2011-02-16

Ancient japanese teaching on breaking the rules in design

Around 1645AD a samurai named Miyamoto Musashi wrote a book called the “Book of Five Rings”. It is a martial arts and strategy book that is considered a classic alongside Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”.

Musashi makes a distinction between the novice, the competent and the expert. He said that the novice must learn kata (set martial arts moves and routines) in order to become competent. However, for a competent swordsman to become expert they must abandon the kata and again become like the beginner so that the expert’s moves become creatively unpredictable. The difference between the novice and the expert is that the expert moved through the experience of being the rule-following competent and transcended it.

Musashi’s teaching transfers easily to design: first a beginner designer must learn the rules of good design. These are grid systems, colour theory, typography and the like. Once the designer becomes competent they will only become transcendent design experts if they learn when to creatively break the rules in ways that increase the effectiveness of their design output.

This matches a theory I once heard in a workshop. I was told that the theorist was Chris Argyris but I have been unable to locate this theory in his writing. Beginners will reach competence quickest if they follow rules that have been set and taught by experts in the field. As the individual becomes more experienced then their own experience starts to take over. Once they are relying more on their own experience than taught rules then they are on the road to becoming experts.

According to the theory it takes at least three to four years before experience is enough to start being more useful than learned rules. It takes at least 7 years for a person to become a true expert at what they do. Some professions expect at least 10 years or 10,000 hours practice before somebody can call themselves an expert.

So I cringe when I hear famous designers exhorting first year design students to break the rules. Yes, as a rule designers should push the boundaries but that is different to breaking the rules. The results of beginners breaking the rules are usually a mess. Degree level design students simply don’t yet have the experience or have developed the judgment that tells them when they have successful broken the rules. The rule breaking advice is absolutely perfect for competent designers – especially those that have been stuck in a creative rut for a while.