“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”—Mark Twain
I don’t care what prestigious school you attended; your design education is incomplete without travel. Lots of it.
My industry friend Nick Black, who leads the team at Concerto Marketing Group, recently told me his company strongly prefers hiring creatives who are "third culture kids"—a term I admit I wasn’t familiar with. Similar to what sociologists call "global nomads"—those who hop from one place to another without a permanent home—third culture kids are people who have spent a considerable portion of their formative years outside their parents’ country or culture. They typically have relationships with multiple cultures, often without entirely fitting into any of them, resulting in a unique way of interacting with the world. Perhaps you’ve met a military brat or diplomat’s child who grew up abroad—those are third culture kids.
I immediately knew Nick was right. In fact, I realized we’ve been favouring third culture and similarly well-traveled kids at Industrial Brand for years! I’ve met and worked with all kinds of designers from a variety of cultural backgrounds, but cultural transplants frequently possess a broader base of life experiences and bring a unique psychological perspective to their work as creative problem solvers. Often more curious and open to experience, they tend to behave more like outsiders looking inward—even when they have assimilated and lived somewhere for many years—observing more intently, asking better questions, unhindered by assumptions and cultural biases.
So what can those of us with little experience outside of our original countries and cultures do to acquire some of this perspective? Travel, of course—and travel with purpose.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a break to reset someplace warm, lying poolside and sipping cocktails—everyone benefits from rest. But if you are a creative professional, especially if you are a designer of visual communications, opening up to new experiences creates new connections and spawns powerful thought patterns you may not even be aware of, contributing to enhanced creativity you can apply in your work and career.
Please understand that I am not specifically talking about how graphic designers need to be aware of what is considered rude or bad luck in other countries, or what brand attributes appeal to other cultures. That is important and something that travel helps with, but I am talking more about the personal benefits—mental, emotional, and even spiritual—that come through diverse life experiences.
Living in North America is a blessing, but I am convinced we have too narrow a worldview, and an ignorance matched only by our western arrogance. I recently spent five weeks exploring five countries in Southeast Asia and was struck by how little I really knew about the world and the people and rich cultures within it.
Did I learn new skills or bring home design process tricks I can apply in my studio? Maybe not—not yet anyway—but by choosing to engage with these foreign cultures with intent and curiosity, I learned a myriad of lessons, saw numerous breathtaking examples of beauty, and returned feeling humbled, with a new perspective on my own country and culture. My travels helped break down barriers to perception, reset my ‘empathy meter’, allowing me to view the world through fresh eyes. I returned feeling inspired, energized, with clarity and focus unlike anything I’ve ever experienced after a week poolside.
As Nick explained, "being a great traveler and a great creative both require psychological flexibility and divergent thinking—a willingness to deviate from what’s normal." You need to be prepared to take a risk, break your routines and step away from what you know. And what better way to boost your creative ability than through travel?
Digital product designer Cennydd Bowles believes “genius design” has no first-hand research phase. To anticipate user behaviour, a designer must draw upon stockpiled experience, imaginative analogy, and psychological fundamentals. I’m convinced my own recent travels have added to my stockpile and will benefit me in my design career for years to come.
The world is rapidly shrinking as it becomes more digitally connected, and one could even argue that everyone can access global cultures with the click of a mouse. But there is no substitute for the analog experience of immersing yourself in a foreign culture, exploring its language, history, architecture, art, cuisine, and traditions. That feeling of being a little lost, on the outside, struggling to communicate with locals, forces you to think on your feet. It changes you, leaving you more open, more aware, a better person even.
I can’t believe I am going to wrap up a design article with a Steve Jobs quote, but I can’t help it. He was very vocal on this topic, famously stating in a 1996 Wired Magazine interview: "Creativity is just connecting things…A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have."
If you’re a third culture kid or have a stamp collection in your passport, congratulations, you have an advantage. The rest of you, please carefully consider the limitations of a sheltered design school education and get out there and see the world you’re going to be designing for. Curiosity and discovery are fundamental to design, and travel helps us master the art of discovery itself.
I understand that many of you are still in school or just starting out and probably can’t afford to travel right now, but if you’re serious about being a successful designer, and knowing that firms like Nick’s (and mine) prefer hiring well-travelled people who view the world and think like third culture kids, how can you afford not to? Travel IS school.
Have any tips for traveling on a budget or know of any international design internships? Share in the comments section below.
Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [B.C. Chapter], and a design writer and educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkBusse