Gung Fu & Designing Experiences Part II: What is Bridging?

Much like the art of gung fu, the first step towards becoming an experience design professional is in building bridges.

Phillip Le
Jun 24, 2015 · 11 min read

This is Part II of an ongoing series.
Over the next several weeks, I will continue to publish a series 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.

Bridges connect. They provide paths over obstacles that, prior to the bridge’s existence, was impassable or nigh impossible to pass.

Building bridges takes upfront work. It requires masonry. Engineering. Procuring of materials. The laboring efforts of individuals working together to conjoin the material to material to material until a connection is made over the once intraversable.

Bridges connect by fusing two (or more) separate masses into one united front. They provide unity and in doing so, promote relating and relationships. They connect things within the realms of physical space, but they also connect intangible things too.

Last week, we discussed how the two disciplines I hold dear — experience design and gung fu — have overlapping qualities and what those qualities are.

This week, we will dive into what it really means to “bridge” and how this can be a helpful strategy in designing experiences.

The Bridge in Gung Fu

In gung fu, we refer to bridges often. When we say “bridge” or “bridging,” we mean working towards a point of contact , establishing a particular type of connection between you and the other person — much easier to say than to create.

Most often, a bridge is an arm rooted to the body which in turn is anchored into the ground. This arm, with its neurological pathways structured into your shoulder, to your core, into your hip, and rooted through your legs, acts as a feeler, a node of reciprocity — or animosity — and a physiological contact, but also a psychological one. It is the first step in communicating with the other person, reading their movements and reacting through how they react. To a gung fu practitioner, setting the bridge is the boxer’s jab gauging to land the perfect combination.

Other nuances surface as one begins to bridge, but for the purposes of this piece, the important thing to know is, building bridges requires feeling, touch, timing. The sensitivity and the acuity to building what we call “meaningful connection.”

Bridges are also built to provide access to an individual’s development from beginner to proficiency. It can establish relationships, building a network of trusted colleagues and friends.

When designing experiences, that intrinsic sense of speaking to one another without words, this nuance is something I strive for in my design.

A bridge acts as a feeler, physiological contact, but also psychological. It is the first step in communicating with the other person, reading their movements and reacting through how they react.

The Bridge in Design

Building a bridge can mean many things to a designer. It can be the processes and puzzle solving required for a product to become more useable and accessible. It can be the establishing and timing required during designer engagements with clients. It can be the act of honing oneself into becoming a better professional in the industry, or even the mark of initiating a business deal for future development.

In all of these examples, the underpinning of building a bridge deals with establishing and maintaining positive relationships.

While engaging clients, I strive to relay the import of this concept to my values as a designer: the virtues of establishing bridged communication, empathy, relating, and relationships.

The specific art I practice and teach, Jook Lum, is considered a close-range, in-fighting system. In terms of Chinese martial arts, what this means is the art emphasizes utilizing feeling and touch to sense and relate to the opponent. In practice, this sense of feel enables a judgement of distance, intention, speed, and spacial relation in time and space between you and the other individual.

It is this same nuance a designer develops to address objectives and goals related to the puzzles they are working to solve.

Bridging into Design

Becoming acquainted with — and developing skill in — designing experiences can be intimidating. It can be made less so if an individual plans ahead, consciously indicating stepping stones to bridge from novice into craftsman.

By refining skill-sets you advocate for, with a set goal in mind, you can inch forward by putting the time in.

How does an individual bridge in experience design? My good friend and colleague, Drew Christiano already wrote a great primer on the topic, Breaking Into the Industry. I recommend you checking it out.

In the meantime, I have a few signposts that may be of some help in defining bridge-building its value in development towards designing experiences.

Bridging means reaching out.

When people ask me, “How do you stay on top of the industry and how do you keep in touch with other designers you’ve met,” they are surprised that I bring up Twitter.

There are people who tend to proudly proclaim to me that they, “Hate social media,” or that, “I never really saw the value.” But I suspect they’re not using the tool to their advantage. Social media has connected me to a lot of colleagues I respect, keeping me informed with new concepts, or even allowing me a network of intelligent folks with whom I can access to cross examine my work.

“The whole Internet is social media.” — Drew Christiano

Twitter, and networks such as Dribbble, or Behance help make bridging easier than ever before. Social media and its community taps you into the flow of conversation happening in the experience design sphere. It also acts as a medium for you to develop and define your digital presence while simultaneously acting as a soundboard for your developing skills.

As I’ve stated above, bridging starts with talking to people and then building relationships.

The fear of exposing oneself as an ignorant player in the field is the biggest hinderance to those wanting to learn. It isn’t easy, but toss these fears aside.

Go to networking events pertaining to the field. Ask questions to find commonality with others new to the practice. This will reinforce that you are not alone and that there is a whole community out there wanting to help you get better.

Bridging first requires you to reach out and by doing so, brings us to the next topic which deals with finding a point of contact.

Bridging means contact.

In Jook Lum, we work against an opponents attack to try and establish a forearm-to-forearm connection. This contact means that if a punch is thrown at us, we intercept it and stay “sticky” to the opponent’s arm. This contact acts as a gateway to feeling the opponent’s relation to us as providing up-close indicators for an opponent’s intentions and tactics.

Establishing contact in experience design is very similar: contact through real-life encounters, but contact through any means of intellectual discourse as well.

Similar with the previous suggestion of reaching out, engaging with users will provide testing grounds for your developing design solutions. Likewise, interacting with peers for some outside prospective can illuminate otherwise myopic focus.

And while speaking of myopia, focusing singularly on the design problem can sometimes narrow the scope of vision. By immersing yourself into other fields of study, new divergent thinking may arise.

