Bruce Lee Was A Designer

Image of Bruce Lee wearing the yellow jumpsuit he designed

The dragon moves with stealth determination through Han’s underground labyrinth. He senses the next combatants before they arrive and strikes quickly and precisely, defeating a small army of guards in a matter of minutes by a succession of kicks, blocks, punches, organ stomping, and neck snaps—all accomplished by his own physical force or use of various weapons accumulated during battle: eskrima sticks, bo-staff, and nunchucks. He is in his zone and adapts to any situation presented to him. It is what his life is and what he has trained for. The only way to stop the dragon is to trap him in a room with sliding locked doors. And even then the dragon isn't defeated. He doesn’t panic or bang on the the doors to attempt escape. Rather he puts his nunchucks around his neck and calmly sits in lotus position.

This of course is a description of one of the battle scenes in Enter the Dragon, a film that Bruce Lee never saw released in theaters as he died unexpectedly in 1973 while the film was still in post production. His death was a tragedy, but the fact that Bruce wasn’t able to sit in a theater with people to enjoy one of the finest martial arts films ever made is doubly tragic.

We all have preconceived ideas about Bruce Lee. We know him by his films. We think of him as a great martial artist and actor, someone who redefined the martial arts film genre. We think of him as the best in the world at that time, but many of us still think he is the best, even now, forty years after his death. No one before or since has had the physical and charismatic impact that Bruce Lee had or matched his physical intensity, gracefulness, or creative expressiveness manifested by combat yells, sneers, and licking of one’s wounds. Bruce Lee has stood the test of time.

Bruce Lee’s legacy was given a further nod by the recent purchase of the yellow jumpsuit he wore in the film Game of Death (also unfinished at the time of his death, a few scenes were filmed before Enter the Dragon, but released years after), which sold for one hundred thousand dollars at a Hong Kong auction in early 2014. The large sum of money paid for the jumpsuit was not what piqued my interested. What took me by surprise was that the jumpsuit was designed by Bruce Lee. I thought this was interesting because I had never thought of my childhood hero as a designer; I thought of him like most people do: as an actor, phenomenal martial artist, and teacher.

The jumpsuit design is not trivial; not only was it designed by Bruce Lee, it was “successfully” designed by him, meaning that it has become part of Bruce Lee's image and symbolic of martial arts films. When you see the yellow jumpsuit with the black Boss stripes you immediately think Bruce Lee. It has been referenced many times in several films including Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. It is a successful design because over time it has become iconic.

The notion of Bruce Lee as designer prompted me to revisit his films and life and how it might support the notion that he was a designer in other ways as well. One thing I knew about Bruce already is that he choreographed all his film's action scenes. This involved movement (like a dance), but also the use of voice and sound effects to present the illusion of highly charged graphic violence. He wrote and directed his third film, Return of the Dragon, and I equate screenwriters and directors as having parallel sensibilities and processes that designers have—the screenwriter designs the story while the director designs the film.

Bruce Lee created his own martial arts style called Jeet Kune Do which combined various fighting styles and philosophies summarized by his memorable line in Enter the Dragon—“The art of fighting without fighting.” I happen to own a copy of Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee’s posthumously published book that he was in the process of writing about his martial arts style. It is filled with his sketches, diagrams, and ideas—so much like a designer’s sketchbook! Reading this book I realized how Bruce designed Jeet Kune Do, which consisted of his unique principles of martial arts.

Like any athlete or fighter such as professional boxers Bruce also underwent serious physical training and had a strong work ethic. For Bruce to reach his martial arts potential he needed to be in great shape; he needed to design his body. One could argue he sculpted his body. Of course this goes hand in hand with martial arts training as one needs to be physically capable of executing the moves in order to defeat opponents. Bruce was very aware of this and designed his body to be fast and powerful (thinking of his legendary one-inch punch).

One of my favorite scenes from Enter the Dragon is not one of the fight scenes, but rather a low-key scene near the beginning of the film after Bruce defeated an opponent at a Shaolin Monastery tournament. He crosses paths with one of his students in a garden. Bruce decides to give a lesson and asks the student to kick him. They both settle into fighting positions and the student attempts to kick Bruce, who easily blocks it and asks the student, “What was that, an exhibition? He instructs the student to try again, but this time with feeling. The student’s face tightens up into a grimmace and forcefully launches a kick at Bruce, who again blocks it and says “Not with anger … try it again, with me.” The third time is a charm and the student lands a good kick. Even though Bruce easily blocks it he is overjoyed and asks the student how it felt. “Let me think” the student says as he puts his finger to his chin. Bruce smacks him across the head and says “Don’t think, feel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. If you concentrate on the finger you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

What Bruce was trying to say in this scene, at least how I interpret it, is that to fully appreciate experiences we need to notice the beauty, if not the joy of the moment, but also perhaps be open to the mystery of life. This philosophy applies to design because as rational and logical as it can be (the finger) it is also a creative process and needs to be open to intuition, chance, imagination, and beauty (the moon). In design lingo, mostly in architectural terms, this is known as axis mundi, the concept that design expresses a vertical connection between heaven and earth.

This scene also made me think of the design concept of contrast, where two dissimilar things put together create tension and heighten design. This philosophical scene contrasted with Bruce Lee’s action scenes gives his films more depth. But contrast is also at play within his philosophy lesson as he juxtaposes the rational finger with the heavenly moon.

Considering how Bruce Lee was a designer confirms that design is all around us, but sometimes we don’t notice it, or we take it for granted. Design is everywhere and everything and there is a little bit of a designer in all of us any time we attempt to fix a problem or make something better because that’s what design does: it solves problems. Bruce Lee took this to another level: he designed his jumpsuit, body, mind, films, and martial arts style. In essence he designed his life.