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Lessons from My Worldwide Road Trip


Frankie Ratford, founder of The Design Kids, shares insights from her 6-year quest to build an international community of designers

December 2018 will mean I’ve been on the road for six years, gathering graphic design resources for soon-to-be graduates, and building design communities around the world for The Design Kids, city by city, country by country. Besides being a big traveler at heart, I started the project back in 2009 because I felt like the graphic design industry was too disjointed and hard to break into. It was hard for students to make their first steps into local design communities, which motivated me to travel around the world, providing recent graduates with the tools to form a better understanding of the industry and their place in it.

Frankie Ratford from The Design Kids

In 2013, I road tripped around my home country of Australia to build the TDK brand. I ran exhibitions, gave talks and workshops and met with studios. When I started the trip, it was only meant to be five months. Then one year. Then six. I journeyed across New Zealand, USA, Canada, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. As I’m launching the final part of my worldwide tour, this time visiting South America and Asia (starting today and going on until mid-November), I’m excited to share some of my thoughts nearing the end of the trip. Here’s a list of my top five highlights of what I’ve learnt from my travels, physically meeting with countless students, universities and studios:

1. You can achieve anything with hard work

Six years of being on the road years means around 1,800 days of finding somewhere to sleep, good WiFi to work with and somewhere to shower. It’s been an insane journey both physically and emotionally, building my company while criss-crossing across the globe in various vehicles, on both sides of the road, on foot and on trains, buses and planes. And you don’t have to be road tripping across the globe to know that in any career, there’s definitely going to be long periods of things getting too hard and just too much. This can be especially true when developing your own independent brand. But I’m a stubborn Sagittarius and I like to finish what I started. Back in March 2016 my RV broke down for 60 days straight. I basically lived with mechanics all the way from LA to Austin to New Orleans. I still get Christmas cards to Tasmania from mechanics’ wives in Texas, haha! I think you can apply this non-negotiable determination to anything in life and kick those goals.

For me, the way to keep my energy levels up no matter the hardships, is to dive head-deep into whatever it is that I do. In this case, it’s mapping out the design industry to the best of my abilities. But to be honest, I can’t imagine working in any job without getting to understand the industry, its limitations and my place within it. If I wanted to become a hairdresser, I would research the different types of hairdressing, famous hairdressers, local and international hairdressers, hairdressing conferences, events, competitions I could enter, and anything I could do to learn more about the subject. It’s the same with design – the more you research and understand, the easier it is.

Frankie Ratford's Colorful Campervan in the Nature

2. Design is both a local experience and a global one

The graphic design industry in each city is influenced by its businesses and surroundings. Portland has family vibes and lots of illustration. San Francisco is really affected by the tech industry, so it makes more sense to join Google or Facebook, rather than branching out by yourself – particularly when the cost of living is so high. This leads to more people initiating fun personal projects after work hours. Vancouver has lots of movies made there (as it’s cheaper than in the US), as well as many tech and outdoor lifestyle brands. Sydney and Madrid are more advertising and money driven, whereas Melbourne and Barcelona are more about boutique, smaller studios and creative clients. London and NYC are huge and there’s room for everything, but they’re incredibly competitive. The Dutch and Swiss designers are in a league of their own. There are beautiful things that can come out of these local variances. One such element that keeps things interesting is facing a language barrier. I’m loving the Arabic typography I’ve been seeing on my trip to the Middle East and Africa.

And while geographical distances causes local particularities, we also have Internet that brings us closer together. Very close, when it comes to design trends. Things like Instagram and Pinterest mean there are definite trends that circulate – right now they are black backgrounds, ‘90s type, earthy tones, smiley faces, palm trees, pastels and food, to name a few. Mocking things falling from the sky was very 2015, up against a wall is 2016, plain black backgrounds came in last year and have stuck around. Trends are good and bad – I love how you can date a piece of work by some of its themes (remember the woodland animal phase of 2010 or the CMYK vector stuff of 2003?). But I also think designers need to pull inspiration from sources outside of graphic design, otherwise that feedback loop just gets smaller and smaller. There should be more emphasis on experimentation, time to explore the visual side and way more strategy involved. In my experience, it’s important to take the time at the start of each project to simply ‘play’. If you experiment, make mistakes and try things, it really makes a difference and puts you at the top of your game.

