Practicing the dark arts
Issue 76: Breaking dogma and adapting methods
Last weekend I went down a rabbit hole of binge-watching the entire 4th season of Cobra Kai in one sitting. The show is a continuation of the Karate Kid films in the 1980s. Now much older, the film series is more expansive in their characters for the show, including children of the original characters. The narrative still mainly revolves around two of the main characters from the original.
The first is Johnny Lawerence (William Zabka), a former student from the Cobra Kai dojo, which teaches you to strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy towards your opponent. On the other side is Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), a kid who learns a zen-like practice of martial arts from Mr. Miyagi. Without spoiling it too much, this season sees Johnny and Daniel joining forces to take out a larger threat. This results in the two former rivals compromising in teaching the students together. Tensions rise when some of the characters from Miyagi-Do start incorporating more aggressive moves originating from Cobra-Kai, and vice versa.
Binaries have existed since the dawn of stories: Good vs. evil, Jedi and Sith, Right-wing vs. Left-wing, and people who eat pizza with pineapple toppings vs. people who are right. When you have a binary approach to certain concepts, it can be limiting. If you’re too dogmatic, there is a loss of opportunity to innovate. The Star Wars series eventually introduced a concept of a Grey Jedi; one who uses not only the light side of The Force but techniques used by the Sith.
Legendary Martial Artist Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do as a hybrid style that adapted from all inspirations, such as the footwork of Muhammad Ali in boxing to move nimbly, and non-telegraphed punches—a technique of delivering unpredictable attacks to your opponent instead of the traditional punches.
What does this mean for designers, entrepreneurs, and creative people? I’m encouraging you to explore what people perceive as the dark arts in your craft.
Subvert. Explore anti-best practices.
The first is embracing the power of subversion. If you don’t break away from paradigms and norms, you’ll keep building the same things. Like the abstract expressionists who moved away from traditional representation, it’s important to know what you’re doing and how you are subverting. To be clear, I believe it’s important to know best practices and standards extremely well. They are important for many common cases. Don’t subvert for the sake of it. In many situations, the obvious interaction pattern is the best one to use. Subversion is used to push boundaries or explore new paradigms. When you do this, it has to be out of the bounds of the normal.
Adapting from the antagonized
Lots of things are antagonized these days—some rightfully so and some that get caught in the polarization of binaries. Can you adapt a technique or belief by someone controversial? If you do, is that a pledge of allegiance to that very person? I believe in the responsibility of being bound by your own ethics and belief system instead of the direct lineage from which an idea originated. You can take the principles of what someone conveys without being a disciple of them.
In addition to individuals, antagonization happens cross-department. For product designers, this may come in the form of product and engineering duking it out to advocate for what’s important to them. With brand design, maybe it’s with marketing to make sure the best work is put out there and is on-brand. To advocate for our design and creative work, we can implore the techniques that can feel contrary to use. Perhaps it’s a designer thinking like a product manager to sequence and scope. Maybe it’s a brand designer thinking like a performance marketer.
Design can at times be depicted as this picture-perfect process perfectly contained in a double diamond diagram. It sometimes requires practicing the dark arts in certain situations to get stuff done.
Tweet of the week
Devon got her kidney transplant—thank goodness. Wishing you a speedy recovery.