What Bruce Lee Can Teach You About Design

Bruce Lee’s fighting style was to let his opponent determine the approach–a mindset that helped shape the design philosophy of one of Nike’s former top shoe designers.

What Bruce Lee Can Teach You About Design
Bruce Lee in The Game of Death, 1973 [Image courtesy of Everett Collection, Golden Harvest, Concord Productions Inc.]

Bruce Lee didn’t know much about design, but he was not short on useful life philosophies. Which is why D’Wayne Edwards, who was design director for Nike’s Jordan line before starting Pensole Footwear Design Academy, counts the martial arts icon among his top inspirations. “Everyone knows him as a fighter,” Edwards, one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in Business this year, said. What Edwards finds inspiring, however, is Lee’s way of thinking.

Dwayne Edwards

Like many young men, Edwards developed an interest in Lee through his movies. As Edwards got older, though, he discovered Lee’s writings and philosophies. Lee has put out a number of books, but one in particular speaks to Edwards: Striking Thoughts. In it, Lee discusses his approach to fighting style. “His fighting style was whatever his opponent made him do,” Edwards explained. “That is to me so much of what design is, too, because as a designer you have to become the person and/or the object that you’re designing.”

Edwards, who landed on our Most Creative People list this year for the shoe design academy he started, teaches Lee in his classes. Lee’s oft-cited quote be “like water” particularly resonates with Edwards as a design teacher:

Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living

“Water becomes whatever it touches,” said Edwards. “That’s kind of your mentality as a fighter, you should be that feeling, that open, that willingness to adapt and adjust.” The same goes for creators, he says. The most important quality for a designer to have is adaptability. Edwards likens designing to acting, playing a new role for each project and product.

Edwards finds most of his inspiration in the way people think. “I’m not really inspired by other designers; I’m not inspired by objects or things,” he said. In addition to Lee, Edwards looks to Jackie Robinson, Bill Gates, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Jay-Z for inspiration. Of course each of those men made incredible, creative contributions. But Edwards admires each for the particular way they approached the world: Robinson for his courage; Gates for his vision; Da Vinci for his creativity; and Jay-Z for his process.

“It’s not necessarily just design or creativity,” said Edwards. “It’s how they think.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.