Design Integrity

Communication Breakdown

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to give or get the wrong impression when communicating by email?

It happens all the time; someone will write something in a message that is good natured or innocuous, but the recipient gets the impression that the author of the message is angry or full of attitude. This happens because humans are accustomed to communicating on several levels at once and email circumvents this.

When standing face to face, the spoken word is less than half of the message that gets communicated. When we communicate with others face to face, we are saying what we mean, but we are also indicating what we mean by our body language, by our facial expression, by our tone of voice, by our peculiar choice of words, by our inflection, by our eyes’ pupil size and by other less obvious means. Face to face communication is a very complex and delicate operation. So, as we remove various levels of communication by the elimination of our use of certain senses (sight, sound, proximity, etc…), communication breaks down.

Now, when you attempt to express meaning with your bonsai work, unless you take advantage of every means for message consistency, your communication with the viewer begins to break down. Artistic communication is filled with as many nuances as face-to-face, verbal communication. When you ignore certain elements of this communication, you lose your ability to connect with the viewer.

This multi-dimensional concept of artistic communication is calleddesign integrity. Design integrity is achieved when all of the compositional elements of your bonsai work toward communicating a consistent message.

Tree Composition

If you know how certain branch forms and trunk forms can convey certain meanings (from chapter 1) and you know which species are best suited to which forms and you know how to portray the evidence of certain environmental influences on your tree, the next step is to put together a coherent composition.

Composition is to trunk and branches and shoots and roots and pot and stand as a cookie recipe is to flour and sugar and butter and milk and eggs and vanilla. See, good composition can be yummy!

It is important to keep in mind that every part of your tree, every design element, …everything, should work toward communicating a consistent message. Most importantly, no feature should work against the image you are trying to portray or the message you are trying to communicate. (you wouldn’t use vinegar in place of vanilla for those cookies, would you?)

Now, this does not mean that the design has to be one-dimensional or monotonous. Tension may be important to the design, but still, consistency in the overall message has to be the rule that governs all. It is the baseline to which all deviation (deviation with good reasons only) makes reference.

An easy way to discover if your tree has a consistent message is to ask yourself some questions about all of the individual elements. For instance, during and after your design work ask yourself the following:

  • what does the trunk line communicate?
  • what does the trunk height to width ratio communicate?
  • what does the trunk movement communicate?
  • what does the trunk position in the pot communicate?
  • what does the trunk's angle of rise from the soil line communicate?
  • what does the branch angle communicate?
  • what does the branch form communicate?
  • what does the branch movement communicate?
  • what does the branch development communicate?
  • what does the branch taper communicate?
  • what does the apical structure communicate?
  • what does the foliar volume communicate?
  • what does the foliar form communicate?
  • what does the foliage distribution communicate?
  • what does the empty space (or lack of it) in the tree communicate?
  • what does the bark texture communicate?
  • what does the bark color communicate?
  • what does the overall bark consistency communicate?
  • what does the visible root structure size communicate?
  • what does the visible root structure form communicate?
  • what does this particular species generally communicate?

Add to this, the message communicated by the pot and soil surface:

  • what does the pot shape communicate?
  • what does the pot color communicate?
  • what does the pot size communicate?
  • what does the pot’s foot form communicate?
  • what does the pot depth communicate?
  • what does the soil line communicate?
  • what does the soil decoration (moss?) communicate?

All of the answers to these questions should indicate consistency. This is not to say that they should all be the same answer, but that the answers should all be compatible with one another and consistent with your overall aims. If any answer is not compatible with your desired aims, there is conflict and diminished integrity in the design.

For instance, if in an orchestra the basses, violins, cellos, bassoons and French horns are all playing “Feelings,” but the trumpets and trombones are playing the opening theme to “Star Wars,” there is diminished integrity (to say the least!). In this example, the bulk of the orchestra is playing a beautiful, melancholy, delicate theme and the trumpets are playing a masculine, aggressive and braying theme. The concert goers are now rather confused and are saying, "I want my money back!"

Note that if any answer to the above questions is “nothing at all,” it may indicate a problem that needs to be dealt with. The solution to this problem may require some time to implement, but at least you’ll know where to direct your effort.

Note also that if you don't know the answer to one of the questions listed above, you are just rolling the dice with your design effort. If you don't know what you're communicating with a specific element, how can you be successful? I hope that this illustrates the importance of your having a fluency with the language of artistry.

For guidance in determining what a specific feature might communicate, refer to the section on line, form, color, and texture in chapter 1. As that glossary is not at all comprehensive, look further into art's language by delving into other texts on artistry. Explanations of any art will be relevant to your bonsai design efforts.

Problems of Consistency

When some bonsai are left to their own devices or if the artist is not attentive to design integrity, conflicts can arise with the bonsai’s design. The result is often poor or irrelevant communication. Applying a critical and uncompromising eye to the composition can usually help us to discover these conflicts. However, another way of discovering these consistency problems is to review our answers to the list of questions in the previous section (above). Again, if any of the answers is not compatible with the desired aims, there is conflict and diminished integrity of the design (read: diminished artistry and communication).

