Over the past year, one thing has become abundantly clear to me. Design is super hard. Being brilliant and conjuring up creative solutions on demand is stressful work. Over time, the added challenge of tight schedules and limited budgets can eat away at your creativity and your enthusiasm to tackle bigger problems. So what to do?
Assert control and seek out new experiences. This could be as simple as moving your desk or learning a new skill. But, as I discovered recently, I think it ideally means travel. The act of dropping your physical self in a completely unfamiliar and hopefully vibrant location can be an arresting and energizing experience.
For me, it was a trip to New York City a few weeks back. I was attending a conference, so I was naturally expected to interact with hundreds of new people all at once. To adhere to my itinerary, I also had to navigate the city streets and subway like a pro. And, of course, I was in New York, one of the most crowded and unforgiving cities (at least to tourists).
The sum of an experience like this is a sense of heightened awareness, an acute sensitivity to everything around you. You are alone and vulnerable to some degree, so everything seems more interesting. Away from the routine of home, you notice everday things that previously went unnoticed.
Like the guy sitting in front of you in the conference audience. He's using some non-iPhone device, and swiping and tapping his screen at a blazing pace. He's using gestures you've never seen before. With a little more investigation, you discover he's holding a BlackBerry Z10 and the interface is, at the very least, refreshing. You thought BlackBerry was dead months ago.
Like the packed subway ride where you hear no less than three different languages in one trip. Like the side of some construction barricade that has layers of decomposing paper fliers that, when zoomed in, looks a lot like abstract art.
In the right state of mind, observation leads to questions. Like the fantastic High Line Park you stumble upon. How does such a crazy idea get built, and why don't similar re-purposed public green spaces exist in other cities? Or, what's the deal with the all those brightly colored, movable chairs scattered about New York? (Apparently, the chairs are not bolted down because people really like altering their environment when sitting in a public space.)
Really, the sense of awareness and our tendency to ask questions are all about curiosity. Despite our best efforts, the inherit repetition and stress of work can grind away at these basic skills and, more importantly, our ability to be creative. To fight this battle, we must constantly look to cultivate a curious mindset, to see the interestingness all around us. And for a kick-start, don't forget the power of travel.