Establishing contact with existing design paradigms, tangentially related fields, and engaging in understanding behavior, qualitative data will allow you to indicate intentions and tactics to better your design thinking.

By establishing contact, bridging thereby develops presence.

Bridging means presence.

Just as you are feeling where your partner will move during practice, they too, will sense where you are in relation to them, and helps communicate what you are capable of.

Once you are comfortable with establishing contact through networking, developing relationships with your peers and users, use social media as your platform towards becoming an industry thought leader. Those in our field want to know you’re not only able to come up with concepts and designs, but also be able to share them with others in intelligible ways.

If you want to be a thought-leader, you must have an audience. Your network and social media can help.

Molly Reynolds has a great piece on marketing yourself in, How to Market Yourself as a Thought Leader as a thought leader.

“Creating a presence for yourself as a leader in your industry not only allows you to connect with your audience, it seriously helps when you’re trying to get funding, forge new partnerships, promote new products, land a book deal….the list goes on.” — Molly Renolds

This part is fun, though sometimes daunting. In practicing martial bridging, you are learning how to dictate the conversation and control the fight. This requires you to receive attacks and reverse them, but what this means is, you are establishing a presence and a referential point for your partner during practice.

With experience design, it is no different. You are establishing a focal point for yourself in your professional growth. It allows you to ask questions to achieve your goals. For example, are you interested in user research? Do you want to apply your graphic design skills into building products and user interfaces? Does information architecture amp your endorphins for the day?

Furthermore, once you’ve put some thought out into the world — you’ve guessed it — your thoughts (such as mine here!) will be pressure tested by the community. This will only enable you to better refine your thinking.

Therefore, finding out what you enjoy most and then building a brand around that is essential. But what is equally important is getting people to recognize you as the learner, and professional that you are; and then getting them to push you farther.

You can only do this through the means of building a presence.

Bridging means forward pressure; even if you have to take a step back.

There will be days where you feel like you’re not making any progress. There will be weeks where you will ask yourself if this is all worth it. You know these skills are something you really want, but doubt will creep in.

In gung fu, we teach that bridging means maintaining forward pressure against your opponent even if you have to “retreat.” That is to say, you are never really giving way, so much as releasing tension even as you press onward.

There is nothing wrong with recalibrating and there will be days where you are having a hell of a time figuring out a design challenge. Adapt, flow, change, and even take a step back. But do so knowing that this is all in order for you to maintain the forward pressure for the goals you want to achieve.

Rest between the beats. But then keep on pressing.

Bridging means community.

If you want to maintain these relationships you’ve worked so hard to bridge, you have to be able to make lasting connections. My friend Lis Pardi says, “Be halfway delightful.”

“Because for the first time since we all lived in small villages, being nice actually matters. And you know what the best part is? It feels good, too.” — — Gary Veynerchuk

As much as gung fu is about developing skills in combat, it is also about developing relationships with your peers and teachers. To be vulnerable in the early stages of your journey means developing trust. And to develop this trust, you must earn it.

Designed experiences are also about relating to the user/customer/audience through your product and design.

My experience in developing myself as an experience professional has ran parallel to my experience developing myself as a gung fu instructor. To build strong foundation in the disciplines of user experience and in gung fu, I had to develop a strong foundation in communicating and relating to my peers. Community, relating, and relationships, my skills came from my ability to interact with my peers and those of higher skill from me. This has informed my practice in UX and gung fu, both.

“It’s similar to developing your skills in sports. If you want to improve, you play with those better than you, not worse. Plus, a little friendly competition only aids everyone in creating their best work.” — Stephanie Kaptein

Stephanie Kaptein argues that if you “Want to Better Your Craft? Make Friends with Talented People”, so go out there and start building your community.

Bridging forces you to own what you don’t know.

During practice, bridging allows you to not only learn how to connect and overwhelm an opponent, but it also uncovers holes in your technique so you can better work to cover them.

Certainly a key part towards success is having confidence to tell people what you know, advocating for your users and for yourself. But confidence works the other way too, having the confidence to state what you don’t know when you don’t. Without identifying what it is you don’t know or what you keep fumbling on, you will not succeed in strengthening those weaker areas in your expertise.

This is where you figure out what techniques you are comfortable with and which ones you want to develop more of. By developing ownership of the art, gung fu practitioners begin to develop a martial identity all the while they continue learning.

People keep saying it, but it’s true: be willing to make mistakes. Besides learning principles and methods of thinking, one of the most important things these past two years developing myself as a product designer has done was give me the confidence in stating what I don’t know and in making mistakes.

Bridging teaches you that achieving ‘Simple’ can be a complex endeavor.

Gung fu’s objective is to apply the most efficient and appropriate technique for the right moment and time. And like the concepts of user experience and user interface design, coming to these efficient and appropriate techniques may not, initially, be a simple journey. A lot of work and compromising take root for the most efficient outcomes. The route to that efficiency may be a complex process for simple experiences and solutions.

Bridging helps provide the quickest route to the closest target — simple in concept, but harder to achieve.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. But achieving that simplicity may take a lot of work.


In summary, bridging as a concept in gung fu can be applied to developing oneself as a designer of experiences. Bridging as a concept brings two originally disparate things together. In this regard, bridging can mean several things:

  1. Bridging means reaching out.
  2. Bridging means contact.
  3. Bridging means presence.
  4. Bridging means forward pressure; even if you have to take a step back.
  5. Bridging means community.
  6. Bridging forces you to own what you don’t
  7. Bridging teaches you that achieving ‘Simple’ can be a complex endeavor.

Next Week: Part III — Bridging with Stepping Stones

Next week we talk about the long game and how bridging with the eye on the prize can allow us to iterate our way to excellence.

Phillip Le

Written by

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