Travel Made Me A Better Designer

October 14, 20214 minutes to read

I learned to drive stick-shift in a pouring rainstorm, late at night, on a ferry crossing the Strait of Rion in Greece. The mini-car stalled out on the first try up the gangplank. A cacophony of angry horns rang out from the cars backed up behind me. Angry longshoremen screamed and waved their arms maniacally. It literally was Greek to me, but I didn’t need a translation.

I shifted into gear, revved the engine, and eased off the clutch ever so slowly as the puke-green rental lurched up over the lip of the ramp and into the ship’s cargo hold. The other cars zoomed in around us; filling in the gaps so close that we couldn’t even open the doors if we wanted to switch drivers. I stared straight ahead feeling the angry glare of the other drivers.

Fortunately, it was a short ride and we disembarked without further complications. My companion couldn’t drive a manual shift any better than me, so I had no choice but to persevere and master the technique if we wanted to reach our hotel for the evening. After the stress of almost driving off the pier, and possibly causing an international incident through un-intentionally vulgar hand gestures, the rest of the ride was easy. I didn’t stall again on the whole trip as far as I’m concerned.

Dades Valley, Morrocco

The best travel experiences are full of moments like this. Moments that push you out of your comfort zone into the necessity to learn and grow. If you want to eat, sleep, take a shower, or catch a bus; you have to make it happen. You. Making your way through new cultures, languages, and customs requires you to use all your senses.

Nobody was going to translate Greek longshoremen for me or install wayfinding signs on the dock. I had to observe the locals and follow their behavior to make it on that boat and across the gulf. Growth is an adaptation to adversity.

Travel sharpens the senses. Functioning in a new environment requires critical thinking. Acquiring even the basic needs like shelter, food, and bathing requires you to be intentional about each action instead of going through the motions. This hyper-awareness of the mundane creates a contrast against our daily routines and helps us notice the little details.

Noticing the un-noticed is a superpower for designers. We can apply that same consideration and thoughtful intent to our daily work. Even the subconscious awareness that there are multiple solutions helps us hold each idea a little less precious.

A good traveler is curious by nature. As a guest in a strange land, they will ask instead of assume. They will listen and observe locals to learn how they move through the world. They'll set aside preconceived notions about the right way, or only way, to do things. In other words, travelers behave a lot like good design researchers.

The best design projects always begin with curiosity. Start by asking questions to frame the problem at hand. Do research and listen to users' stories. Interview, and observe, people without prejudice to gain a more complete body of evidence on what their needs are. And never ever assume you have the right solution until you test it.

Understanding another person’s point of view is elemental to being a designer. Who is this person, what do they value, what are their goals? When you have to operate in a culture that's different than you, strange environments should you to interact with people who see the world differently than you.

"They will see us waving from such great heights  Come down now, they'll say  But everything looks perfect from far away  Come down now but we'll stay"  -Postal Service

Anyone in a creative profession will tell you that the creative process is anything but direct. True there's huge benefits to workman like consistency in making progress each day. But the quantum leaps forward don't come from monotonous grinding. You need to periodically step away from the problem to get a new perspective and give your brain (conscious and subconscious) time to fully consider the problem.

Travel provides a fresh perspective by diverting you away from your current mode. Returning to your work after immersion in a new set of challenges creates a fresh perspective. Like the Hero's Journey you return to your world changed. What magic gifts you possess in new knowledge and customs will improve your daily work with an expanded palette of possibilities.

Travel has become a part of my life and family culture. My wife and I have tried to instill the same thirst for learning and adventure in our kids. My 5-year-old daughter has more stamps in her passport than many adults.