In this new year, get out of your workspace.
Having lived primarily in NYC, LA and Chicago over the last 10 years, I have a rather skewed perspective on what the USA is like. Prior to my move to this country, my perspective was skewed thanks to the Hollywood portrayal of the USA, which is outdone in its realism only by the Bollywood portrayal of India. Much of my travel in this vast land has been for business. Business travel can only reveal as much as a business day allows, through the haze of air travel, taxicabs, hotel linens, meetings and whisky.
To get to know a place, one must live in that place. Not through Flickr, or the skillful machinations of the Coen brothers, or through travel rags, but by being physically present. In much the same way as a cup of Darjeeling tea makes perfect sense when imbibed at a tea plantation, and robusta reveals its true nature in its habitat, it is through the physical interaction with the region, its landscape, its air and its people that a place makes its true self known.
A few years ago, I had opportunity to travel to Montana. And it was a revelation in every which way, including a wet, hairy ride down the river [it had been sold to me as a pleasure cruise, which we would take while lying back, sipping martinis – thanks Cyrus]. The air was pristine, the traffic nonexistent, the roads smooth and narrow, the undulating landscape calm. The best part? No cellular signals. No Starbucks with its promise of wifi. There were few filters, and little coloration. It was not a lavish trip, but rich beyond expectation.
In much the same way was this short trip to a small Wisconsin town. The drive revealed changes in climate and landscape, the mandatory stops for gas presented opportunity for the consumption of local snack foods, the need for good coffee led us to local roasters. At the neighborhood skating rink, we watched the local hockey superstar and Olympic prospect work her way through the opposition, while the coach talked us through the game and local gossip. An excursion for local produce and local food led us to the Golden Harvest Market, a family-run business dedicated to the health of all living things. Since Tokyo, we saw the best and the most thorough recycling program in action here. In normal, everyday actions, there was respect for the land and its resources. Sustainable and local was the norm – not a heavily marketed construct.
Why is any of this relevant to design? It is relevant because without regular exposure to the world outside our workspace [and surfing the web does not count], it is easy to forget where we live and who we design for. There’s disconnect from the world at large, and impersonal design is a direct result. After all, how much can one learn about a place and its people, their lives and their needs, from CNN, Amazon, Engadget, Treehugger or the WSJ?
One cannot create products for the real world in isolation. As designers, we know that we design best when we know our clients. Ultimately, the client is the person who uses what we design, not just the entity that pays the bills. Whether you’re in the business of creating physical products, strategies or business plans, a real connection to the world in which you live and work is essential. Take a trip and see the world – for about the same amount of money, the rewards will far outweigh the joy of the 11″ Macbook Air you’ve been coveting.
Get out there. Enjoy 2011, and stay in touch.