Hang Ten — Design / UX + Surfing — Part 1

How Design & User Experience are improved through Surfing

Designing is very hard and we who do it for a living pour our hearts and souls into making stuff that attempts to address a problem, fulfills a need, and hopefully brings some joy to the world.

Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.
- Dieter Rams

Design giant Dieter Rams eloquently state the value of design. However, most of the time design is made harder due to relationships: clients, co-workers, vendors, customers, et cetera. This challenge is why surfing and design are connected.

How Design / UX are Improved through Surfing

Design and surfing require perseverance and experience and this is where aspects between them can teach us and make us better at both.


The Pursuit

S= Surfer D= Design


S. The pursuit of learning a skill.
Surfing requires time, practice, and perseverance. No one can surf well the first time. There is a struggle to become a better surfer as you learn balance, ocean knowledge, wave size, and equipment.
D. The pursuit of learning a craft.
Design is not done in a vacuum and requires time, practice, education, research, implementation, and passion. Design is additive and builds on your life experiences and your evolving your creativity and problem solving expertise.
S. The pursuit of travel.
Allowing the lure of the ocean and the possibilities of riding waves from coast to coast, continent to continent, warm to cold water, season to season becomes the possibility because surf can be found somewhere as long as you are willing to go out and find it.
D. The pursuit of a design journey.
Design / UX have a starting and finishing point like traveling from a to b. Moving from confusion to clarity. Traveling to other cultures also allows a designer to push themselves to create in new and different ways builing on their life experinece and creativity.
S. The pursuit of the “perfect wave”
As seen in the classic surf movie the endless summer

Perfection is the combination of time, location, weather, swell, crowd and wind. Perfection is obtained in the moment and perfect surf can be pursued endlessly.

D. The pursuit of a “perfect design” is when it solves the problem.
Design is about making something as good as it can be under the constraints and the pursuit of “a perfect design” exists for those who value the things they make and who the make them for.

S. The pursuit in equipment.
Ride the ride wave with the right board to maximize not only the ride but the point where the surfer and the equipment are maximizing the experience.


Epic surf is only realized with the right equipment — Dan Malloy

D. The pursuit of creative and design tools.
Design software and thinking tools are always changing especially those used for prototyping and collaboration. The right collection of creative making tools wielded with expertise by a thinking, problem solving, designer is what leads to great solutions. The tool does not make the designer just as the board does not make the surfer.

Failure is Eminent


S. To surf is to fail.
Everyone will wipe out. Success is only achieved in the process of the attempt and it takes practice. The fine line between riding and wiping out can be where true radical surfing exists plus it is such a great feeling when you push yourself and exit cleanly (unlike the example below). The ocean is an amazing force and no two waves are the same. The forces of the tide, the swell size, the swell direction, the swell speed, the wind, the water temperature, and other surfers all impact the potential success of riding or wiping out on a wave or a combination of ride and wipe out which is most of the time.

Wipe out

D. Design is a guess and you must be willing to fail.
Designing is the attempt to place multiple components/elements together while including people, opinions, and understanding. Some of the most creative solutions ride the line between success and failure. A designer must have determination to take a risk with creativity while solving problems. The key is to fail quickly, learn from that failure, and hopefully prevent failure on future solutions.

Learning & Critical Decision-making


S. Learning to “take off”
When learning to surf the most challenging part is taking off. A lot of things have to align all at once to take off on a wave.
1. The surfer must be positioned in the ocean at the right place where they can catch the wave.
2. As a wave approaches, the surfer must paddle to get the board and surfer moving with waves energy
3. As the waves energy is transferred to the surfer and the board, they must “pop up” on the board transferring their weight and balance from laying down to standing up.
4. The Pop-up must happen quickly and at the specific point where the board can continue using the energy of the wave and allow the surfer to avoid the whitewater and keep enough speed to maneuver on the breaking curl of the wave.
The knowledge that goes into positioning your board and understanding the ocean will give you a chance at success but you must make critical choices of which wave to paddle. With out this critical decision making you can’t conserve your energy in the water and two you won’t catch the waves you want. Time + wave knowledge + fitness + confidence allow a surfer to maximize their rides.

