Interface Design Wushu

By Mark Power-Freeman

Among the many, many parallels between my development as an interface designer and Bruce Lee’s development as the creator of Jeet Kune Do is our understanding of and relation to the things that form the core of our respective disciplines. Bruce Lee once said about his study of the martial arts:

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.”

I went through something similar with interface design. I’ve been using computers in one form or another since the first grade, and for a long period, a button was just a button, a screen was just a screen, and a computer was just a computer. Nothing special — just silicon, plastic, and glass that could be as stubborn as a mule and only marginally less dirty.

Once I got my nice, shiny degree in design and I discovered “the art” of design, I looked at every interface with the zealously critical eye of a new convert to any philosophy or practice. A button wasn’t just a button, it was the summary and endpoint of all the user’s hopes and dreams and needs. The screen wasn’t just a screen, it was the window into the computer’s soul, the means by which the device and the user shared a gaze and meaning. <Insert Bruce Lee-esque kiai here.>

With several years of design under my belt, I’ve come back around to realizing that it really is all simple stuff. A buttonis just a button. Sure, it has button dharma, and my job as a designer is to help it fulfill its duty, but the act of clicking it is not some profound event that creates multiverses depending on the path it actualizes. (Or, is it? I will now ponder the chain of events that occurred in the universe where I clicked “Reply” instead of “Reply All” that one time….)

So, ultimately, I think as designers and developers, we all come to the same realization that Master Lee did: significant outcomes arise from a chain of simple actions. The trick is to figure out the arrangements of simplicity that give us our desired complex outcome so that we can replace the word “Jeet Kune Do” with “Interface Design” in the following quote from Master Lee:

Again let me remind you, Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.