Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Sensitivity Training

September 29, 2006

One of the most fortuitous choices in my life was the choice in 1988 to become a student of martial arts and science. That study has brought significant good fortune and dimension to my life, especially my life as a designer. The study of martial science is excellent for cultivating the intuition and sympathetic senses, which I’ve found to be likely the most important qualities a designer can possess. I’m certain that without this ongoing training I’d be a fairly useless designer.

This aspect of my life is not something that I’m generally enthusiastic about speaking of, but over the past couple of years a few of my friends have impressed upon me the value of personal testimony. If something has been important in my life, perhaps it could be beneficial for others as well. If that’s the case, I hope that some of you might glean something of value from this article.

It is a simple fact that no one can learn to develop the sympathetic senses or the intuition significantly when hampered by undue self consciousness.

Response to my last article contained a healthy dose of reservation about a designer relying so significantly on what I characterized as a designer’s subjective understanding. But as I noted there, a designer – a good designer – must have a highly developed sense of subjective experience. This sense must be different from that of most people.

Designers have to be in the habit of placing themselves and their sensitivities in the context of varied personae. Of course, in order to do this, one has to have a highly developed sympathetic sense and a deep understanding of human psychology and motivations, as well as a broad experience. In my experience, this is where the study of martial science has come in quite handy.

Continual training at learning to defend yourself and others from someone intent on taking your life or someone else’s life by any means brings with it a host of insights and benefits. These benefits are seldom if ever apparent to the uninitiated – or even to the initiated until after quite a few years of study. The physical benefits are, of course, easy to recognize and measure. Physical training is its own reward and embodies the perfect bargain: you get out of it what you put into it, nothing less and nothing more.

The non-physical benefits, however, are significantly less tangible and seem rather unintuitive. In fact, in many regards the more you leave out of your training the more you gain. Here I’m referring to ego. As in most facets of life, ego represents an impenetrable barrier to learning and perception in the course of defense training and martial science understanding. It is a simple fact that no one can learn to develop the sympathetic senses or the intuition significantly when hampered by undue self consciousness.

Here is where strong parallels between martial skills and understanding and design ability become pronounced. Exercising either of these abilities is directly affected by the degree of ego we bring to the endeavor. And in both cases, popular lore contradicts the reality of successfully putting these skills into practice. Most people believe that the most skilled martial artists and the most skilled designers are the ones who approach their endeavor with the largest and most well–fed egos. It is, however, logically and metaphysically impossible for this idea to be true. Let me explain.

Simply put, you can look into yourself or into others, but you cannot do both at the same time. Ever.

Both defending your life and designing something successfully for a client requires the suppression of ego. Whether your aim is to design a web interface for online shoppers or to avoid the inevitable but not–yet–launched knife attack from an assailant, any thought about your own opinion or emotion or condition will completely block your perception and sensitivity to the thoughts, motivations, actions and ideas of others. Simply put, you can look into yourself or into others, but you cannot do both at the same time. Ever. If, however, you can assume the character of a raw and hungry receptor, you are free to receive valuable input.

In the proper sympathetic state we become receptive to things others seldom experience or recognize. It is in this state, where ego holds no sway on perception, that what is essentially a subjective experience becomes more than subjective …and less subjective, all at once. What most people recognize as and identify with subjectivity is something created almost entirely by the interference of ego. Hence, this sort of subjectivity is rightly criticized when it features too prominently in a design process.

However, a designer’s “subjective” understanding – that not derived from wholly objective sources – is often times free from an ego’s interference. It is instead based on a highly–developed intuition and sympathetic sense of context and human behavior. At least it should be. This is the “subjectivity” we designers have to aim for when we place ourselves in others’ shoes for the sake of design decisions.

It is no different for someone in a life or death situation. When defending your life you cannot afford to play catch–up. The only possibility for victory lies in accurately anticipating the actions of your assailant; in becoming completely egoless and entirely receptive to his nature, motivations and experience. Doing this is exactly like becoming his dance partner. You must be intuitive, receptive and responsive, to a fault. This is still subjectivity, but it’s subjectivity on a plane seldom visited by most people.

Ten years from now you could either be living with the benefits or living with regret for having not pursued that study.

In this state of perception, there is no thought about “I” and there is no distraction that interferes with recognition. There is only practiced understanding that has a direct link to action or response. Because we’re dealing now with practiced understanding, we can draw upon pattern recognition – both physical and psychological – and simply respond to handle the situation – as was done thousands upon thousands of times in training.

If ego stands in the way, though, our effort to intuit the proper interface design or information architecture runs headlong into a brick wall. In the life or death situation, we may hesitate over concern for our wellbeing and stop to consider things that have nothing to do with intuitive response. In either case we fail. Here, ego prevents success, as it nearly always does.

So I’m fully sold on the idea that ego has no place in a designer’s subjective perception. Though we refer to heuristics and other internalized abilities exercised to offer insight as subjective, the term is a bit out of place in this context. Just as pilots, mathematicians, racecar drivers, and gymnasts have abilities that are beyond the perception and understanding of most people, designers do also. Well, we do if we develop them. The ability to repress ego has to be one of these abilities.

I am not, however, suggesting that I have a small ego or am free from ego entirely (ha!). I’m quite certain that my ego is plenty large; at least as large as most everyone I know. But because of my training in martial science and design I have the ability to turn it down or turn it off completely for a time. It is only because of this practiced ability that I have been able to avoid some dangerous situations, as well as achieve some design success on a few occasions. As I noted earlier, without this ability I’d be a pretty bad designer. I’d also likely have a few more scars and nagging injuries to talk about.

As for training in martial arts and science, I highly recommend it for anyone; designers especially. But I was serious when I referred to the benefits being largely unrecognizable for several years. Like anything worthwhile, martial science training is something that requires a long-term and sober commitment. I’d wager that most serious students could certainly reap significant benefit with as little as ten years of continuous study and training.

While ten years might seem like a long time to you, it’s a blink of an eye in a lifetime. Ten years from now you could either be living with the benefits or living with regret for having not pursued that study. Anyway, my choice has made a world of difference in my life. It just might do the same for you. Of course, you’ll just have to find out for yourself.