Riding With Strangers: How Casual Carpool Made Me A Better Designer

As an aspiring designer, I have conditioned myself to develop a critical view of the world and uncover the fundamental elements of design within my daily life. This has not been an easy skill to acquire. It requires living in the present, analyzing things and situations on the fly, breaking things down into their individual parts, and then stitching all these things back together to see how the bigger picture unfolds. In order to develop this form of thinking, you have to put yourself in situations that expand your mind, question your ideals, and make you uncomfortable.

This is where Casual Carpool comes in.

Casual Carpools “are informal car pools that form when drivers and passengers meet — without specific prior arrangement — at designated locations.” Essentially I walk down my street, hop in line, and get picked up by a stranger — no biggie. Some people think I’m crazy for riding with a stranger, but it’s fast, cheap, and has truly broadened my understanding of design.

By drawing parallels between my journey as a designer and casual carpool, I want to share with you some insights that have helped me become a better designer and an all-around more positive person.

Here are a few lessons I learned from riding shotgun with a stranger:

1. Casual carpool has been around for over 30 years, there is a reason it works.

Casual carpool has fundamental rules that everyone must follow to ensure consistency and safety. These rules create order, clarity, and constraints to ensure that both drivers and riders needs are met. Consequently, these rules are often broken, localized, or evolved to fit the needs of the community. This may not be a bad thing, but if these fundamental rules weren’t in place, there would be chaos!

This same idea can be applied to design. Without foundational rules or principles to guide our work, the goals we set to accomplish become unclear. We let features take precedence over functionality, we design ego-centrically rather than user-centrically, and we create finite things that don’t impact the world in the way that they should.

We have to remember that although we want to put our secret sauce on all the projects we’re working on, there are foundational rules that every designer must follow, in order to effectively find a solution to the problem at hand. Dieter Rams’ “10 Principles for Good Design” is a great place to get started.

2. Some days you’ll get a BMW and other days you’ll get a box on wheels.

When I get to the front of the casual carpool line, I can cross my fingers, stroke my lucky rabbits foot, pull out my four-leaf clover, and I still might not get the convenience of a comfortable luxury car.

Similarly, throughout our careers we’ll get some great projects, and we’ll get some not-so-great projects. Just like your choice of car in casual carpool, you won’t have much control over the projects that you work on. What you do have control over is your attitude.

We need to take a positive approach to the design problems that we have to solve. We should ask ourselves questions like, “ How am I helping the user?” and “ How can I use this project to contribute to my long-term goals as a designer?”. Asking ourselves these questions will really help us dig down into the deeper meaning behind the problem and help motivate us whenever we’re faced with unsexy design problems.

3. Just because you got a ride, doesn’t mean you’ll get to The City on time.

We can never fully anticipate the car accidents, construction, and traffic on the way to the City, just as we can’t anticipate the bumps along the road to becoming a great designer.

When it comes to planning design sprints, optimizing your workflow, brainstorming new ideas, etc., planning ahead and anticipating the bumps along the way will save you a lot of bandwidth and cognitive load.

I always take care of the things I can control and plan for the things that I can’t. Before I make my way down to casual carpool, I always check the weather, glance at Waze, and set aside some time in the morning to gather my thoughts and things before I tackle the day.

When faced with a project deadline, I love to use a combination of different project management tools to help me get the job done. Some of these include: Trello, Basecamp, and my Gmail Calendar. Additionally, I timebox shorts sprints of work and leave some time inbetween to refresh my mind and prevent creative fatigue.

4. It doesn’t matter how you get to The City, as long as you get there.

When I first started taking casual carpool and before I was familiar with Oakland, I hopped in the car with a stranger with the expectation that we were going straight to the City. My driver took me on a wild goose chase throughout the side streets of Oakland. I had no clue where we were going. I was going to die. I was done for. Little did I know that my driver knew exactly where he was going. We bypassed all the traffic in the East Bay, and actually got to the City faster than usual!

Throughout your design career you probably won’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going for a while. There will be circumstances in your life that you have no control over. Just like my casual carpool driver taking me for a joy ride, your career as a designer may take you to places that you never anticipated.

But trust the process and trust your struggle. Take care of the things you can control and have the confidence that the path you’re on will lead you in the right direction. It may not be the exact path that you set out for yourself, but who knows, it might end up being a more fascinating journey.

This post originally appeared on Medium. Check it out in its original form!