What does your suitcase reveal about your design decisions? It’s a simple question with fascinating undertones. Everyone owns a suitcase — some folks even live out of them — but for most of us, they’re idiosyncratic and highly personal. How long have you had it? Where have you been with it? Why do you like it? Where will you go with it?

But those aren’t the only subtleties I’m interested in. Our real question gets at the contents of your trusty travel bag: What do you pack in your luggage… and how?

Monkey See, Monkey Do, Man Need, Man Make

All tools have built-in limitations. It’s so obvious as to seem inane, but this inevitable truth brings new meaning to the phrase by design. Conventional wisdom holds that good design solves problems. In other words, good design forestalls limitations. But if all tools have inbuilt constraints, good design doesn’t prevent limitation so much as leverage, adapt, and work around it. Limitations, by design? Absolutely. This is a cornerstone of progress: the best tools are those that iterate on the limitations of their forebears.

Suitcases are no exception, but they rely on the single commodity hardest to adapt: physical space. Their limitations in space are complicated by the length and destination of your vacation. Their limitations in security are complicated by your right to privacy. Their limitations in weight are complicated by airline rules (and sometimes, by your wallet). But it’s not all bad: all of this makes you stop and think about what you need to haul around. As design titan Herman Miller observes, “This definition of need is as individual as our fingerprints.”

Creativity, Decisions & the Art of Prioritization

This is why suitcases are fascinating — they’re rolling records of nature, nuture, virtue, and vice. In a typical bag of linear dim. 62”, one can find a treasure-trove cultural influence, personal predilection, phobia, and fashion. Suitcases force us to expose what we value.

Most of us tend to overpack or underpack, but some have trouble even packing in the first place. Others have luggage down to a science. Some keep emergency wears in their carryons, while those of us who can’t bear the loss of laptops would gladly sacrifice dry-clothes space for a few external hard drives.

As important as what goes inside, though, is what doesn’t. A friend of mine who, in traveling the world, needs all the space he can get, always reserves a square foot of sacred suitcase space for gifts… the gifts he brings his wife and daughters on his journey home. If that doesn’t speak worlds about his mindset, I don’t know what does.

In Confessions of an Advertising Man, father-of-modern-advertising David Ogilvy upends traditional notions of creativity being at odds with decision making. As a traveling creative, Ogilvy understood the nuances of this relationship. Indeed, it’s often at the root of how you pack your suitcase: it can require the extent of your puzzle-solving prowess to stuff it full of misshapen odds and ends. It requires advance planning, and in equal measure, planning on-the-fly.

Suitcase in Point

Your design decisions are much the same way. Though digital barriers are slowly posing fewer challenges, interfaces and architectures are not unlike suitcases. You have limited space (viewport, device), limited compartments (navigation, content taxonomy), limited weight (bandwith, cacheing, speed), and limited security (continuity, configurability of UX, personal information).

Just like the destination and duration of your vacation, users’ time with your product is finite, and often knowable in advance. This suggests that prioritization and creativity play a similar role in design choices as they do in suitcase-packing: all that puzzle-solving and optimizing results in an expression of what you value. The million-dollar question is this: is it the same thing your users value? What would your users pack in their suitcases?

It’s no coincidence that more than one adaptation of Sherlock Holmes relies on luggage to solve a mystery. It’s like I said: for most of us, suitcases are idiosyncratic and highly personal. When those idiosyncrasies carry through to your design choices, it can be for better or for worse. So ask yourself: what’s inside your suitcase?

Hat tip to Herman Miller for the inspiration to publish this post. Special thanks to Dave Mottram for for his adorable monkeys graphic. Questions? Comments? Corrections? Please do say hello.