frog design: Be Like Water

The design world seems to be drifting away from its heritage. More and more designers are becoming increasingly disconnected from the objects they design.

The design world seems to be drifting away from its heritage. More and more designers are becoming increasingly disconnected from the objects they design. Some of it has to do with the increasing obsession with rapid prototyping and slowly removing us, and our craft, from our work. But most of it has to do with the designer’s process and their need to insert themselves into the equation. Instead of starting with the user, or even the product, most designers are guilty of trying first to win an award, to create some new form for form’s sake, or simply just to wag their tail in the face of the user to show how clever they are.

To create real value, we must change the way we view our profession, our processes, and the products we design.

When I was in school, I studied the great architects – Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. I wanted desperately to create the same thread in my work that they had created in theirs. I wanted to create the next great movement, to put my signature not only on the products I created but also on the design world as well. So what was my organic architecture going to be, and more importantly, how did it lead to my falling water? Over time I realized how constraining and limiting that would be. How could one paradigm fill the need of every product? How could one style benefit every user?

Recently I came across an article about Bruce Lee. Most people know him from his movies, but he was also a very controversial martial artist of his time. He created a martial arts system and life philosophy called Jeet Kune Do that was the antithesis of everything else at the time. It was known as the “style without style”. Through his studies, Bruce came to believe that styles had become too rigid and unrealistic. His belief was that a good martial artist should “be like water” and move fluidly without hesitation. In writing about his style, he explained, “I have not invented a new style, composite, modified, or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.” Lee believed that martial arts systems should be as flexible as possible. He often used water as an analogy for describing why flexibility is a desired trait in martial arts. Water is infinitely flexible. It can be transparent, yet, under different circumstances, can obscure things from sight. It can split and go around things, rejoining on the other side, or it can wash over things. It can erode the hardest rocks, or it can flow past the tiniest pebble.

There are a lot of parallels with Bruce’s thinking about martial arts and design. In fact, his philosophy is a very elegant way of looking at design and our process for creating objects. What I find so fascinating is that it was written over 40 years ago by someone who wasn’t in the design field. Other designers have written similar statements about design. Fukasawa, Ive, Morrison, Newson, and Rams all write in different ways about getting design out of the way. What this tells me, though, is that this design centric viewpoint may actually be a universal paradigm. People need and want an honest solution to a problem, not some arbitrary style decision made by some designer.

A design process should be dynamic and fluid. Its intent should be to find an honest expression of the solution to the problem. Just like water can adapt and fill any container or surround any form, we should be able to adapt ourselves and our process to find the correct solution to any problem. The correct solution does not involve leaving ones imprint in the design. The correct solution comes from finding the right balance between the user, culture, and industry. Those forces are forever in flux, forever dynamic, and so should be our process. To get there, one should not ignore other styles, viewpoints, or what has come before. Quite the opposite, we should have a deep knowledge of every style and movement that has come before. “Absorb what is useful; disregard that which is useless” is an often quoted Bruce Lee maxim. The metaphor Lee borrowed was filling a cup with water and then emptying it. We should expand our knowledge with other ways of seeing the world to add to one’s repertoire, to be able to pull from what is relevant.

The ability to be adaptive and dynamic should be the desired trait of any designer’s process – never static, always flowing. “Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, creep, drip, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”

By Adam Leonards

Reprinted with kind permission from design mind, a publication of global innovation firm frog design.

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