Want to Be a Better Designer? Travel.


Psychological studies have shown that an individual’s level of creativity (and the open-mindedness that facilitates it) can be directly influenced by the amount of traveling that they do. But perhaps more surprisingly, the creative benefit that an individual gains from traveling can be drastically impacted by how immersed they become into the culture that they’re visiting. Designers should not just aspire to travel, but also to immerse themselves into the different cultures, languages, and experiences that they encounter while abroad.

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a one-way flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I sold all of my possessions and I don’t have plans to move back to the States any time soon. I’ll be living with my fiancée (who is Brazilian), working remote for HubSpot, and traveling / speaking around South America. My mom thinks I’m absolutely insane.

But I think I’m on to something. In the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit and speak in places like London, Warsaw, Munich, Kraków, New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Denver (with São Paulo, Budapest, Vienna, Santiago, and Johannesburg up next). This has been a wonderful way to see the world and become immersed in the design community. But with this move, I hope to take things to a deeper level. I want to launch a personal study of design in South America and use it to help foster the growth of UX as a formalized practice there. This is something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I was young, but my motivation for doing it now (and in such a drastic way) is something that I think any designer could benefit from understanding.

A Change in Perspective

When I started traveling, I quickly noticed that different cultures would tend to solve problems in different ways, and many would appreciate forms of aesthetics that were vastly different from what I was used to. Cars, toilets, door handles and locks, advertisements, interior decorations, power outlets. No matter where you go in the world, the execution of these common designs will, many times, be fundamentally different from place to place.

I’ve encountered solutions to problems that I had never previously known to exist, aesthetic trends or fixations that I was never previously aware of, and even correlations between the popularity of certain dog breeds and certain parts of the world. All of these realizations have been the product of my travels, and they’ve brought me to a point where whenever I visit a new place, I now expect that I will leave that place with an altered perspective on design and aesthetics. A type of perspective that can only be acquired through experiencing a different culture.

But perhaps even more shocking are the things that remain the same everywhere. The objects that are so well made and so universal, that no matter where you go, they will be consistent. These are the designs that I fixate on the most. Stop signs and road markings, tea pots, clocks, bicycles, razors, scissors. What about these designs allowed them to be adopted by the world?

And what about the more abstract things that tend to be the backdrop for everything that follows? The things that are different, but also kind of the same. Like sentence structure, cultural norms, or greetings. “Thank you” and “Obrigado”. A handshake and a kiss on the cheek. “How are you?”and “Tudo bom?”. They’re used in the same way, but when you dig deep into their meanings, you realize that they have different roots and implications. These subtle nuances shape the ways in which we think and the contexts that our cultures operate within.

Travel and Creativity

As I continued to collect these experiences, I eventually came to notice that they were changing the ways that I thought about design. I would approach problems through a different lens and be open to previously foreign styles of solutions. But this wasn’t just a feeling and it also wasn’t unique. I was experiencing a well-researched psychological shift that occurs when one spends a certain amount of time abroad.

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, has authored numerous studies on the connections between creativity and international travel. Through this, he’s found that new sounds, smells, tastes, languages, sights, and experiences will spark different synapses in the brain, resulting in an increase in cognitive flexibility. This is what enables the mind to jump between different ideas, think deeply, and make atypical connections between fundamentally different objects or thoughts. It’s the fuel of creativity.

But perhaps even more compellingly, he’s found that this actually goes much deeper than just being abroad. In fact, simply traveling to a place might not be enough. The greatest effects appear to result from true immersion.

The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.

In other words, a week long trip to a walled-in resort in the Bahamas probably won’t have much of an effect on one’s creativity. But a week spent living with a local family in the Bahamas could. This really gets to the core of why I’m moving to Brazil. I’ve experienced the same exact thing in my own travels and I’ve gained a respect for the value that can be cultivated from true immersion (both for the person living abroad and for the people that they interact with while abroad).

Becoming a Nomad

Remote work seems to be a growing trend, especially among designers and people in the tech industry. The internet has empowered us to work and collaborate in ways that would have previously never been possible. On top of this, many companies are offering flexible or remote work opportunities and unlimited vacation policies that are ideal for the nomadic lifestyle.

We’re starting to run out of excuses to not get out there and experience the world. No matter how your work situation is structured, you can probably find a way to do some valuable traveling. Here are a few paths that I’ve found for getting started:

Take a vacation

I know this should seem obvious, but many people overlook the idea that vacations can be used as more than just an opportunity to take a week off work. Instead of going to the same beach destination that you’ve been frequenting your whole life, try planning something different.

