In March 2017, my husband and I finished what has been the most significant project of our lives: converting a school bus into a tiny home. We spent an entire year dedicating every weekend and a lot of work nights on the project. While I knew I was going to learn a lot during this project, I never expected it to have such a positive impact on my profession. Converting a school bus into a home helped me become a better designer and taught me some valuable lessons.
Don’t be afraid to jump right in.
I’ve always been the planning type, and my husband’s always been the “jump in and do it” type. When we first talked about building a tiny house, I believed we needed to have everything planned and accounted for before we began the project. I tend to be this way with work too. I always ask myself, “Do I have everything I need to get started?” “Do I have all of the steps in place to begin this project?” After months of failed planning and saving, my husband exclaimed, “If we sit around and wait for the plan to piece itself together, we’ll never do this.” So we followed his advice.
We spent almost all of our money on the bus and began the build with little direction on what the next steps would be or where we’d get the funds to do it. To my surprise, it all worked out beautifully. With each month that passed, the funds continued to come in, our skills continued to grow, and our time continued to work out.
When I started applying this “jump in” attitude to my work, I was surprised with the flow of creative juices I experienced. My low-detail wireframes became beautifully simple, and I was churning out ideas faster than before. Just jumping in and sketching ideas was leading to higher creativity and brighter ideas.
Break projects into small chunks.
It was easy for us to see the overall start and finish of the project: you start with a bus and end with a home. However, when we looked at it that way, we realized we had a lot of work to do, and we became very overwhelmed. Just like a design project, there are a lot of steps that have to happen to accomplish the result. “There’s no way we’re going to get all of this done,” we thought. The anxiety was almost enough to make us quit.
One day, we decided to sit down and break the project into pieces. We created phases and inside the phases were multiple task lists. Once we had this new plan, we focused only on the individual task lists. As we accomplished one, we’d move on to another. Before we knew it, we had accomplished multiple lists and had gotten a lot done without realizing. The anxiety had lessened dramatically, and our productivity and quality of work had improved.
It was amazing the difference I felt when applying this to my design projects. Breaking my projects into smaller phases and focusing on them one by one made my work better for the same reasons I experienced with the bus build.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from others.
When we first started this project, we knew little about building a home. We spent a lot of time watching videos online and reading guides. While the online resources helped, it didn’t cover everything. We knew we would have to reach out to experienced builders for advice.
This was scary. There’s a certain amount of vulnerability you feel when admitting you don’t know something. I felt nervous and, quite frankly, dumb. I was afraid people would judge us for starting something we’re not experienced with, but we didn’t have any other choice but to find help.
So we reached out, and you know what happened? People were more than happy to help out. They didn’t regard us as dumb. In fact, they thought it was great that we were looking to learn. We realized how silly we were for being nervous, and we had learned so much from conquering our fear.
I always felt nervous when reaching out to more experienced designers for advice. I was afraid of looking inexperienced. Building our home made me realize that if people were more than happy to help me out with something as foreign to me as building a home, then designers will probably be just as willing. Asking for advice became much more comfortable. I’ve received very positive feedback from making an effort to learn from others. The advice I have received this past year has been invaluable. I should never let insecurities stop me from learning.
Tap into your internal creativity by working on other projects.
Designing a home is one creative project I had never done before. In fact, I haven’t really done anything creative outside of my usual design work since high school. Designing the layout and plans of the bus required skills I had not used before, like scaling, planning, and drawing up plans. Designing the interior of the bus required dealing with textures and material scoping and color choices. Even though I had the guidance of a strong interior designer, I was using my creativity for something completely foreign.
To my surprise, I noticed an uptick in my creativity at work. It was as if I had unlocked some new potential by expanding my creativity. It made me realize how powerful side projects can be towards making you a better creative.
Functionality should prevail over design.
One thing we are happy we kept in mind during the build was never to let functionality slip to design. This is a basic rule to UX Design. Pretty colors or design decisions shouldn’t hinder the experience of the user. It was easy to get carried away with a design or appliance idea for our home, but we had to re-center and ask ourselves, “Is this functional, and does it make sense?” Asking this over and over in a separate application from UX design reinforced its importance and helped it become a habit.
Let’s face it. Building a home by ourselves with no help and no experience was pretty freakin’ risky. Were we throwing our money into a hole? Would we end with something we could actually live in? Would the time, money, and effort be worth it?
Although it was a considerable risk, we took the plunge. A year after, when we were done and moved in, we realized it was the best risk we had ever taken. It made me realize that you should never let being afraid of taking risks hold you back.
You really can do anything.
As a multi-disciplinary designer, I’m often asked to do creative tasks I may not be comfortable doing. It’s scary when that happens because I always doubt my ability to do it well. After building our home with no prior experience, I realized I could do anything I set my mind to. I developed a mantra. When someone asks me to help out with something I’m not comfortable with, I now think, “I can do this. I built a house.”
If anyone is considering taking up a massive project like this, I highly encourage it. Yes, you’ll be busting your ass on something not technically related to your profession, but I believe you’ll experience the same impact I did.