Kung Fu Fighting for Designers

Note: This is Part 23 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

“Hard” martial arts tend to focus on directing your force at an opponent, while “soft” martial arts focus on directing the opponents force back on them.

I think a lot of the time designers use “hard” techniques to get their way, while a “soft” approach might be more effective.

This is because designers rarely have the most power or force in a particular relationship, so are unlikely to win using this approach, and the risk of failure is pretty high.

The “hard” approach here is the yearly strategy deck you use to convince your business partners to take you seriously. It’s full of design leader quotes (the audience have never heard of), graphs of the value of design led companies, maturity charts and Apple / AirbBnB anecdotes.

The “soft” (and therefore less exciting) approach is to write governance documents, process guides, workshop agendas, staffing plans, procurement forms, strategy decks, product backlogs, and progress updates which have the changes you want to make subtly embedded therein.


There’s a third “force-less” approach: depleting the opponent’s force by agilely absorbing it.

So one common strategy is to first deplete it until weakened, then go “soft” to accelerate it, and eventually go “hard” to finish the fight.

But all that is still playing the opponent’s game.

Designers’ challenge is not that they choose to go “hard” and not go “soft”, but that the environment they are given rarely allows them to choose.

That environment can only be changed by activism.

Hard or soft, effective and efficient tactics are nice though.

What I’m not comfortable with is the status-quo-keeping attitude inherent in the rhetoric of either “let’s go hard” or “let’s go soft”.

Whereas the “hard” approach tends to emphasize the power of persuasion, the “soft” approach tends to emphasize the power of nudging. Both are about influence, which really is critical in the whole matter.

But as long as we don’t place activism into our strategic and tactical formula, both approaches are inherently status-quo keeping.

They assume that the dominant power is not to be challenged in anyway, just as some people in the past used to assume that “women don’t deserve voting rights”, or that “homosexuality should just be illegal”, or that “slavery simply can’t be abolished”. In all three cases, they assumed that we couldn’t “break” the system” and therefore we could only “bend” towards it.

In other words, they assume that evidence is enough to persuade (“let’s prove it!”), that small changes always lead to big ones (“let’s nudge it!”), and that power is part of the constraint (barrier that can’t be removed: “It is what it is”, “You gotta pick your fight, dude.”).

Perhaps those assumptions are resonant but, still, fundamentally flawed.

As a form of power, expertise also needs activism.

And that activism happens not only on the street, but also at workplace.

It doesn’t mean kowtowing to any and every influential relationship.

Instead, it means making friends while you’re making enemies. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. You simply don’t get to make influential friends without making a few influential enemies.

Adversary is generally and righteously to be avoided, but that doesn’t mean it is also to be avoided even when confrontation is necessary for real change.

Women’s rights were neither “persuaded” nor “nudged” into reality. Homosexuality was neither “persuaded” nor “nudged” out of illegality. Slavery was neither “persuaded” nor “nudged” into abolition.

They were fought into happening, even at workplace.

So what does all that mean to aspiring designers?

Three takeaways:

  • Influence: Develop the skills needed for effective and efficient influencing
  • Resilience: Provide help and make friends, but don’t be afraid of making a few enemies
  • Resistance: Keep an eye on the activist side of things and explore opportunities to join or start movements

That’s forward-looking Kung Fu.


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