I really believe in companies that demonstrably understand the importance of time off and travel for their employees. But it’s up to the employees to put those benefits to good use. Whether you’ve accumulated some PTO or your company has an unlimited vacation policy, for many travelers, an “outside the comfort zone” vacation is the first step toward falling in love with more regular travel. And it has some real effects. A recent study found that travelers have a 25% increase in performance on vigilance tests after returning from vacation. And that number goes up to 50% if you’re aged 45 or older.

Join an organized trip

If you’d really like to get the most out of your travel opportunity, this is the way to do it. And I’m not talking about a trip that your travel agent put together. I’m talking about a trip designed to bring together fellow designers and entrepreneurs from all around the world. These are becoming more and more common, and they serve as an economical way to see the world, immerse yourself in the place that you’re traveling to, meet new friends and connections from all walks of life, and sharpen your understanding for design.

  • Hacker Paradise brings together designers and developers from all over the world, and takes them on trips to places like Bali, Thailand, Portugal, Japan, Spain, and Costa Rica. You can stay for as little as 2 weeks or as long as 3 months. Best of all, they have set aside working hours that you can use however you like, whether it be for a personal side project or remote work from back home. Ever since I ran that user test with a drunk guy who happened on be on a Hacker Paradise trip to Bali, I wanted to take one of these trips myself.
  • Alptitude is an invite-only week long trip into the French Alps, where you’ll have the opportunity to meet and work with domain experts and leaders from all around the world. I got invited this year and couldn’t make it, but I’ve heard wonderful things about these trips. And just in case you don’t want to make the long haul to Europe, there are also plans to bring Alptitude to the States this year.
  • StartupBus is a part hackathon, part road trip competition that brings together a bunch of entrepreneurial doers, puts them on a bus, and challenges them to build and launch a startup in 72 hours. They’ve done this over 14 times, across North America, Europe, and Australia. It’s an awesome opportunity to be paired up with strangers, work together on an idea, and launch a business, all while out on the road.

Start speaking

This has empowered me to not only grow my personal brand and HubSpot’s brand (plus interact with thousands of amazing customers), but also travel at a frequency that I could never dream of affording on my own. If you have something valuable, actionable, or though-provoking to say and you’re excited about the idea of being on stage in front of dozens to thousands of people, then you should start speaking.

Start with small events (like meetups), then push your way into bigger domestic events (you may have to pay for travel a few times, but it’s the price of entry), and once you’ve built a reputation for yourself, you’ll be able to get into global expense-paid events where you’ll reach amazing audiences from all around the world. This requires a lot of hard work and domain expertise, especially as you move up the ladder, because event organizers and attendees have high expectations for the quality of content that is presented. You’ll need to bring original research, unique solutions or perspectives, and actionable take-aways. But if you have the dedication to pull it off, it’s well worth it.

Go remote

If you want to make things more permanent, you can opt to work remote. There are a lot of different ways to do this. I started by going to Brazil for 2 weeks, every other month. It wasn’t vacation; I would work. But then I increased the frequency and eventually proved that I could make the transition to full remote. Others have secured full remote jobs from the start or even gone out on their own and started their own remote businesses. The key is to research and understand the responsibilities and unique challenges that come with remote work before taking the plunge. Here are a few resources that have helped me do that:

  • Nomad List is a community that lists out the best destinations for remote work and allows you to rate them, share personal stories, and even ask questions to people who have worked there before. Rating criteria includes everything from cost of living and safety to internet speed and air quality. There are some big hidden gems on this list, like destinations in Colombia, Thailand, Serbia, and Latvia.
  • The Buffer open blog, the Authentic F&F remote blog, and Signal v Noise all have some excellent insights into the remote work lifestyle. If you’re looking for something more introductory, then the books Remote and Results Only Work Environment are good reads. For more regular updates, Remotive puts out a nice newsletter on remote work, featuring interesting studies, tips, and tools.

Get out there

No matter which of these options you choose, just make sure that you actually choose one. It can be far too easy to get caught up in a routine and forget to disrupt yourself every now and then. But this kind of disruption, this feeling of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, is exactly what sparks personal and professional growth.

I look forward to sharing new stories and perspectives with you as I embark on this journey. In the coming months, I will be booking more events across South America, connecting and working with designers in Brazil, and sharing my thoughts through my email list and the UX and Growth Podcast. Come explore the world of design with me.