For Australian design students worried about plunging into the deep, dark, scary waters of the full-time employment pool, there’s hope in the form of The Design Kids (TDK), a group of young guns that work with recent and soon-to-be grads in Australia and New Zealand to offer industry knowhow and ultimately (hopefully) “a dream job in graphic design, typography, or illustration.”
In 2009 founder Frankie Ratford opened shop, selling student work, arranging portfolio reviews with creative directors, staging exhibitions, hosting workshops, and offering young designers exposure on TDK’s website. But a major part of her approach is “connecting with people IRL instead of online,” so she’s frequently on the road, trying to meet as much promising design talent as possible and expanding TDK’s community—currently 37,000 and growing.
Ratford recently returned from an ambitious 10-week hitchhiking trip across New Zealand for an Instagram typography competition that asked designers to create hitchhiking signs to catch the eyes of passing drivers, and be used later in an exhibition. From what we gleaned on Instagram, there were lots of lovely, hand-lettered versions of “Going my way?” that seem to have done the trick, successfully delivering Ratford and TDK’s studio manager Yves Johnson across the island, where they met new talent and picked up some excellent design work along the way.
We caught up with Ratford to find out how it went, what you supplies to pack for a graphic design road trip, and why TDK is taking their next big adventure stateside.
I read that you spend nine months of the year roadtripping. How do you pull that off with all your work?
Most people work all year at home and go on holidays for four weeks a year. I work the opposite way: I live on the road, travel for work, and head home for six weeks in the summer and winter for my time off. I’m currently building a cabin in Tasmania on a little block of land opposite the ocean, which is now home.
Space must be tight. How on earth do you pack supplies and materials for such a long period?
We just did a two-month stint with only 15 pounds of hand luggage. Both Yve and myself are very light travelers and love the joy of packing well. We took work stuff (11” MacBook Air, 70D camera for filming, and hard drives for backup), camping stuff (a Bivvy Bag to camp in, no tent required, a tiny stove, a spork, a metal cup for eating, drinking, and putting your phone in as a speaker), warm clothes for hitching and nice clothes for meetings, guest lectures, and city time.
We work from libraries, cafes, and laundromats, charging our phones at peoples’ houses, hostels, and hotels. First comes wifi, then water, then a roof over your head.
You studied as a graphic designer. What made you want to switch gears a bit and play more of a professional development role?
I was always obsessed with design, from my first graphic design class at 14, I was hooked. I had eight design jobs in the industry (the last being a designer at Frost* in Sydney, under the guidance of Vince Frost) before deciding I wanted to do my own thing, and I’ve had many jobs more since to support TDK.
I’m personally really interested in entrepreneurism, ideas, problem solving, and lifestyle design. If you throw all that into the oven, The Design Kids model comes out—a cross between design, travel, and people. TDK actually started as a shop where students could sell design posters, tote bags, etc. and we slowly started doing more exhibitions and workshops. When those started making an impact and helped graduates get internships and jobs, we moved away from the shop to focus our energies there. We now run 12 initiatives online and off to help bridge that gap.
How carefully do you plan out your trip? Do you know where you’ll be crashing most nights, or do you wing it?
The range of places we stayed was pretty crazy, from an abandoned hotel, to a veggie patch in someone’s garden, to a posh hotel, to a cow field, every second was fun. We had a loose plan, but it relied on hitchhiking so anything could happen.
We caught up with old friends and met loads of new ones: Eddy, who runs an amazing studio in Auckland let us move into her house after knowing us a few hours, and took us camping on the weekends and invited us to her intimate wedding in Fiji the next month. Lyn, a mum who took us home for a big family roast, let us crash on her couch and took us to Toastmasters that night to perfect our public speaking skills. Kelsey, a design student who got in touch when she heard about TDK, ended up interning for two weeks and showed us around each city as a local designer. Brett, an illustrator in Christchurch, linked us to so many people, and even lent us his parents’ cabin in the mountains for a week. And there are so many more stories like that.
What are your plans going forward? Can you make a living on the road, or do you see yourself landing something that keeps you in one place?
We’re lucky enough to have a fantastic sponsor, Tractor Design School, who have booked out all our advertising spots until the end of the year. Tractor has an amazing program where you’re taught by industry professionals, so when you graduate you already have a network of amazing creatives.
As the business grows we’ll be looking at more income channels (hint: bringing back the shop), but for now we’re stoked. Next on the radar is our American road trip, hopefully for 18 months, starting in San Francisco. You guys have such a huge country and we really want to get around all of it!