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5 mins

5 Reasons Why Travel Makes You a Better Designer

…and a better person along the way!
by Eva Jobard | Nov 14 2019
Me and the volcanic fields of Lanzarote (Canary Islands)

Have you ever felt stuck in your design routine? You’re producing good enough solutions but is there something missing that you can’t quite put your finger on? Have you ever found it difficult to put yourself in your users’ shoes, or even the stakeholders’ shoes?

Finding the right balance between usability and business can be challenging. I mean, making everyone happy isn’t an easy job. We want to produce great quality work to solve problems that will make thousands or millions of lives easier while still allowing the company to make money. In a nutshell, we want to make a viable impact.

Have you ever wished there was an easy and fun solution to getting unstuck from your design routine and making it easier for you to see a range of perspectives? Well, I think there is one: travel.

Here are five reasons travel makes you a better designer—and a better person along the way. These aren’t the only reasons, of course—and I’m sure that after reading this you’ll be able to find even more.

1. Conferences and workshops help you acquire knowledge

As I write these words, two colleagues are flying out to Budapest for the Amuse conference, while two others recently came back from Tel Aviv and Antwerp where they’d attended OFF and Us by Night.

I joined the company a bit too late to plan to attend those in advance but I already started to write a wishlist of the next conferences I’d like to go to in the coming year. One of the main Blinkist values is to strive to learn and grow, and the company demonstrates this by giving us a budget we can use for workshops, books, masterclasses, and anything learning-related you could possibly think of.

As a product designer, I often have the impression that life will never be long enough to learn everything I’d like to. When you think about it, our craft is pretty special. We’re at a crossroads between psychology and art, design and communications. We touch data and engineering, content and customer support. We’re the ones talking to everyone in the company, dealing with all those disciplines and trying to include every single edge case.
We’re spending our days exercising empathy, putting ourselves in the shoes of others to understand and solve complex problems. I don’t know about you, but it requires a lot of knowledge and inspiration to be able to deliver that kind of magic most of the time. What we do is complicated and incredible at the same time! It requires us to never stop learning, and I feel very lucky to be part of an organization supporting us to become a better version of ourselves.

With the amount of design events being produced all over the world, I’m sure you will find something you’ll like. I tried to narrow it down to skills I’d like to develop, like cognitive and behavioral research — but also to open my mind creatively with alternative conferences like Us by Night. And if you need inspiration for events, you can start here: https://design-conferences-2019.com/

So what is it that you would like to discover, to learn or to improve? The internet is filled with free and paid resources so you can learn absolutely anything, but sometimes it requires us to make a stronger effort and get out of our comfort zone to give a nudge to our…

2. Inspiration

Traveling no doubt broadens our horizons—go to the rice fields of Asia, hike a volcano in the Caribbean, or experience the organized chaos of any big city. We come back richer, not only from our experiences but also from all the wonders we saw. Travel increases creativity, and it allows us to explore new ways of thinking. When traveling in Indonesia, I was amazed by all the trees and fruits I’d never seen before. I coincidentally decided to join the Daily UI challenge right after I came back! If our eyes are always exposed to new things, then the sources of imagination we have to draw from are richer and more diverse. It’s less hard work to create something new.

Have you ever traveled to Japan? It’s on my bucket list, but I bet this is the perfect place to try out new gadgets and understand what it does and how it works. Observing how technology is different in other countries is a valuable observation—it can be all around you or almost non-existent.

Sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to notice how the world behaves, especially when it’s about something that’s not used or not there. When visiting my family in Normandy in the north of France, I face the challenge of explaining what I do for a living. My grandparents have a hard time understanding there are people dedicated to improve the user experience of websites or apps. Neither of them have—and therefore don’t use—the internet. As you might imagine, they don’t own a smartphone either! So how would you explain what a product designer does and why the world needs us? It’s absolutely amazing because thanks to them, I had to analyze, go back to basics and explain in detail like you would do with a child. This gives you another level of understanding and empathy. Which brings me to the next point:

3. Build your empathy skills by discovering new cultures

Travel helps you understand behaviors, patterns, and cultural cognitive load. Imagine growing up in Bangkok where the streets are filled up with neon signs, flashy colors and an organized chaos. Do you think it would change your perception while using an app? Would you be less sensitive to whitespace for example? These are the types of questions I’m asking myself while running a competitive analysis for a Chinese product.

