Photo by Kadin Whitsitt

What 25 Years of Martial Arts Training Taught Me about Design

When I think of some of the main challenges in design, I see similar challenges in martial arts—being comfortable in chaos, providing comfort to others, and being in sync with others. It may seem strange to be talking about “comfort” and being “in sync” in context with martial arts, but there is a connection. In martial arts, you are facing the unknown when you encounter an opponent. In design, you may be facing a challenge where there are no benchmarks to measure from; you are breaking new ground.

I am a designer and a martial artist—I’ve been practicing both for over 25 years in a variety of styles. Early on in my career, I went into both design and martial arts with very strong views on what is the best style or design approach. My sensibility has evolved over the years from learnings that ranged from broken noses, bumpy start-ups, corporate work, and working with a range of personality types.

At times it may feel like we are also in a fight when we are designing—against other departments or individuals—but design’s true nature is collaborative.

Many people initially think of martial arts as a way to fight, but it’s true nature is focused on connecting with people and finding harmony. At times it may feel like we are also in a fight when we are designing—against other departments or individuals—but design’s true nature is collaborative. Martial arts training is a journey of facing internal challenges and learning about oneself. I think this training is also relevant for design and can help us designers navigating challenges with grace.

I see three areas that are relevant to both martial arts training and design: Vision (how you perceive outside forces), Finding your Hybrid Style (developing a nimble style), and Awareness (how you internalize outside forces and your tendencies).

VISION: How you perceive outside forces

Vision is an interesting theme to begin with because it’s such a soft skill, in contrast to the typical perception of martial arts being about physical skills. But everything stems from Vision. If you have poor Vision, you cannot begin to fight well in martial arts—you will misread your opponent and may get swept to the floor before you even do your first move. In design, if you have poor vision, you can go down the wrong path from the beginning and find yourself spinning and redoing work because you didn’t adopt a broad lens.

Soft Eyes

In martial arts, there is a concept of having soft eyes — to be relaxed in your vision, open to see everything at once, and not getting too locked in on a single movement of your opponent.

In the early stages of the design process, this soft eyes concept is key — you don’t want to get locked into one design solution due to stress. You need to be relaxed enough to step back and look at multiple options and ideas. It’s rare that the first idea is the best idea. Being open in my thinking allows me to think of out of the box ideas and hear other people’s ideas better. I encourage others to help me step back and see the big picture if I am in my action mode where I have a tendency to move too fast.

In martial arts, soft eyes allow you to deal with multiple opponents. You try to have a relaxed field of vision so you can see all the opponents but have vision on the furthest opponent who is often the greatest threat. Soft Eyes in design also enables you read others and see if they are stressed about something that has not been addressed. The unsaid or unnoticed design fear can later come back later to “sunset” a project.

Assumptions

Assumptions can be dangerous. In martial arts, it’s important not to make assumptions of your opponent just based on looks. There were many times when I’ve made assumptions of people and that affected my fighting. I underestimated fighters because they looked scrawny, but they had very powerful kicks due to their clean form. There were also times when people made assumptions about me because of my size, and I’ve been able to use that to my advantage.

In design, being aware of your assumptions is important. It’s good to test assumptions so you don’t get trapped with faulty or incomplete information. I like to step out of my shoes and try to really see the user. I have seen teams make assumptions of the user based on their own personal lens and preferences. A scrappy ethnography study can quickly provide insights into the user. Also false assumptions can affect the alignment of your team. It’s important to make sure to be clear on design approach and not assume that everyone agrees with you just because it may have been the method in the previous project.

Learnings not Failures

In martial arts, it’s all about taking risks, constantly learning, and improving. You are never an expert and the joy is the journey of learning. Being a beginner and embracing imperfection is a beautiful thing. You celebrate what some people perceive as a failure — like being klutzy when first learning to roll in Aikido or Judo — and see it as pure effort that leads to new understanding. Even if you’re seasoned, it’s good to have the mindset that you are a beginner and there’s always room to grow… this is the spirit of martial arts.

