Lessons from the Ocean: A Surfer’s Guide to Design Thinking
My relationship with the ocean began before I was born. My parents rented a small boat the weekend “Jaws” was released. Coincidentally, the movie was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where my father chose to introduce my mother to the sport of sailing. I’ve been told it did not go well.
Over the years, my parents found common ground on the topic and discovered that they were happiest when sailing. So I was born into a family of sailors.
When I was old enough, my brothers all chipped in and bought me a windsurfer. Just a few days later, I was in the water and beginning a trial-and-error process that continues to this day. I quickly learned that surfing is as much mental as it is physical. It requires thinking about motion, balance, position, and timing.
Somewhere during my years of practice and failure on the ocean, I began my career as a designer. I learned how the economic use of materials on hand could solve problems if applied in the right way. I watched my mentors and reflected on how they solved problems and how they thought about their disciplines the same way I study the movements and traits of gray-haired surfers. I learned that time spent examining the problem was more helpful in the long run than time spent creating the solution. I saw that the best individuals spent the most time preparing, understanding, and positioning their abilities so they were there to solve challenges when the right ones presented themselves. It was the philosophy of surfing made real.
Over the past 15 months, my partners and I have shaped a new kind of design firm focused on solving a new set of design challenges. We use design thinking and technology to reduce the complexity of our technical world to home in on the basics. Our approach is reductive, removing all but the necessary elements; it often reminds me of the lessons I’ve learned while surfing.
Here are the lessons that have been the most impactful:
Practice the art of disconnecting. There is nothing more distracting than the constant flow of requests, reminders, and obligations. Turn everything off, and use the absence of digital noise to reconnect with friends and family and be present.
The ocean is my place to reflect, and over the years, I’ve become more aware of the behaviors that make surfing so important to my ability to be creative. But inspiration comes from wherever you allow it to. Designers need places to reflect and allow their own thoughts to surface.
When it’s time to work, work harder than you think you can. Pick the work that inspires you, and exhaust yourself learning how to do it. Don’t let big waves get in your way. Respect the fact that you will get knocked down and beat up. Practice until you’ve eliminated every possible way to fail. All that’s left is the way to succeed. Embrace that moment, and use it as a point of departure for your next project — your next wave.
Pick Your Wave
If you know what inspires you, do more of it. You’re never going to learn how to surf in a safe harbor. In design, new skills mean new languages, new ideas, and new disciplines. There’s always more to learn.
Get Back Up
Learn to fall. Failing isn’t what you should fear; staying still is. Staying still means missing opportunities. In surfing, when you fall, you have the chance to learn from what led you to that moment, and you have the joy of getting back up. Talent and genius are impressive but fleeting. I’ve met so many talented designers who can’t get back up if they’re knocked down. Perseverance is the universal quality of successful designers.
Do you know how to spot the best surfer at a beach? She’s the one smiling the most and laughing the most. Above all else, have fun.
No two design challenges are the same. No two waves are the same. But the approach to both design and the wave — deeply examining the problem and reducing it to its basics —should be the same.