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Posters on the wallEthnography, creativity, and ideation: the other benefits of traveling

More specifically, “seeing the world as a tourist”.

The past few days I have been helping a friend of mine plan a trip to Europe. He will be traveling overseas for the first time, and our conversation reminded me of one of my favorite parts of visiting new and different regions of the world. As an industrial designer, the creative unlock in experiencing new places isn’t all that different than developing a new product.  

I don’t mean to downplay the fun, adventurous, experiential side of seeing new architecture, meeting new people, learning words in a different language, and trying new foods. Anyone fortunate enough to have the chance to traverse contrasting cultures will enjoy that aspect (or possibly not, but regardless there is something to learn there).

I want to highlight the phenomena and mindset of perceiving the world as a tourist in a foreign land. I’ve heard it called the “tourist’s eye”: the tourist objectively notices and relishes (or rejects) otherwise mundane details of the place they are visiting, especially things/mannerisms/institutions that are different than their homeland. For example, a tourist might say, “Wow, I can’t believe they drive on the left side of the road!” or “My gosh, why would they serve food on banana leaves instead of plates?” starkly pointing out what the native never questions.

This could make for a rocky experience. Especially, for example, someone raised in a strictly Western culture going to an Eastern one for the first time, or vice versa.

SushiThe takeaway, however, is two-fold: 1) the traveler exercises their tourist’s eye, and 2) he/she experiences different cultural solutions that fulfill the same human needs. Returning home, whether cherishing or challenging the familiarities, the traveler will be prompted with seeing things in a fresh light with a new point of reference.

This mindset lends itself to consumer ethnographic and usability research, where a tourist’s eye may observe insightful details in a familiar or mundane task, by objectively “pretending” you’re seeing it for the first time.

Throughout the ideation and creative process, we think as though we just landed in a new country, or just got back from one. Basic human needs are the same everywhere, and there are virtually infinite ways to achieve them. By challenging things thought to be a given, we break out of known, existing paradigms and can focus on developing ideas and solutions that get to the core of problems and needs.

Travel. See things objectively and with a fresh eye. Question why.


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