with simplifying and improving your designs? Well, the same way one would approach the cultivating a bonsai tree – thus simplifying and improving it – is the same set of tips that can help you approach and cultivate your design.

So without further ado, here are 3 ways that you can simplify and improve your designs with the Bonsai Tree Method:

1. It’s More Important What You Don’t Add Than What You Do

This stems to the root of great design, which isn’t how pretty something looks so much as how all the elements function together. A holistic approach. And a big part of that is knowing when not to add something.

When cultivating a bonsai tree, you don’t start with something small and then add a bunch of stuff to it. It’s the opposite: you start with a full tree and branches, and you start pruning and removing. You’re done when you can’t remove any more, not when you can’t add any more.

The same goes for your design. Once you get it to a certain point – all the main content, headers, and other elements are there – then go in and start seeing what you can remove, not add.

Yeah yeah, it seems like it’s forehead-slapping obvious advice, but a lot of designers get caught up in adding more that they forget to step back and simply see what can actually be removed. Often times, when you get rid of something that isn’t essential – that the design can still function without – then the added focus to the essential elements makes the design better automatically. And that’s how you simplify and improve your design.

It’s that simple. No fancy workflow or strategy. Just go in with your design with a pair of digital pruning scissors and remove what the design doesn’t absolutely need – that it can still convey the style, energy, emotion, and information without having that element present. When you can’t remove any more, then your design is simplified, improved, and truly ready for the spotlight.

2. Focus on Improving the Form, Not Covering It with Decorations

This is another potentially forehead-slapping obvious bits of advice, but again, a lot of designers will come up with a simply good-enough design and then try to “improve” it by adding bells and whistles. A dressed up mediocre design – one that’s not as readable and user-friendly as it can be – is still a mediocre design.

When cultivating a bonsai tree, you don’t try to dress up the tree with decorations, or stack branches in fancy ways or anything. You prune and arrange to get the form of the trees and branches as good as you can get it. That’s how you improve your bonsai tree.

Like with #1, it’s not different when it comes to your design. Rather than dressing up a mediocre design with decorations that won’t help make it more readable, user-friendly, and a joy to view and use, instead focus on improving that actual form itself:

  • Go back to #1 and see what else you can remove.
  • Arrange the elements – menu, content, sidebars, header, logo, graphics – in a more natural flow that’s easy for the eye to follow.
  • Choose an easier-to-view font, contrast ratio, spacing, and so forth.
  • See if the core elements of your design are conveying the intended message, the energy, the emotion, the influence for the desired call-to-action.
  • And so forth.

When you improve the form, your design will be so solid that you won’t need to add decorations. In fact, you might find that graphical whizz-bangs might actually detract from your design by distracting the viewer and user. That glossy, shiny, lens-flare-beholding button would’ve been just fine with only a solid rectangular shape, a easy-to-read bold font, and a subtle gradient and/or texture.

3. Don’t Fight Quirks, Work with Them

When cultivating a bonsai tree, you would work with the natural flaws and bumps that the miniature tree has, not try to smooth them out. You wouldn’t fight the natural form and try to get it to appear a certain way – you’d accept whatever state the tree is in, and then work with it to maximize the bonsai tree. Otherwise, you’ll get a mess of a bonsai tree that’s only halfway to how you wanted it to look like, with broken branches, scratches, odd shape, and whatever else that resulted in you fighting the natural form of the tree.

Likewise, don’t fight your natural quirks when it comes to design. If you prefer using a certain type of font, or using a certain color palate, or adjusting the contrast a certain way, or grouping items in a certain arrangement, or… you get the picture. Anyway, you should run with those quirky preferences rather than trying to fight it. Otherwise, you’ll get a half-assed design that’s sort of trying to be something else but isn’t nearly as good as those who design in that way naturally. But when you work with your natural form – your design quirks – you’ll get a glorious full-assed design in return, since it’s natural for you to design in that way.

Granted, if you have a bad habit that both clients and users have commented on as disliking – such as using too low of a contrast that makes it hard to read – then you should work on eliminating those. But there typically won’t be many of them, and even when you do fix it, there’s no need for you to go to the opposite extreme ie. start using high contrast. You can simply bump up the contrast to the point that it passes an accessibility test, then stick with that relatively low contrast style.


If you want to simplify and improve your designs, look to the ancient Japanese art form of bonsai trees as a great source of design inspiration. The Bonsai Tree Method can really help you simplify and improve your designs in a, well, simple way.

To recap, here are the 3 ways the Bonsai Tree Method can simplify and improve your designs:

  1. It’s more important what you don’t add than what you do
  2. Focus on improving the form, not covering it with decorations
  3. Don’t fight quirks, work with them

How do you simplify and improve your designs? Feel free to share your most effective tips and methods in the comments section below.


  1. Anonymous says

    This is exactly what I need as my house is lacking in green life because I really don’t have much time to take care of them. Thanks to your post, there is something I can try out…

  2. Urban cowgrrrl says

    Renato, I can’t help it… it’s “Keep it simple, stupid,” not simple AND stupid.

    But yes, this a great article with good ideas to always keep in mind while designing. I like the “don’t fight the quirks, work with them” bit. It’s what makes you unique as a designer.

  3. Richie J says

    …and one day, my clients will stop coming in at the last minute demanding additions to my beautifully pared down copy that’s tantamount to grafting an oak onto a daisy…

    Ahhh. One day, one day.

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