by Craig Schlanser

Some things just go together. Antony and Cleopatra, peanut butter and jelly, Franklin Gothic and Clarendon—but how about Martial Arts and Graphic Design? In this interview, Joel LeVan, a martial arts instructor, photographer, and Design Strategist bridges the gap between these seemingly unrelated disciplines.

Craig Schlanser: So what is the relationship between martial arts and graphic design?

Joel Levan: In the beginning of my career, I viewed martial arts and design as completely separate disciplines, but as my experience grew in both disciplines I began to notice a lot of similarities. With both martial arts and design you’re dealing with many of the same principles: function, movement, pattern, pacing, timing, and rhythm.

Take functionality, for example. Functionality is a vital part of the martial arts. If it doesn’t work, then it’s of little use. Think about it this way, if the Bauhuas school were a martial art, it would be a very practical one with its emphasis on precise movements, efficient use of energy, and functional application.

Craig Schlanser: You’ve been involved with martial arts for over two decades. How does this affect your approach to design?

Joel Levan: I think it comes down to the fundamental principles found in both martial arts and design. Take rhythm, for example. In certain combative situations, steady rhythms can sometimes help your opponent sense what and when something is coming. Using a broken rhythm doesn’t allow an opponent to get set or take a strong position, which allows you to open up an angle of attack.

In marketing and design, broken rhythm can help to defy sensory adaptation. By using strategic sensory applications (including subtraction), it can open up or recapture the attention of a viewer or consumer. A message has less of a chance to be blocked by the mind if the rhythm is broken. In terms of products and services, the elimination of a product line or narrowing of a service offer can, among other things, decrease sensory overload, and increase efficiency. More isn’t always better.

Craig Schlanser: Beyond just techniques, the martial arts also incorporate symbols, rituals, and systems. Is this something that carries over to your thoughts on branding?

Joel Levan: Absolutely. Creating systems through a practice of organization design is a big one. In martial arts, organization leads to systems and sub-systems that helps everything from chunking out information so it’s easily understood to knowing when and where to apply certain elements over time and in different environments. It’s a lot like a Brand Guideline that many companies create to maintain the integrity of their visual identity.

Developing a brand can sort of be seen as a ritual. Brands have to act out certain customs if they want to be seen as authentic. A series of consistent actions should be learned and practiced to develop a worthy experience. Some brands just go through the motions and don’t really have a desire to manage their customers’ perceptions and expectations. That only lasts for so long before the union is broken.

Symbols go hand in hand with martial arts. For example, in one of the systems I train in called Pekiti-Tirsia Kali, the triangle is a big part of explaining and executing the system. The triangle is also part of the Filipino culture. Many use it to represent equality as well as the three geographical divisions of the country: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

In our studio, many of our design proposals or strategic documents use a small system of simplistic icons to help the client understand what we would do whenengaged in a project. Using icons also allows clients toquickly scan through a document for certain information.

Craig Schlanser: Here’s one I can’t resist: How do martial arts concepts apply to client relations?

Joel Levan: [Laughs] Good question. Not how you might think. In martial arts and business, the opponent or client may try to psyche you out. Don’t let it happen. I realize this is easier said than done, especially when you want to fire a back fist to the head. Learning to stay calm and centered in a situation allows you to retain a clear mindset.

Asking questions and looking deeper into what and why a person is saying or doing is more powerful. Observation is a key practice in design thinking as well as martial arts. The more you observe and understand certain behaviors, the less intimidating they’ll be. Keep your mind open and observe, even if you’re not the one controlling the meeting. What do you see or not see? Where are the gaps or inconsistencies?

Craig Schlanser: Since you brought up design thinking, I was wondering what you think of this concept overall. On the one hand, I’m happy to see that ideas like this are getting covered in the business press, but, on the other hand, I wonder if it sets up unreasonable expectations that design is some sort of silver bullet. What are your thoughts on this?

Joel Levan: My perspective is that there are no silver bullets. Some people believe that a certain process or discipline is a form of pre-packaged magic – in which case, they’ve missed the point. That said, I do think design thinking is vital for business success. For companies to remain strong, design will always need to play a central role. I don’t just mean visually, of course, but creative problem solving that’s grounded by insights from a cross-pollination of strategic disciplines.

Craig Schlanser: More than anything, design thinking seems like a way for designers to be viewed as something more than decorators (not that there’s anything wrong with decorators!). How can designers to a better job at shifting their clients’ limited perception of their role?

Joel Levan: I agree – There’s nothing wrong with being an artist or decorator. If the goal is to take on more of a strategic role, one of the most important ways that a designer can shift their clients’ limited perception of their role is through education. I would recommend for designers to influence their knowledge of design with complementary fields like Consumer Behavior or Market Strategy. If you can ground some of the “artistic” or conceptual thinking with a broader range of business-centered disciplines, you have a better chance of being taken seriously by certain clients. If acquiring more knowledge would take too long for your goals, then align with someone with specific knowledge in the interim. Collaboration does wonders.

This leads me to the next choice of action—choose your clients wisely. It’s important to pre-qualify them. You should be examining them just as much as they are examining you. Every client has different expectations and preconceptions. Make sure you truly understand their business challenges, and they understand the role of design in addressing those challenges. If they don’t get it, move on. By the way, having a specialized design background isn’t a bad thing; you just have to pick your clients well. Lastly, going beyond your competencies can really hurt your identity. Knowing when your capacity ends and when to strategically collaborate is important. Pretty simple, right?

Craig Schlanser: Sure, piece of cake! Actually, you do raise an interesting point in that it’s important to carefully think about the kind of clients you’re trying to attract, and making sure that they align with your own goals and values. I’d also assume that having a clear and compelling personal brand (or studio brand) would help in attracting the right clients.

Joel Levan: Yes. Having a clear and compelling offer that communicates a simple yet strong position of how you can help a business is really important. You really have to look at your strengths, vision, and ambition, and then find where they overlap with meaning and value for a particular market. Good, clear brand messaging will help hit your target market, but you can still be hired by clients that don’t really understand what you do. That’s why it’s paramount that you understand their expectations and make your process clear as a bell. It’s a lot of work, but it can save your tail.