Pretty coffee table with books and plants

3. Nothing beats a real-life design community. Let’s build it together.

Communities can maintain an industry standard of work and provide support for those involved – which makes things fun. We’re designers, we’re not saving the world. Let’s enjoy it! I think followers and likes are great, and things such as Instagram make it possible to make connections through virtual platforms, but nothing beats real life communication. At The Design Kids, we run TDKtuesdays, a global meet-up on the first Tuesday of the month. We provide all info a recent graduate might need to succeed, including a jobs board, freshly updated reads and the design events going on across 80 cities. We’re also launching career retreats next year in exotic locations, charity work, books, a full mentoring program and a bunch of other fun stuff to strengthen a real life sense of community.

I think most students expect to study and then for a job to just fall into their lap. It’s not that easy, and the industry is very competitive. Yet, if you put the time in, it is easier than you think! One way to do this is with human connections. Personally, most of my friends are in the industry and are both friends and work peeps, with no divide. I believe that being nice always pays off, and a lot of stuff will come from things you could never have even guessed. Respect everyone, not just the people you think can help you. This is a good rule in life, not just when starting your career. All humans are equal and they all deserve the same amount of your time and energy.

Here’s one example: I ran a workshop in Brisbane and spent a lot of time really understanding each student’s career path to make sure they got value from the workshop. At the end we went for beers and one of the girls’ best friends was a literary agent in NYC, and I ended up getting a book deal. Another time, a guy emailed me about a kids’ project, which normally drives me nuts, as TDK uses the word ‘kids’ as slang for young adults. I was nice over email and it turns out he was friends with a bunch of my USA friends, and I ended up at a lunch with him and Jessica Hische among others, and it completely transformed my time in San Francisco.

Frankie Ratford traveling with The Design Kids

4. Get your hands dirty, you might learn something

I’m a huge advocate for putting my hand up for everything and anything. I think I’m naturally a curious person. I love meeting people and learning more about their lives. Putting your hand up for random stuff always adds value to your life, whether it’s new skills, meeting different types of people or maybe a complete career change. I volunteered to help out at a Canadian rock festival when I was staying with a friend in Christina Lake, Canada. I needed help manning the VIP bar and the next day one of the patrons had a private plane and I got to fly a 1964 Cessna across British Columbia. Another time I volunteered at Brand New Conference in Nashville (run by Bryony and Armin Vit) and learnt how to run a conference from some of the world’s best designers (I also got to visit their home while I was in Austin and meet their kids). When I was in Portland I offered my design skills for free and ended up designing a poster set for Paula Scher and got to hang out with her at the event. Last weekend I helped my friend out with his food truck and now I want to start a food truck business. The possibilities are endless!

Frankie Ratford traveling with The Design Kids

5. Often, not having resources makes you more creative

90% of these trips have been done on what most people would earn in a month or less. I don’t see money as a block for getting anything done. In fact, I thrive on it! I think part of The Design Kids ethos is just figuring shit out and making it happen no matter what. It’s a very young company – we don’t have a board of directors or even a full time accountant, just a bunch of kids making it happen, leading by example. It’s really surreal how far we’ve come just seeing what we can get away with – it turns out, quite a lot. Throw caution to the wind and have fun. If you need more inspiration, read my favorite book by Tim Ferriss – the Four Hour Work Week. It’s brilliant. It empowered me to redesign my life into what they are today – and it has interesting insights about lifestyle design, efficiency and life choices.

Frankie Ratford with ocean view

Ready to get in on the adventure? Become part of the community on Frankie’s Wix website.



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