Time keeps on slipping into the future ...

Bruce Lee in Game of Death

Bruce Lee Was A Designer

By Robert Jarrell

The dragon moves with stealth and 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 minutes by a succession of kicks, blocks, punches, organ stomping, and neck snaps. All of this is accomplished by his own physical force or 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 fortress doors. Even then, the dragon isn’t defeated. He doesn’t panic or attempt to escape. Instead, he puts his nunchucks around his neck and calmly sits in lotus position.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon
The dragon (Bruce Lee) moves through Han’s underground labyrinth with stealth and determination .

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 couldn’t 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 consider him a great martial artist and actor who redefined the martial arts film genre. We think of him as the best in the world at that time, but many still think he is the best, even now, forty years after his death. Yet, no one has had the physical and charismatic impact that Bruce Lee had or matched his intensity, gracefulness, or expressiveness often manifested by combat yells, sneers, and licking of one’s wounds. Bruce Lee has stood the test of time.

Bruce Lee wearing yellow jumpsuit he designed
Bruce Lee wearing the yellow jumpsuit he designed.

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, a film also unfinished at the time of his death. A few scenes were filmed before Enter the Dragon but released years after. The jumpsuit sold for one hundred thousand dollars at a Hong Kong auction in early 2014. The large sum of money paid for it did not pique my interest; what did surprise me was that the jumpsuit was designed by Bruce Lee. 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 of Bruce Lee. Several films have referenced it, including Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. It is a successful design because, over time, it has become iconic.

The notion of Bruce Lee as a designer prompted me to revisit his films and life and how it might support the idea that he was a designer in other ways as well. I knew he choreographed all his film’s action scenes, which involved movement (like a dance), and that his use of voice and sound effects presented the illusion of highly charged graphic violence. He wrote and directed his third film, Return of the Dragon, which equates to similar sensibilities and processes that designers have—the screenwriter designs the story while the director designs the film.

Considering how Bruce Lee was a designer confirms that design is all around us, but sometimes we don’t notice it or take it for granted.

Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do sketches
Bruce Lee’s sketches of Jeet Kune Do, the martial art style he created.

Bruce Lee also 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 own a copy of Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee’s posthumously published book. It is filled with his sketches, diagrams, and ideas, much like a designer’s sketchbook! Reading this book, I realized how he designed Jeet Kune Do, which consisted of his unique martial arts principles.

Like any athlete or fighter such as a professional boxer, Bruce Lee also underwent severe physical training and had a strong work ethic. For him to reach the potential of his martial art, he needed to be in excellent 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 to defeat opponents. Bruce Lee was very aware of this and designed his body to be fast and powerful (thinking of his legendary one-inch punch).

Bruce Lee philosophical lesson in Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee gives a philosophical lesson to a student in Enter the Dragon.

One of my favorite scenes from Enter the Dragon is not one of the fight scenes but rather a low-key scene near the film’s beginning after Bruce Lee defeated an opponent at a Shaolin Monastery tournament. He crosses paths with one of his students in a garden, 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 grimace, and he forcefully launches a kick at Bruce, who again blocks it and says, “Not with anger … try it again, with me.” Finally, 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 feels. “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.”

In this scene, at least how I interpret it, Bruce Lee was trying to say that to fully appreciate experiences, we need to notice the beauty, if not the joy of the moment, and 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 terminology, primarily in architectural terms, this is known as axis mundi, which expresses a vertical connection between heaven and earth.

This scene also made me think of the design concept of contrast, where two different things are put together to create tension and heighten design. Contrasted with Bruce Lee’s action scenes, this philosophical scene gives his films more depth. But the contrast is also at play within his philosophical 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 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 and designed his yellow jumpsuit, body, mind, films, and martial arts style. In essence, he designed his life.