This should also hold true for design. Even though I want to present myself as knowing my craft, I still want to be receptive to feedback and new ideas, being open and approachable enough so that there’s space to see new insights. When something “fails”, it’s truly a wonderful opportunity for future growth. With technology evolving so fast and new user behaviors developing it is hard to be an expert. What process you used in the past may not be the same one that makes sense for the future.

Nothing is precious

This topic is all about ego and knowing when to let it go. When I started in martial arts, I tended to rely on one technique when sparring (controlled fighting). I eventually learned it was important that I stop clinging to that comfort zone. I did not want to let that one technique define or limit me. Early on, I was so loyal to Karate and refused to value other styles. I wanted to think I had found the one true style. Later, I saw the emergence of Mixed Martial Arts and effectiveness of other styles (to date, I have trained in eight different styles).

In design, sometimes I need to let go of certain methods that have become so ingrained in my process. For example there may be a 3D foam-core model that I’ve made and grown too attached to but I need to let it go and perhaps cut it up with an X-acto blade so that I can use a portion of it for a new concept. I need to let my ego go and be open to other solutions. It’s beneficial to step away from work you have created and detach yourself from it so that you can take an objective stance.

Timing

In martial arts, it’s important to not force a move or you may get hurt (like when I broke my nose when I misread my opponent’s timing) or your technique might not work.

Timing is also key in design. There can be situations in which your idea might be too new for decision makers, and it may take more time to see the value of the idea. Its critical to understand the market timing to know when to launch. Understanding the pace comes with experience. Even George Lucas took seven years to launch Star Wars! (My dad the toy designer enlightened me of this).

FINDING YOUR HYBRID STYLE: How you react to outside forces

I often get asked which martial arts style is the best to take. I’m not sure there is a “best” style—I really think it depends on what you are trying to get out of martial arts, your physical needs at the time, and the quality of the teacher. Ultimately, it is best to learn different styles which you can apply fluidly to different challenges.

In design, I also see this need to be able to develop a toolbox of styles. Some problems may be better attacked with Design Thinking, others with Agile, some with other methods or a combination of methods. I have encountered people who feel so strongly about their design style that they have distain for people who practice another style. They have closed off their world to other possibilities and will be left behind as design rapidly evolves.

Learning your basics first

Having the right foundation in martial arts is key. Whatever style you practice, embrace the fundamentals. The “basics” are something you train on constantly whether you are a beginner or a black belt. If you don’t understand the basics, your moves will not be as effective and you can get injured. It’s important to revisit and exercise the basics so that you continue to have a good foundation since it is easy to get sloppy. Eventually it becomes second nature, but it’s good good practice to constantly be aware of your form.

The basics are essential for design too. It is hard to be an effective designer if you do not have the basic skills of communication, or being able to identify a client’s need, or understanding context before jumping into the design solution. I have found myself slip at times by getting so excited to share my solutions that I don’t set up the basic context of the problem. The context may not be that exciting, but it’s critical to a strong foundation. The more you understand the different basic components of design, the more you can branch out and add other skillsets, or even modify that foundation.

Understanding linear vs. flowing styles

As your martial arts basics are becoming more of a natural practice, it may be good to start understanding other styles. Certain styles can be linear or more fluid — I found there are times and places for both.

