Ten ways that Muay Thai showed me how to be a better designer

May 26, 2018 CarloMaria Ciampoli

The “art of eight limbs” has a lot to say about achieving greatness 


Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. It’s an ancient martial art and a physical and mental discipline—strikingly brutal and deeply spiritual. I entered Easton Training Center in Boulder, Colorado, almost a year ago looking for a new challenge. I thought that learning a martial art would be a great way to improve my fitness and see the world through a different lens. So, I started studying Muay Thai—“the art of eight limbs.”

I didn’t expect that Muay Thai would teach me much about achieving great design. As it turns out, however, it has quite a lot to say.

The first few weeks of training have been intense with challenging workouts and a huge volume of information to absorb. I questioned my curiosity in trying this new experience many times. This exhausting and chaotic start reminded me of the first months fresh out of architectural school, when we discover everything is different than expected and that we have much to learn. It’s fast-paced and challenging. The more I train the more I can see how lessons learned on the mat are extremely relevant in my work as a designer.



Below I’ve organized my Muay Thai experience into 10 principles and explained how each speaks to me as a designer.


1. Observe others to better observe yourself.

In Muay Thai, we must analyze the movements, rhythms, and techniques of our fellow practitioners in detail to learn where and how to improve in our practice. Likewise, we must expose ourselves to our fellow designers’ presentations, their public speaking, and their teamwork. This is key to improving every aspect of our professional life.


2. Respect your competition. Take care of your training partner.

Respect the people you’re training with because they might just teach you something and show you your weaknesses. They may train harder than you. They can inspire you.

In design, this means respecting the work of both our peers and our competitors because from their success we can discover our weaknesses and improve upon them.


3. Get your hands dirty.

The designer is often relegated to a role behind a digital screen in a sterile environment. We grow comfortable seeing our ideas, even the great ones, as they live in the conceptual world. So, how do they play out in reality?

In Muay Thai training, you’re always close to your competitors and peers. You sweat, get your hands dirty, and are physically present.

How can we apply this in design? Get physical. Go on job sites, speak in public, check out your completed projects months or years later. Get out and see the iconic or most-loved buildings in your community. We must get up from that chair and explore the different facets of design in the built environment.


_q_tweetable:Go on job sites, speak in public, check out your completed projects months or years later. ... We must get up from that chair and explore the different facets of design in the built environment._q_

4. Train your body/strengthen your mind.

Not unlike the Latin saying “Mens sana in corpore sano,” an ideal Muay Thai fighter balances a strong body with a strong mind. In the design world, we often try to sharpen our knowledge and intellect. But, honestly, taking care of our bodies is equally important to support a healthy and successful career.


5. Find resources you didn’t think you had within yourself. 

I often find myself breathless in the middle of a training session. I must dig deep and find energy where I thought there was none. The design profession can be very stressful and demanding at times.

But every day, Muay Thai teaches me that we are stronger than we realize. Even in the most difficult professional moments, we have a reserve of energy that can help us overcome obstacles.


6. Great results require a lot of work. There’s no shortcut to greatness.

Design excellence is a function of time. It’s a daily commitment; like the long-term devotion to deepening one’s knowledge of a martial art. It doesn’t happen overnight. 


7. First the basics; then improve.

A complex discipline like Muay Thai is comprised of numerous techniques and even a larger number of possible combinations. Learn the basics and you establish a strong foundation to build upon. In design, oftentimes young designers are enchanted by the latest technology trends. Let us not forget we need a solid base to make meaningful design and craft a long-lasting career.


8. Lead by example—show me the move.

In Muay Thai, there is little talk and a lot of action. You can’t talk your way out of a fight. In training sessions, live demonstration is the method for passing on the techniques of this ancient martial art. In design, leading by example is the best way to create trust, build a team spirit, and inspire others.


9. Everyone has their own style of fighting—do it your way.

In watching Muay Thai fights, I realized that each fighter has his/her own style. There is no right or wrong, there is only each fighter’s way of interpreting the body of knowledge they have accumulated over time.

It’s the same in design: Do it your own way! If it’s different, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Finding your voice and your way to make the world a better place with design is up to you.


10. Adapt to the rhythm and differences of your sparring partners.

Design is a complex discipline and we work with a diverse array of professionals in practice every day. Learning to adapt and collaborate with various groups of colleagues, clients and stakeholders is a valuable. In Muay Thai, adjusting to any kind of opponent is key to improve your game.


Finding the real work-life balance

I’ve never believed in the “work-life balance” mantra where a switch can create a sealed compartment between who we are at work and who we are at home. I think that being a designer is a way of seeing the world that can’t be relegated within a workday or a time card. It’s impossible to turn off.

We should cultivate what inspires and motivates us outside of work because those experiences enrich us, but also because they teach us aspects of ourselves we can apply at the office.

I find constant inspiration in a Muay Thai gym. The hard work, team spirit, focus, energy, and passion I develop in my training translate into more powerful design tools that I can use to change the world. 

What inspires you? How can you bring that energy into your profession? 


About the Author

CarloMaria Ciampoli

CarloMaria Ciampoli is an associate and senior designer in Stantec’s Buildings group. He has worked on projects from Hong Kong to Mexico City and has lectured on parametric design and digital fabrication at the New York Center for Architecture and at universities in the US, Europe, and Asia.

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