D. Starting a design solution — Define the problem
Getting started with a solution can be equally as challenging and learning to “take off” on a design solution is making a combination of experience, skill, problem understanding, and production all meshed into one. Artists, Designers, and Creatives in general have all struggled with starting a solution. Painters know it as “the blank canvas effect”. Writers know it as “writers” block. Designer’s know it as procrastination but once boundaries get defined, constraints get introduced, and communication goals are aligned only then can critical decisions be made toward a solution.

Over time appears effortless

S. Surfing can look so easy.
When a surfer has mastered all of the skills required to ride a wave and has practiced overtime is when the process can appear effortless. Take Kelly Slater’s surfing his man-made wave. His ride makes it look so simple but the 11 time world champion would know what it takes to not only make a “perfect wave” but also ride that wave effortlessly.

D. Design can also appear so simple.
When a designer has mastered all of the skills required to think about design and problem solving and has practiced overtime is when the process can appear effortless. I had a typography teacher : Leah Hoffmitz at the Art Center College of Design told us “When a client asks you how long did this Design — logo / typeface / etc take you. Answer with your age. Thinking and experience are not equatable to time on task. Your client might be looking to justify value but your invoice and your contract will define the amount. The question is not about time but it should be does it solve the communication problem?”

One of my favorite stories of design relationships is from when Paul Rand worked with Steve Jobs on the Next Logo

I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, “No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you. You’re the client. But you pay me.” And there was a clarity about the relationship that was refreshing.
- Steve Jobs

This level of expertise is not understated by Mr. Rand and getting in front of that experience puts the designer is a relationship that can make design seamless.

Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.
- Paul Rand

Know your limits


S. Surfing can be dangerous and the ocean is powerful
Waves are powerful and huge from the biggest in Nazare, Portugal ( largest recorded wave ever surfed- Garrett MacNamara ~100ft) to other big waves like Mavericks, Jaws, Waimea, Teahupoo, and others. Not every surfer should consider getting into big waves but every surfer should know their limits allowing them to stay safe and avoid injury or death. The ocean will teach you really quickly what your limits are and are not, however with time and experience a surfer can reach for not just bigger surf but for surf that allows them to thrive on the wave.

Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.
- Albert Einstein

D. Designing can also be dangerous.


Understanding the constraints in any design is also required before you solve any problem. If you don’t understand the constraints and the risks then you can waste time, money, and potentially build dangerous solutions for your audience. A designer is not always the expert and must learn to lean on the expertise of clients, other specialists, and users to midgate failure but more importantly produce the best outcome.

Cycles and sets

S. Surfing is being in touch nature (the seasons & the moon).
Like other adventure sports (ie skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, etc) surfers pay attention to storms and the oceans that produce swell. We watch, wait and try and predict the ever changing ocean. This task puts us in contact with the larger ecosystem. In southern California where I mostly surf I rely on data driven tools like www.surfline.com & www.magicseaweed.com to keep me in better touch with those ocean cycles & the crowds that are inevidable in our local ocean.

D. Design has cycles (phases & deliverable intensity)

When I studied graphic design, I learned a valuable lesson: There’s no perfect answer to the puzzle, and creativity is a renewable resource.
- Biz Stone

The creative & design thinking process moves along a cycles and phases. Each solution is impacted by time, requirements, and expectations. In user experience we use many data driven tools: google analytics, A/B testing, sales numbers, time on task, etc. to be a feedback loop for our solutions. Design / UX use testing and interation cycles to attempt to determine what is working and what needs more work. Staying in touch with why the process matters and what it will produce creates a smoother more efficient output.

Conclusion Part 1 : Surf / Design / Surf / Design Repeat until death

Experiences matter. We seek them out, explore them, pursuit them and Design because of them. Experiences become fuel for our creativity and surfing just happens to be a vehicle for experience. The process feeds off each other and become interlinked and this is why surfing relates to Design and User Experience. Get out there and improve your design experience and surfing experiences.

Check out Part 2 : UX + surfing


Lead Curriculum Architect (UX/UI) @ 2U inc + Sr. UX designer / LX Educator @ UCLA/UCI/ArtCenter/LMU

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