Inconsistency of age and strength:

For instance, if we are using a Japanese black pine with a large trunk with angular changes in direction, significant taper, aged bark and a powerful surface root structure, BUT we have grown branches that are long, thin and shaped with flowing curves, with the foliage concentrated on the tips, we have a problem. (image below)

bad composition
trunk communicates:
power, masculinity, age, severe conditions
surface roots communicate:
strength, age, masculinity
branches communicate:
delicacy, femininity, immaturity, weakness

See the conflict? The first two main elements are consistent in their message. The other main feature, the branches, communicates something entirely different from the rest of the tree and there seems to be no logical reason to explain it. This tells us that the branches need attention and should be styled/grown, perhaps over a long period of time, to help carry the consistent message of age, strength, severity and masculinity.

Inconsistency of Environment

If you have a maple bonsai (image below) with a mostly one-sided root structure, thin and gracefully curved trunk, but with branches that come straight off the trunk in a horizontal line and stay straight, you have inconsistency.

bad composition
surface roots communicate:
directional movement, a bit of weakness
trunk communicates:
conditions that alter trunk line, femininity
branches communicate:
strength, masculinity, stability, rigidity

In this case, the roots and trunk indicate conditions that cause the trunk to have movement. These same conditions should also cause the branches to have movement. Their straight form is in conflict with the rest of the tree. This conflict unbalances the composition.

Inconsistency of implied age:

In this example (above), the design is of a near-view elm bonsai. The pot is dark and angular. The tree has a powerful trunk with sever taper. The lower branches are fairly thick and decrease in diameter up the trunk. However, the apical structure of the tree is conical — indicating a young tree.

pot communicates:
strength, masculinity, old tree
trunk communicates:
near view, powerful tree, masculine old tree
apex communicates:
younger tree, conifer

There is an inconsistency of age here. Most of the signals coming from this composition communicate great age. However, the conical apex of the tree suggests a younger tree. Old trees, especially old deciduous trees, generally have rounded crowns. The pointed crown on this tree conflicts with the rest of the composition.

These simple examples should help to illustrate some of the kinds of things that you should be attentive to in bonsai design work. Overall consistency of message helps to make the proposed image a powerful one. Consistency lends weight to the message, helping make it a believable and successful one.

Compositional Mistakes

In addition to the commonly described bonsai faults and flaws, there are compositional mistakes to avoid. These mistakes are based on common artistic conventions that are generally recognized as being distracting, detracting, artificial or inappropriate for the artistic display of bonsai.

Touching Tangents

When two lines or outlines of different origins touch, it creates a distracting feature. This kind of compositional mistake draws the viewer’s eye away from the natural flow of the composition, as with the images below:

touching tangents
Above photos courtesy of Bonsai Today.
Odd New Angles (unless used as a focal point) and Inconsistent Mainlines

When a main line, such as a trunk, is inconsistently shaped or inconsistently random in movement, it creates an uncomfortable tension in the composition. Also, when a single line deviates from the flow of the rest of the composition, it creates a distraction. This kind of deviation can be used as a focal point, but must not be too overpowering and there must be an obvious logical reason for it. Here are some examples:

inconsistent lines
This pine has a significant problem of line consistency (among other problems). The trunk starts out straight for half of the height and then curves are introduced. Photo by Howard Smith.
inconsistent lines
The consistency of the branch angles on this juniper is marred by the odd branch just below the apex. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.
odd angles
Notice the odd new angle of the branches on this Japanese maple (photo above). These branches conflict with the integrity of the overall branch composition. They are out of place and mar this otherwise stunning bonsai. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.

Planting Position Errors

The position of the tree in the pot, the rise of the trunk from the soil, the inclination of the tree and the planting level of the tree are all among the very first elements noticed when someone views a bonsai. These elements of composition must be properly addressed in order to prevent a bad first impression. Even if the rest of the composition is quite nice, these elements will tend to overpower the effect of the rest of the composition.

bad planting angle
This Japanese black pine is planted in the wrong position in the pot. Given the tree's form, the trunk should be moved to just right of center.
bad planting angle
This Japanese white pine has a poor trunk angle in the pot. Since the trunk is rather featureless, it should be planted at a more acute angle (and the foliage arrangement then addressed as well).
bad planting angle
The trunk on this juniper above rises from the soil at a poor angle — too straight up. The trunk is dynamic, but the initial rise from the soil is anything but.

Photos courtesy of Bonsai Today.

The position of the pot on the stand is also important. The pot should be placed in the center of the stand — left to right, and as close to center, front to back — without covering up any inlay on the front side surface of the display stand.

Some might find this centering odd, considering that trees planted in rectangle or oval pots are generally planted slightly to one side. This same guideline does not, however, apply to the pot and stand. Balance between dynamic trunk flow and the pot is addressed by the bonsai's planting position in the pot. Having addressed this issue, if you address it again by placing the pot off-center on the stand, you have reintroduced the imbalance. Placing a pot anywhere other than the center of the stand creates a distracting imbalance.


Symmetry is seldom encountered in nature. Symmetrical composition will usually offer the impression of artificiality.

Picket Fence Proportion

The impression conveyed by regular spacing is artificial and boring. Few things look as unnatural as this kind of spacing.

picket fence arrangement

Even though these trees (above) are positioned differently from front to back, their even space left to right is ugly and artificial looking.

natural arrangement

This arrangement (above) is much more natural looking.

too horizontal

The implication of horizontal lines across the trunk of this otherwise nice Japanese white pine is artificial looking. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.

While the flaws and errors described above can interrupt your communication and self-expression, in the next chapter we see that self-expression can have its own pitfalls.