The design “rules” we apply to information architecture seem to vary quite a lot. Talk to people and listen to their stories, what made them who they are, how life shaped their thinking. Learn how to observe and listen as you would do in a contextual inquiry. Do they use technology? What kind? Software or hardware? How do they use it and why? The world is your field research, and everything around you is either a direct or an indirect competitor you can learn from.

Everyone has a story to share if you’re patient enough to listen. Not mastering a language can be a blessing in disguise as you’ll most likely avoid talking and focus on observing or listening to what others have to say. Picture yourself in a car driving around an island, asking your driver and then listening. I learned a lot about my guide’s family in Bali, how they live together, how the community of the village supports them in times of struggle or death in the family. What amazed me the most was her calm tone when a motorcycle suddenly zoomed past us, or as she told me that she was attending a funeral that afternoon. Life seemed to flow like water in the river. This shows a level of humility and selflessness that served as lifelong lessons to apply both in life and at work.

Breathtaking sunset on the shores of Gili Air and Lombok

4. Learn from your failures and bad experiences

I’m sure you have a few anecdotes ready to tell about mishaps while traveling. It drives us crazy when it happens but when we look back on it in the quietness of our home, it doesn’t feel that bad anymore.

Those “bad experiences” and unexpected events are there to help us grow. It’s a reminder that we can somehow manage anything. No matter what life throws at you, it’ll be OK. Life is change, and the key to it is to be as flexible, positive and inventive as possible. As “agile” as possible!
Once, on my way from Barcelona to Montreal, the plane had to stop to refuel because of bad weather. This delay, along with the long queue for customs in the US made me miss my connecting flight in New York. All the flights were full, and it was already midnight so I had to think fast. I initially thought of going to a train station, so I began asking around what the quickest way to reach one from Newark airport was. Luckily a man kindly advised me to go to Penn station as night buses were going to Montreal from there! If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know how I would have managed to reach Canada 6 hours later. Phew!

Of course I was scared, and I had no idea how I was going to get out of this situation—but my inner voice told me I could do it. I just had to think clearly, overcome my fears and move forward. When you’re traveling, you’re out of your comfort zone and in the unknown. It can be uncomfortable. It definitely takes some adjustments to acclimate yourself to your surroundings, the food, the language, or everything at once. But it allows you to understand who you are; these experiences and adventures give you the freedom to be yourself.

As product designers, we know that failure is part of the process and that we have to embrace it. We’re used to creating assets and solutions that may never be implemented. However, because we dare to explore and experiment, we find the perfect compromise in a specific context. This kind of practice in being resourceful works both ways, both professionally and personally.

5. Gain perspective through traveling

Sometimes, perspective means taking a step back to move two steps forward. Traveling results in retrospection, and it’s comparable with the last step of a product design process. We look back on the project we’ve been working on and write a case study, analysis or brief sharing what went well, what wasn’t so great and what we learned in the process. We look back on how we were able to measure success, and what we would do differently next time. It’s also a time to think about how we’re going to take it from here, and what we would do if we had more time or resources to dedicate to the project.

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Think about the last time you traveled. Would you have done anything differently? Did you have to deal with a stressful situation? These are the same questions we answer when we draw conclusions at the end of a project, and they can serve the same purpose while traveling or even in our daily lives.

The experiences we have, and the knowledge we can gain, aren’t limited to having a nice vacation or coming away with some cool photos and interesting souvenirs. Moving through the world, asking fundamental questions about how others live out their everyday lives, and using our self-awareness are key elements to make us grow

Hopefully, this article has led you to think of even more reasons why travel is an important aspect of becoming a better person and therefore, a better designer.

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