Hiking volcanic peaks, Vanuatu

Made by Carol Monk: Travel Like a Creative Director — 10 Must-See Design Destinations

an argomade series

With expertise spanning content strategy, user experience design, brand management, and more, creative director Carol Monk has worked in the digital space for more than 20 years, for Fortune 100 companies and nonprofits alike. Prior to her work with argo, Carol served as group creative director at Razorfish, one of the world’s largest interactive agencies.

Although Carol has dedicated her professional life to creating rich digital experiences, equally important to her is a long-time promise to herself to unplug at least once a year and travel the world.

There’s no better way to become a sharper designer according to Carol, so every trip around the sun since college she has left the country to explore uncharted territories and learn from the locals, the land, and whatever else the voyage has in store. In this argomade, Carol catalogs her top 10 destinations and tells a few of her favorite travel tales along the way.

You’ve visited over 30 countries so far. What’s your most prized souvenir from your travels?

I have a cherished artifact collection from my trips abroad. These days it consists of patches and currency, postcards sent to others and myself, and of course, photos. They are packable and affordable design expressions and memories of those places.

But more importantly, I always come home with a different perspective on people and the world that surrounds us. I hope I become more aware and more empathetic and less self absorbed. After all, empathy is a key component to design, and traveling helps me develop a better proclivity for it.

How does traveling make you a better designer?

Seeing good design in context helps you realize that whereas art is evocative, design is a combination of beauty and utility.

In France, I was intrigued by a pulley system used for drying laundry. It made sense in the tiny apartments and it was out of public view. Truth be told, I’m a fairly pragmatic designer. I believe that things should have purpose and, for the most part, without unnecessary flourish.

This product design says a lot about the way people live in that country. It reminds us how important environment and circumstance are in terms of designing for an audience. As designers we struggle with that all the time. How can we offer interest, intrigue, information or insight through design?

Case in point: I love how architect Roberto Burle Marx incorporated beauty into something very utilitarian — Rio de Janeiro’s boardwalk (below). The black and white stone mosaic extends the original design from the Portuguese who settled there in the 16th century, and reflects waves from the seaside and the jubilant samba-dancing culture. And the design varies to designate different sections of the avenue. Now the mundane has meaning.

What are your top 10 design destinations? (listed alphabetically)

1. Argentina
Buenos Aires is an architectural ‘metroponderland’ (metropolis + wonderland) that feels like Paris, New York, and New Orleans all mixed in one, showing how a city evolves and reflects the people and culture within. Those are my picks, but it’s obvious that there is influence from England, France, and Spain as well — all results of the colonialism. Besides the fantastic architecture, it’s a vibrant city with strong traditions: tango, football (aka: soccer), asado, malbec, gauchos, and leather goods (buy a good bag here). And, it houses one of the most beautiful cemeteries, Recoleta Cemetery (Liliana Crociati de Szaszak pictured below).

2. Australia
Melbourne draws me because of the food and the Australian Open, but I was surprisingly delighted by the art (particularly street art). It’s an approachable size at 3 million and loves its happy hour. Aussies are known for being friendly, and it’s true; they welcome you to the party, in a ‘more the merrier’ fashion. Bigger sister, Sydney, was a stunner as well with the iconic Opera House (take the tour), and frequent ferries to the sexy, surfer-friendly beaches, including famous Bondi Beach. Walk the coastline to hit several beaches, including the Icebergs Club where man meets nature with a protected pool nesting alongside the ocean. Warning: that lap pool is cold!

3. Brazil
Rio de Janeiro has truly one of the most breathtaking coastlines in the world, especially with Christ the Redeemer overlooking the landscape. As mentioned above, the art here is embedded in the boardwalk. Go for the beaches and Sugar Loaf, but make sure you visit lively Lapa for samba, or jazz and bossa nova in places like Santo Scenarium — half antique shop, half bar (this may have changed since I was there in 2003). Artists sat next to us, sketching on butcher paper while they ate their lunch, working nonchalantly in a daydreamy sort of way. Drink lots of caipirinhas at night followed by coconut water during the day. Stay hydrated when traveling, and as we say at argo, “aggressively hydrate” to keep the mind clear when designing.

4. England
To be honest, this one surprised me. Never high on my must-do list, London completely and utterly impressed. A mecca of museums, I was floored by the number of masterpieces. Visiting London museums is like Art History 101 (V&A, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Design Museum just for starters). It’s humbling in a good way. Walk the Thames, ride the London Eye, and sit on grass furniture with a beer.

5. France
My very first love, this one is a no-brainer. I studied Journalism and French in college because I wanted to write for travel magazines. I even moved to France after graduation and got properly abused by a French chef working in a 3-star Michelin restaurant. I’ve been there another three times since — each trip providing a very different experience, from total immersion to daily living to full-on vacation. After the requisite three days in Paris (where you’ll want to catch Musée d’Orsay, Pompidou, Picasso’s museum, Jardin Du Luxembourg and Roland Garros, site of the French Open for red clay tennis), rent a car or take the TGV to the south — the Provence or Languedoc and the coast. Other regions and sites like Mont-Saint-Michel are magnificent, but I prefer the south. The café culture, farmers markets, and tree-lined drives encourage you to slow down and soak it all up. In our American frenzy to get sh*t done, I think we forget to appreciate what’s around us. It’s the same in design. You sometimes need to ‘slow down in order to speed up.’ Take it slow to fully enjoy France, and apply a simple practice: coffee, croissant, wine, cheese, olives. Rinse (yourself in the Mediterranean), repeat.

