Gung Fu & Designing Experiences Part I: Building the Bridge

The Relationship Between Practicing Gung Fu and Designing Experiences

Phillip Le
Jun 17, 2015 · 5 min read

This is Part I of an ongoing series.
Over the next several weeks, I will publish a series of snapshots regarding the use of gung fu principles in developing oneself as an experience designer.

In my own way, I am keeping myself honest with my philosophy, writing a piece a week, one stepping stone at a time, to hopefully bridge the gap between my own attempts at explaining congruency between experience design and gung fu.

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing at a Philadelphia tech company for a position as their Product Designer. During what was an intense, yet fun interviewing process, the founder gave me one final request: “Teach me something you assume I would never had the chance of knowing or learning before.”

It didn’t have to be about tech, data, or design. It could be as obscure or as ubiquitous as I wanted it to be, but I had to take the short amount of time to teach him something new and I had to be able to get him somewhat proficient.

For those of you who know me, you know I of course asked: “Have you ever learned gung fu?”

Inevitably, during interviews, I am asked about my design methodology, about how I view problems, and how I interact with others. Overtime, I’ve come to realize the two disciplines I hold dear have many overlapping qualities. The way I think about design is the way I play gung fu. The same is true in reverse.

Below are some key things I’ve gleaned over time practicing and teaching the art of gung fu:

  1. Gung fu is about relating and relationships. It is about gauging distances and intent. It is about building bridges and bonds with your teachers and colleagues. It’s about challenging one another. When it comes to teaching gung fu, my focus is on understanding the needs and expectations of the student and then figuring out how to best relay the principles according to those needs and expectations. Whether friend, foe, or family, gung fu is about the intersection of you, me, and us.
  2. Gung fu is about adaptability. It is about flowing with your opponent, being able to change techniques and tactics depending on the pressure and challenges presented to you by real world variables. In teaching students, it’s about finding what works in making the lessons sticky and in adapting to each student’s pattern of learning, understanding and implementing strategies that best suits their behaviors.
  3. Gung fu requires pressure testing. This means applying principles, lessons, and techniques against a variety of situations, people and circumstances. It adopts sparring as a laboratory to test new skills. It means being placed into uncomfortable scenarios to challenge the lessons learned.
  4. Gung fu stands for skill developed through focused work over a long period of time. A lot for two simple words right? Gains are made through small incremental efforts towards a result of betterment. Gung fu is about focusing on the drops in the bucket, knowing that over time, the invested drops become a deep well of skills now honed.

All martial arts — in order to be considered both martial and an art — need to be useful, useable, and delightful.

On the other side, I view designing products and experiences through a similar lens:

  1. Designing experiences is about relating and relationships. Collaboration takes a lot of compromise. Understanding the problem takes a lot of perspective from various stakeholders. Focusing on the user, usability and use require empathy and communication. Conveying concepts across teams and departments requires translation and interpretation. Designing the product connects your interaction with user interactions. In other words, designing experiences is very much about relating and relationships.
  2. Designing experiences requires adaptability. Conceptualizing interactions takes a lot of iteration. The ability to pivot, adapt, and push out minimal viable products requires adaptive thinking, flowing with the challenges you face in solving a problem. Letting go of ideas requires a sense of malleability to forgo one’s own solutions (i.e. ego) to better design an experience. In the end, being able to “connect the dots” requires adaptive thinking, thinking able to converge seemingly tangential concepts into one cohesive solution.
  3. Designing experiences requires pressure testing. By engaging with colleagues, asking them to cross examine work, allowing them to provide outside perspective, designed solutions are pressure tested by outside forces other than your own. It places the design into a constructive “sparring” environment ensuring proposed solutions make sense in the conditions for which they are built. Furthermore, user testing provides a look at the “weak spots” in designs, revealing areas of confusion or difficult interactions. Relying on users as a crucible for the work will lead to refinement and stronger design output.
  4. Designing your trajectory, skills, relationships, and personal branding requires dedicated work over an extended period of time. Investing on improvement over a period of time will allow for large gains with deeper value. Taking the right steps to develop relationships in the right manner, whether business-related or personal, requires time and genuine care. This may seem like it takes an overly long, dedicated amount of time. But once momentum starts, design skills will rapidly develop while stronger bonds with the design community at large are forged.

Design experiences as you would play gung fu.

Like the proper considerations a designer must make in creating a truly user-centric experience, all martial arts, in order to be considered both martial and an art, need to be useful, useable, and delightful.

So, knowing the similarities between the two disciplines, how can an aspiring experience designer utilize the principles of learning gung fu towards their professional growth? By building a bridge.


In summary, gung fu and experience design has some overlapping qualities, namely: Relating and relationships, Adaptability, Pressure testing and Refinement of skill over a long period of time.

And whether designing a product or developing gung fu skill requires the product and/or the art to be: Useful, Useable, and Delightful.

Next Week: Part II — What is Bridging?

Next week we will define what it really means to “bridge” and how bridging can be a useful strategy in both martial arts and experience design.

Phillip Le

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Full-time curioso living at the intersection of strategy and design. All opinions are my own.