  • Linear Style: I started off learning a linear direct style called Shotokan karate. This style naturally drew me in since at the time I had a more aggressive nature and a direct energy. The attacks are straight-on punches, strikes and kicks. The defensive moves are mainly blocks that deflect or absorb the blow, and include side steps and immediate counter attacks. 
    In design, I’ve found there are times when it is appropriate to have a direct communication approach. When we need to cut through the clutter and focus on the key needs. It’s good to be grounded and direct in design principles. There have been times when I have encountered leaders or co-workers pushing directions that go against brand integrity where I felt the need to be direct and explain how I disagreed. If I voice my opinion in a sincere, clear manner, it is usually heard better. There are also times as a manager where you cannot not be too general or ambiguous in your direction otherwise it can cause stress within your team.
  • Flowing Style: There are other martial arts styles that are more fluid (Aikido & Jiu-jitsu). These styles focus on using another person’s energy, redirecting it and using it to your advantage. In these styles, the person receiving the attack and the person initiating it are two halves of a whole. One can’t happen without the other. this is where the harmony comes in. Especially in Aikido, it’s all about how you respond to attacks. It’s about being so physically connected with your partner that you can read every push and pull. 
    In design, this flow can happen too. I have felt it when I am in sync with my colleagues and we problem solve in such an organic way that you cannot recall who came up with what. It feels super fluid & natural, and much more rewarding than seeking individual credit for a design solution. I really like when this happens with cross functional team members. I can also feel this “flow” when trying to get alignment with clients and decision makers. There is flow when you address your client’s concern so that they feel heard, and then roll into what your proposal of a design concept or refine the concept. This lens of collaboration allows everyone to feel energized and positive, even when there is a disagreement.

So much about taking on a challenge — whether it’s a martial arts attack or a design problem — begins with reading the situation and having the ability to use the right approach. This is why it is important have not to rely on just one.

AWARENESS: Noticing your behaviors

I think the ultimate goal of martial arts is Awareness — not just awareness of your environment and your opponent, but awareness of yourself.

Journey vs. Content

In martial arts, the journey of self-awareness is more valuable than learning new skills. You can be skilled in techniques but if you have very little awareness of self, you are like that annoying teacher in Karate Kid who is all ego and misses the whole point of martial arts being about self-improvement, not a celebration of self.

Early on in my martial arts training, my favorite part of class was the sparring (controlled fighting). I would bounce up and down on the balls of my feet in my excitement, focused on what moves I wanted to try out. I had not found the patience to take in the opponent’s energy and read their tendencies. Eventually I started reading their energy by taking seconds or fractions of a second to read their habits in attacks and in defense. These few seconds were not a waste of time. It allowed me to be present and engage with my opponent.

I have been eager at times to get momentum on a design solution. This created blind spots to my client’s fears and delayed the momentum I was seeking. I was too focused on the solution and forgot about getting alignment. One time, I made a to-scale foam core model to rapidly test out an idea. I was working with the Design Strategist, but she had not been keeping her Director up to speed at the rate her manager desired. This director was concerned about why we were jumping to this solution. We had to pause and make time to walk the director through how we got to where we were. Once she saw our thought process and understood that the foam core model was just a tool to think through the engagement, she felt very comfortable with our direction. Some can see this as frustrating process — we had to take time out and lose a week because the Director didn’t trust us. The Journey is as important as the design, and it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same journey.

Knowing your strengths can be your weakness

It is a powerful thing to be aware of your strengths and to be able to tame them when needed. My strength is rapid problem solving and conceptualizing, but my habit in how I communicate my ideas in rapid progression does not allow much space for others to contribute. I am not making enough room to receive. I am not pausing enough. I think of Hokusai’s great wave and how there is such a nice balance between the positive space (the wave) and the negative space (the sky). If I do not focus on my communication style, I tend to be a tidal wave that leaves little open space for feedback and other people’s ideas. Another metaphor that captures my tendencies is that of ripples in a pond. If my energy is too high, my ripple can disrupt the energy in the pond and be perceived as less collaborative. If my energy is in similar frequency, it can create a more harmonious and fluid environment — the ripples emanate together. There are also times when my high energy can help stimulate discussion and push ideas. The key is to not let my tendencies to take over but to be mindful of the situation and fine tune my communication style and energy.

The ultimate style is to have no style

I will close this out with a quote from Bruce Lee:

“Styles separate man. If you don’t have style, you can say here I am. If you ask how can I express myself totally and completely. That way you won’t create a style. . . because style is a crystallization. That way you will create a process of continuing growth.”

Bruce Lee is saying that in order to be connected to yourself, you must not rigidly define yourself. As soon as you start defining yourself, you get further away from who you really are. To be an effective designer and martial artist, you need to be accepting of yourself so that you will be fluid enough to evolve.


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