6. Greece
We got lost. In fact, we ended up on a different island altogether (Cephalonia). But we chanced upon hilarious and generous Italians who had vacationed there for years, and knew a place where we could stay. We were their first American guests. When we got lost again, this time with the Italians, a sweet old man pointed us in the right direction using a map of the island painted on a rock wall. I loved how the locals had imprinted their own ‘rock on a rock’ as both a declaration of their homeland and as a piece of art. I went home with amazing memories, photos, and a cartouche necklace my sister bought for me in an antique shop. We didn’t know what the hieroglyphics meant, but I cherished it and wore it everyday. When it later fell off on a bike ride, the only way I could get over it was by imagining it was on its own adventure like the dessert spoon and bean can in Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins.

7. New Zealand
New Zealand is an outdoor paradise. Get out of Auckland and explore, preferably by car or camper van. Wine country, hot springs, tribal traditions like haka, beaches, sailing, glowworm caves, fjords, glaciers, hiking. Take the gondolas upwards in Rotorua and Queenstown, and ride the “luges” (go-carts) down. Not only is the countryside breathtaking, it’s also refreshing to immerse yourself in nature. I would never call myself an outdoorsman, but I have a keen appreciation of the restorative power of nature, thanks to family members who have worked for the environment. There is nothing like Milford Sound to remind you that your life, and your problems, are small. I don’t mean trivial, but stepping away from a problem can often reveal new solutions.

8. Portugal
I just felt happy in Lisbon with its yellow light and iconic tiled buildings brushed in pastels. Narrow, cobblestone alleyways rise and fall on the hillside overlooking the Rio Tejo. Walk along the river to admire the magnificent Monument to the Discoveries, and follow it until you hit the Museu Coleção Berardo where you’ll discover a spectacular array of 20th century art. While France still reigns supreme for wine (and in particular, champagne), the Douru Valley is the exclusive producer of official “port” wine and offers scenic landscapes surrounding its vineyards.

9. Uruguay
Punta del Este is dubbed the St. Tropez of South America, so if you’re preoccupied with beachcombing along The Hand you may miss this artistic gem nearby. Artist Carlos Páez Vilaró built Casapueblo, a home and studio that’s like a little piece of Greece with its distinctive white stucco (and is now a hotel and gallery). He pays tribute to his son, one of the seventeen who survived the famous Andes plane crash in 1972. A friend of Picasso, Vilaró painted, sculpted, wrote, and composed here up until his death in 2014. He was prolific; he kept creating in all different forms. A great reminder: No matter how good or bad you are, keep doing and making.

10. Vanuatu
I’ve been to 31 countries so far, and this one wins my “most remote location.” I went twice, thanks to my sister who was stationed there with the Peace Corps. This island nation is an intoxicating mix of French colonialism (think: good cheese and wine at appalling imported prices) along with local tribal traditions like taking kava as a meditative experience to honor your ancestors. It also is one of the few pristine places left on Earth. In other words, the art is under water. Lounge on the beach at Hideaway Island where you can dip your face in the water and see loads of colorful sea life a few feet off shore. Or, mail a postcard in their underwater post office. But you’ll see even more if you don a scuba suit. I’m terrified of deep water (I mean, I grew up in the era of Jaws), but it was important for me to conquer this fear. I’m still nervous every time I jump in the water, but taking that leap of faith was a win. And, as one of my very favorite mentors always says, “Celebrate every win.”

And now for the lightning round:

Favorite currency? Hands down, Fijian dollars (FJD): the colors, the local fauna and flora, and the wavy serial numbers (pictured below).

Favorite architecture? La Sagrada Familia Basilica by Gaudí in Barcelona.

Favorite signature cocktail? Argentina boasts the caipirinha. It’s the margarita of South America. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s made with vodka — that’s cachaça!

Favorite coffee? Costa Rica. This is truly service with a smile. The coffee is amazing and the people are absolutely lovely. Pura Vida!

Favorite beach? Playa Bavaro, 24-mile beach on Punta Cana, Dominican Republic — like white velvet.

Where did you get your love of travel?

My grandmother’s roots are in Czechoslovakia, but she lived her entire life in Iowa — and yet she was far from provincial. In fact, she was an astounding figure to me. She got a Masters when no women did that. She lost her husband at the age of 48, raised three children, and lived to be 101. While all of that is incredible, as a child I was most fascinated by what she was able to do beyond that — beyond Iowa. She traveled the world, bringing back charms and dolls and trinkets and stories that felt exotic and mysterious. I got the bug.

What keeps you coming back home?

While I love to jet away, Dorothy was right when she mooned, “there’s no place like home.” Feeding my wanderlust allows me to see more of the world — and subsequently see more in my everyday — because it’s natural to compare and contrast. I gain appreciation for what I have, plus I have new ideas and perspective to draw from in order to be a more thoughtful designer.

Honorable mentions: Jordan, Tanzania, Spain

Want more of the argomade designer profile series? Check out these articles made by: Laura Seargeant Richardson | Matthew Santone | Ian MacDowell | Hayes Urban | Desmond Connolly | Michael Shea | Martha Fierro | Lala Rillera | Camille Woods

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