As a UX professional I take inspiration from a great many things. Since I’m also a big pop culture geek, that’s the biggest well I draw from. I’ve read a lot of entertainment biographies lately, and the latest was about famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. As I was reading The Bruce Lee Story (written by his wife) I was pleased to note that he, too, believed in borrowing ideas and techniques from other fields.

“Expose yourself to various conditions and learn … Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”

Following his advice, I’ve identified some key lessons Bruce Lee taught and lived by that are applicable to experience design. What design lessons can be learned from a late, great action star? Quite a few, it turns out.


“It’s not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

When Lee was planning his training and forming his martial art moves, he was focused on simplifying everything: move only when necessary, use only the muscles needed (this resulted in the creation of his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do). Can this be applied in interaction design? Of course, and we have already seen this trend propagate throughout countless designs.

Stripping away the unnecessary elements allows users to focus on the task at hand. Why have multiple questions to setup an account when you can use single sign-on services and/or a single password? Why show advanced options on the same screen that the basic options are on? Simplifying UI designs, like simplifying martial arts moves, allows you to do more with less.

Be Aware Of Context And Surroundings

“Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind, there is perception.”

Designing with out awareness is designing in the dark. Understanding users and the context of their surroundings allows you design the right solution. A desktop app works one way, a mobile app that people use while walking around a warehouse needs to work in a completely different way.

Open Your Mind

Bruce Lee often told students that if they already thought they “knew” everything, they should leave his class.

“If your cup is full, you cannot fill it. So first, empty your cup.”

As you start to design something, step away from your preconceptions. The wonderful thing about UX is the ability to learn new industries, research users and what they do, and then provide solutions to make their lives better. This requires following a user-centered design process, but it also requires starting with no assumptions and bias. Good design solutions come from that fresh, open mind.

Be Flexible—Be Like Water

“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. That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”

Follow a proper design process, but don’t be dogmatic about it. Be flexible, and approach each design project within the confines that exist. I have a colleague who thinks that an extensive two-month ethnographic study should occur before ANY design is done. In business environments this is often a rare luxury, and he is frustrated much of the time because he is rigid in this belief. Taking such a dogmatic stand is affecting both his professional reputation and costing him opportunities. Don’t be intransigent—be flexible. Be like water.

Understand The Difference Between Catastrophe And An Inconvenience

“Know the difference between a catastrophe and an inconvenience. To realize that it’s just an inconvenience, that it is not a catastrophe, but just an unpleasantness, is part of coming into your own, part of waking up.”

When we are designing solutions for users, we must be aware of the design problems we are solving, and focus our energies appropriately. Spend the right time working on the right problem, and try to identify the core things that need solving: the things that are genuine “catastrophes.”

Own your Mistakes

“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them”

I’ve met many insecure designers who are afraid of failure; who don’t like doing usability tests because it would reveal flaws in the work they have done. They are losing out on a key opportunity to grow by accepting and learning from mistakes. This is a lesson applicable in UX as in life.

Design Your Own Way

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Take inspiration from other designers, follow best practices, but don’t try and emulate other people’s design style. Be your own person, make the designs your own … and stretch the boundaries of design and innovation. If you do that, you may stumble upon the next new thing and design something that adds value to millions of people’s lives.

So you see, many of the principles that Bruce Lee lived by are as applicable to the martial artist as they are the UX practitioner. Use these principles to master UX in the same way Lee mastered his craft.

“It’s not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”—Bruce Lee

All quotes by Bruce Lee.


Image of Bruce Lee statue courtesy Shutterstock


This was an awesome article :) 

I am sure majority of people here are all Lee Followers... or at least fans ... but merging 2 awesome things which I follow... Bruce Lee and UX... was so cool :) 

Thanx for sharing.

Bruce Lee was great not just in martial arts, but also in running his life. He used his skills not just for fighting but also to create his own business, like teaching other people what he knew from martial arts. He did not only create his name as a legendary martial artist but he also create his own name by being a person with great pride and honor.

Alexis M. Manuel

What a great article.
I guess Bruce Lee has influenced many professionals be it IT experts like yourself ,Joseph and even plastic surgeons.
I just came across this article written by 2 plastic surgeons.

love this article

Great article. Interesting and inspiring that other people are having similar thoughts in this space. Probably the same day this was posted I posted a short article on our company blog about Jeet Kune Do and Service Design.

Sorry about the self-promotion, but I believe so wholeheartedly in Bruce Lee's "be like water" philosophy that I named my Web development company after it:

Great article.

Exceptional job in streamlining and facilitating otherwise difficult plus intangible complex tenets! Most impressive. A recommended read for all visionaires.

Just another way Bruce Lee was ahead of his time. I wrote similar thoughts in a post I wrote a while back entitled Web Jeet Kune Do.

If anyone doubts how much Lee changed the world just watch this History Channel documentary:

Love the fact that you're using Bruce's thoughts of using knowledge from other skills, and using that again on UX. Awesome job man!

Really good post, I've been practicing JKD since the mid 90's and when I started in UX in the early 00's this idea struck me in the exact same way. One quick caveat to your post that makes this even more interesting (I think anyway) is that JKD isn't Bruce's martial art, it's his concept, which builds on the premise you stated in the beginning "Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”

So it's akin to Agile or Lean UX really.

Another interesting tid-bit I read in the past is that he and Dan Inosanto (still alive and carrying on the JKD legacy) would walk around pointing out things to each other that were "JKD" in regular life, outside of martial arts, much like we walk around pointing out things that are UCD (I do this anyway ;).

Really great post on UX. I should do the same with jiu-jitsu and software engineering.

Hi Joseph,
I really liked your post, but I would like to give you another "martial art" point of view.
I'm a Capoerist since 2007, but just in the last two years I really understood Capoeira.

The Capoeira basic elements are:
- small orchestra (bateria) that sings and plays tribal music
- a circle of people singing and clapping their hands following the orchestra (roda)
- two players (Capoeristas) that combine their attacks, defenses and acrobatic movements in a sort of physic dialogue

Capoeira isn't a fight. Capoeira is group communication where everybody are involved.

A Capoerist need to understand and adapt himelf to the situation (device), the music (technical requirements/clients needs) and the partner's movements (contents/functions/final users).

A Capoerist can play an acrobatic game (fancy UX), an effective game (service UX), a strategic game (test UX) and so on.

In Capoeira we don't fight, we feel and communicate to each other.
That's UX, isn't it?

Nice write up Joseph! Coincidentally, I gave a talk on a similar co-relation between UX and Wing Chun Kung Fu last month at IxDA Sydney. :)

Be Aware Of Context And Surroundings
“Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind, there is perception.”

This is such a good quote! As a Uxer, you're always finding better ways to understand your users' context. Userlytics (user testing site) allows you to conduct tests that film the user AND their screen, while completing a test.

I'm sure that Bruce Lee reviewed 'game tapes' (of his craft) for improvement purposes.

AWESOME read! Really put me in the kung-fu craftsmanship mood. Loved it.

Respectfully, it 'Is' Jeet-kun-do and not meager Kung Fu, Fyi.