What surfing can teach you about design?

It is said that when doubting what to do, returning to nature brings the answer. This concept feels weird to grasp in the age of digital leaps that we're in now, especially in product design. However, after being humbled by the ocean for four hours and trying to catch waves, one can grasp a few concepts to help one become a better human and designer.

Visualisation of the focusing on the one things in one's control

Control what is yours.

Setting an intention is fundamental for a surf session, but understanding that the only thing we'll be in control of is how we choose to react. This can be the difference between learning and struggling. The wind, the wave strength, how primed the body is, etc. Multiple factors come into play, and unless you are surfing in a simulation, none of these can be predicted perfectly. As the stoics put it,

Our control and power are limited to our own thoughts.

As designers, we get frustrated by the way projects are deprioritized, reoriented, or not delivered to the level of our holistic design vision. What will matter at this point is how we will react to it. Are we gonna take offence and fight against all the variables, such as company priorities, market variations, and client budget? Or can we react and adapt to make the most out of what we ultimately can't control? Adapting our design to fit the new requirements and create a safe space for our team to bounce from it with an open mind.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, understanding the environment, and adapting our expectations to the conditions can free our performance from the pressure we put on ourselves.

Visualisation of building confidence with layers of experience

Volume is your best friend.

Think of it like this. If you only caught 5 waves and successfully surfed 3 during a session, your learning curve won't be as critical as someone attending to get 10 waves and surfed 5. Each failure comes with its load of learnings, allowing you to become a better surfer.

In tech, we've been blessed by the invention of the undo or duplicate actions; we get to iterate multiple times without consequences. Constantly getting better at every iteration and improving from version to version. The perfect wave is the product of all the wipeouts, not luck. Embrace the mistakes, have fun with them, and learn from them.

In our day to day, "overthinking" is the enemy. This idea that the first draft should be perfect and can't be thrown away and start again keeps great ideas at an okay level. When surfing, no track record can show all the waves and falls taken, but a designer can.

Your process allows you to connect with people because mistakes and repetitions are how humans learn. Be bold and show it.
Minimalist visualisation of the impact of attitude on one's surroundings

It's all about the attitude.

Similar to surrendering control, the surf approach forces us to remain humble. No wave, no days, no projects are ever the same. Staying humble gives us room to grow and understand how we can become better.

How often has the rock star designer turned a promising project into a hostile environment where feedback is rejected? Compare this to the junior designer who has surprised everyone simply by making the design process as collaborative as possible. Nothing against rock-star designers; the point is about the attitude difference.

Design is the thing layer between complexity and meaning.

This applies to the end product but also to team communication. Being the one who facilitates, visualizes, and makes it easier to understand can change the course of a project and even a company. More than just another role, designers can be creative associates.

When doubting what to do, returning to nature brings the answer. So next time you feel overwhelmed, walk, run, hike, swim or even fly. A solution might be around the corner, deep in the sea or high in the sky. Ready for you to uncover it.