Design Like a Surfer

It was around the fifth time I went out surfing that I realized I really could die out there. The skies were gray and menacing, the water was cold, and two years later I still remember it as the angriest the sea ever felt. I knew something was up when my surf instructor, an avid long boarder, paddled up next to me on something short and shreddy.

“Get right here by where it breaks,” he guided. “Be careful though man, it’s gnarly today.”

A few minutes later I saw the gigantic (to me) wave storming in. My eyes widened. I paddled as hard and fast as my untrained arms would take me. Suddenly I felt the power completely overtake me. Something totally different from anything I’d experienced training on the foamies near shore. As I tried to stand the nose of my board dipped and I catapulted forward like a sprawling rag doll into the raging sea. I twirled helpless beneath the waves, but not deep enough to avoid the wrath of my heavy log of a board striking the back of my head.

In an instant it was over. I felt a little shaken up, but I came to. I was alive.

I was learning my limits.

It took me a few months before I really got the hang of it. Eventually I learned to identify the right opportunities. Something just about to break, something the right size for my board and skill level. I learned to bite off the chunks I could chew, to paddle like hell, and to enjoy the rides as they came to me.


Design isn’t so different.

As designers we are always playing the part of the novice, the inexperienced rookie tasked with figuring out new industries and user needs on the fly. Fortunately in design the stakes aren’t usually so high.

Just as in surfing, in design we can learn to pick our battles. When we’re new to a project we can talk to the people who have been around and get a sense of where the best opportunities are. While we’re learning those industries we can pick out the easy stuff, the quick wins, by using techniques like “top task” identification and “red route analysis” to start to get our feet under us. At first we can learn to be patient, to pick out the right opportunities that won’t put us in risky situations.

As we really grow familiar with the problem space we can begin to prioritize bigger and bigger problems that require bigger solutions, as long as we have a pretty good understanding of the teams, skills, and tools we’ll need to solve them.

Most importantly we can learn from surfing that while failure might be scary it rarely kills us. It’s only with some risk that we can learn to ride the wave.


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