Today I sparked a bit of a conversation after I tweeted:
Everyone who is creative should move every 5-10 years; to minimally find a way to live somewhere else for a yr (sabbatical).
Why do I put such importance on travel? What value does it give a creative person? And to the point of the exact Tweet, why is long term residency so important?
First thing you need to know about me is that I’m an anthropologist. I never really realized how much it frames my world as a designer, but recently it seems to mean everything. The confluence of design and anthropology seems to be at the forefront of what I do and have done throughout my career.
Back to travel. Well as an anthropologist I’ve always been a traveler. Whether by airplane or by book the idea of visiting the exotic and going native was always attractive to me. Having lived abroad during college I didn’t do it the traditional safe way. I went early and created connections with my chosen country outside the safety of the more controlled university environment. Well, I didn’t go crazy mind you. I lived on a kibbutz for a bit and fell in love w/ agriculture and a whole new way of living in a communal setting.
But why is this experience of alternative living so important as a designer. I’ll highlight 4 basic reasons:
- Language – even if you go someplace that speaks your native language, changing cultures impacts how that same language is used. Metaphors, frames, idioms, constructs all change as culture changes. These language subtleties give the designer new pathways to think about their designs.
- Reflection – Anthropologists aren’t as great at describing other people’s cultures as they are at reflecting on their own culture. They wouldn’t want to admit it this way, but the anthropologist’s descriptions of “the other” tell us more about the anthropologist and their culture than they really do of the culture they are describing. What this means for the designer, is attaining a deeper understand of themselves. This is hugely empowering.
- Serendipity – Design works best when we have a reservoir of material to integrate with into our design process. The more in that reservoir the more associations we can make in new and creative ways. Design succeeds through the accidents of associations. Travel gives you “new”.
- Break free – This one is harder to explain and was actually the point of the original tweet. When we stay too long in a single environment the environment becomes too known. Our circles get entrenched and our frameworks start to calcify. By taking extended stays where we are not just visiting, but changing our work environments, we are forced to live in new frameworks. We don’t loose what we have brought, but through language and reflection added to a bit of good old fashion critical thinking we can move beyond ourselves and when we return (if we return) we can bring these new insights to our former homes.
Later in the twitter conversation I posited that we should use the number of passport stamps and/or Foursquare checkins as a way to determine travel experience. Yes, it’s not a fair way to do it, but it’s not all together bad either.