Design Thinking On The Road

How an outdoor adventure (and sleeping in covered wagons) can help inform your next great campaign.

As a modern agency, Struck has embraced a design-thinking framework. You’ll notice that it’s a “framework” and not a “process” or a “structure”—we see the principles of design thinking as the scaffolding that helps get the works done. It should never replace keen insights or be used to shortcut past well-crafted creative solutions. Instead, design thinking gives our teams the support and touchpoints they need to help understand the audience, make things quickly, and refine/iterate as we go.

The three key components of design thinking—observe, make, reflect—align quite well with our agency’s values—love, fight, adapt. It’s intentional, for sure. Love is about empathy, understanding, and a willingness to sacrifice for each other (our clients, their customers, our team members). Fight reflects the struggle to create something impactful, the push-and-pull of relationships, and the competitive spirit. Adapt points to humility and the willingness to embrace change, feedback, and cold-hard data as part of the work we do.

In theory, all of these things are great. It’s easy to talk about them, write about them, and put them in a creative brief. Practicing them is a bit more difficult. Especially when you find yourself in a relatively comfortable place with a client, an assignment, or a project.

Zion National Park

We’ve worked with the Utah Office of Tourism for more than a dozen years, crafting winter and summer campaigns that have driven huge results for the office and great experiences for travelers. As we started thinking about the next evolution of our three-season (spring/summer/fall) campaign, our conversation pushed back toward the tenets of design thinking. What does it mean to observe and understand our audience? How can we know if we’re fighting for the right message or the right visual? What opportunities do we have to reflect on our work and evaluate where we’ve succeeded—and where we’ve come up short?

Those are tough questions. The type of questions that can’t be answered in a Slack channel or through a Basecamp thread. In order to answer those questions—and to prepare ourselves to collaborate with our friends at the Utah Office of Tourism—we needed to put the principles of design thinking to a more rigorous, more physical test. So, we decided on a road trip through Utah’s unmatched wilderness. Five Struckers, one car, four days of exploration. We’d talk to other travelers. We’d drive the roads they might drive, eat the meals they might eat, and sleep in the beds where they might rest their legs after a big hike. That last sentence kind of sounds creepy… but if that’s what would be required to achieve design thinking nirvana—we’d make it happen.

Where We Went (Logistics)

Since most of us had already spent a good amount of time in Moab around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks (and we’d be down there a month later for some meetings), we decided to head right down the middle of the state—stopping in Salina for lunch at Mom’s Cafe before rolling into Goblin Valley, dropping into Capitol Reef National Park for the sunset, and then spending the night in some covered wagons in Torrey. The next day, we toured Anasazi State Park in Boulder, hiked to Calf Creek Falls (amazing!), enjoyed lunch in Escalante and made it to Bryce Canyon National Park for an evening hike through the hoodoos—and then enjoyed a luxurious Airbnb in Tropic. Our last full day was spent at Zion National Park and Snow Canyon State Park (just outside of St. George) and we had to bail out of a very sketchy trailer park Airbnb situation (the vintage Airstream was mostly just old and parked in the middle of a giant meth den) before finding a great Best Western in Cedar City. Day four was mostly driving—broken up by a visit to Utah’s Territorial Statehouse and a stop at an amazing diner in Scipio. Wow. We went to a lot of places.

top left: Goblin Valley; top right: Calf Creek Falls; bottom left: Broken Spur Lodge in Torrey; bottom right: Bryce Canyon

What We Did (Design Thinking)

We did our best to mimic the classic American road trip that our campaigns promise. We spent a lot of time in the car, logging more than a thousand highway miles in four days. We stayed in a variety of towns and at a variety of properties (covered wagons, Airbnb, hotel, etc.). We ate some great meals (Traditions Cafe in Scipio!) and we ate some not great meals (a microwave ramen taste test after a long day of hiking).

Most of all, we talked to people. We met a small family with a killer camping setup fine-tuned and packed into their Toyota Tacoma. We dipped our toes in a waterfall with a retired couple who had been to Utah more than ten times and was now just spending a week in their RV in Escalante to get a deeper experience in that part of the state. We chatted with park rangers and photographers, Instagram show-offs and tour-bus travelers. We asked questions. We listened. We offered snacks and gladly accepted when they offered fun-sized candy bars in return.

What We Learned (Insights)

This is going to be easier if we just make a list, so let’s give it a try:

  • If you’re looking for luxury accommodations, Utah might not have exactly what you’re after—but if you’re looking for one-of-a-kind experiences, there’s no place that can match the state’s wilderness, landscapes, and parks.
  • Covered wagons can actually be really nice. Ours had a king bed, bunk beds, air conditioning, a mini fridge, and private bathrooms.
  • Nostalgia is powerful. I ate at Mom’s Cafe in Salina many times in my youth and during my early college years, so I was excited to go back. To me, the food and atmosphere were amazing. To everyone else (who had no emotional connection to the place)… not so much.
  • April is a wonderful time to be traveling through Utah’s southern landscapes. The days were warm and sunny, the nights were refreshing and brisk. Other than the rogue snowstorm we hit on the way home, we left feeling like the traditional shoulder season (early spring, late fall) probably needed more love and attention.
  • When people can’t stop falling asleep on a road trip (no matter how hard they try), it’s called CARCOLEPSY. Seriously, people. I made that up and I want credit anytime anyone uses it anywhere.
left: Mom’s Cafe in Salina; right: Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore

Why It Matters (Application)

This is going to sound obvious, but that’s fine—there’s no replacement for experience. Research is wonderful and the internet is full of lots of good information. Metrics and analytics provide plenty of insight about travelers who want to experience what Utah has to offer. But none of that can offer the kind of perspective you’ll find on the open road. It has changed our thinking in small, yet vital ways. It’s not the first time we’ve done something like this, but it might be the most focus we’ve had during a field excursion. Design thinking gave us a framework to influence our travels and a way to evaluate and implement what we’ve learned.

Here’s the takeaway that matters most (to us, anyway): Design thinking works best when it’s forced outside of the meeting room and away from the whiteboards and laptops. It’s a framework that requires (demands?) interaction, collaboration, and fresh ideas—things that don’t often happen in an controlled environment. Get out on the road. Buy a pile of gas station super snacks (peach rings, bbq sunflower seeds, beef jerky by the pound). Bring a notebook. Or don’t. Make a few new friends. Then get back to work.

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