A change of scenery can work wonders for anyone stuck in a creative rut, but what does it take to step out of your comfort zone and into a bigger, brighter world? Nick Spence speaks to nine established designers about settling somewhere new.
Thanks to the Internet, the world has become a smaller, more sociable place. It's now possible to explore new realms of creativity, discover sources of inspiration and converse with like-minded people on a global scale. Secure a web presence and work at it, and you've the potential to attract a worldwide audience and international client base.
Talent is everywhere, unhindered by geographical location, and one of the great joys of life online is discovering wonderful work from far-flung places. So, since flair can flourish anywhere, why confine yourself to one location?
A creative career can be brief, fraught with disappointment and unfulfilled promise. Many get trapped in the same old daily routine, working to pay rent and mortgages with little in the way of job satisfaction. After a while, familiarity breeds contempt and sometimes the only way to renew and reinvigorate is to start afresh.
Until recently, some would have settled for a new job or the possibility of working freelance and being - in principle - their own boss. However, many have chosen to up sticks and move abroad, aided by global communications, better travel options and, in Europe at least, fewer cross-border restrictions.
For Oz Dean, the multimedia designer behind forcefeed:swede, the move was considerable, swapping Manchester gloom for a sunny five-minute stroll down to Bondi Beach. "I needed change," he says. "I was a young creative director with too much responsibility too soon. My question was 'Is this it? Is this what life is, because at the moment I'm needing more'. A drunken evening in a pub in Manchester with my girlfriend resulted in a decision to look outside of the UK for an opportunity. Sun was the required factor in wherever we sought adventure, so Australia was naturally on the shortlist."
Good weather was also a factor for Stephen Kelleher, the creative brains behind Frankenstyles, who moved from Dublin to Los Angeles, but his need to go where the best work could be found took precedence. "I moved from Dublin to Los Angeles to pursue a career in motion graphics," he says. "The US has the highest concentration of world-class studios and Ireland has such a small industry in comparison. I was feeling like I had reached a ceiling where I was and when offered the opportunity to work in one of the best studios in the world, Buck, it was pretty much a no-brainer."
Financial reasons alone can be enough of an incentive to convince many to move. Illustrator Adhemas Batista relocated from Brazil to Los Angeles to build a better future for his family. "Can you imagine my wife and I at the airport with two kids, nine bags and talking just a few words in English? It was a big adventure and I'll never forget it," he remembers. "Most people from Brazil have a dream to know the US, make a life here and gain money. The US market is strong, with many opportunities, good options and you can make more choices. I like to think the US has space for every kind of talented person who likes to work and try for a better life. The country offers better conditions for a family like mine."
As well as moving abroad to better professional prospects, a change of scenery will bolster confidence, aid personal growth and enhance life skills. "Having lots of independence in every aspect of life is really great," says illustrator Catalina Estrada, who made the move from Medellin, Columbia, to Barcelona, Spain. "After negotiating lots of challenges you start to gain confidence in yourself and it really shows in every aspect of your life, both emotional and professional. Getting a wider perspective on things is also very important."
Icelandic illustrator Katrin Petursdottir Young has gained that wider perspective travelling freely in recent years. "I studied in Paris, worked there for a while, then went to the UK to work," she says. "I then moved to Iceland and had a company based there, although all the clients were overseas. In 2003 we made a move to Belgium and in 2004 to Asia. The decisions to move have always been based on work opportunities, but most of all on adventure. We live in these incredibly free times where travel and discovery is possible."
Born in Wales, but now working in San Francisco, a holiday sparked Michael Gillette's move from London. "I'm very grateful that I did, it really shook the tree for me and moved my life forward," he says. "The move made me more open to change and possibility. I feel very lucky to live here, and that is a good stance to come from. I took London for granted as an inevitable, endless grind. I allowed myself three years here, and if I didn't enjoy it I would have moved home."
Vault49 made the move from London to New York for a number of reasons. "We didn't move here primarily to advance Vault49 as a company, instead we came to New York for a life experience and it has proved to be everything that we hoped for," says the agency's co-founder, Jonathan Kenyon. "But Vault49 as a business is doing fantastically well over here and we are currently expanding to meet demand. We've been really well received."
Vault49 moved to New York in February 2004 after attending a party thrown by one of its US clients, although red tape predictably played a part. "It is notoriously hard for a small company like ours to relocate to the US, and it's a move that was only achieved through a long immigration process and a committed visa attorney," says Kenyon. "We were fortunate to have amassed an impressive client list in our first two years of business, notably with some key US clients. We were able to prove through our portfolio of work that we were a respected company with great potential. Our only real concern was that our stay here was dependent on the success of our business, and we had to do more than just survive."
As a would-be freelancer, Michael Gillette faced further difficulties trying to get into the US. "My biggest difficulty was getting a visa to allow me to move legally," he says. "I joined an American agency who agreed to be my sponsor. Basically America doesn't recognise freelance status, someone ultimately has to carry the can for you. It took me about nine months to get my visa sorted out and it cost me about £1,800, which was a good deal. Nobody told me I had to have my visa stamped by the American embassy in London before I left. I moved to America and a month later I had to return to the UK to have my form processed."
Simon Oxley, aka IdoKungfoo, also had visa problems when making the move to Japan from the UK via Bahrain. These were thankfully resolved when he fell in love and married a Japanese woman with whom he now has two small children. "I had visa issues, initially working with a three-month tourist status visa for nine months or so until getting married and transferring to spouse status," he remembers. "I was also lucky enough to find a foreign boss in Tokyo who paid me in cash. I lived out of one bag for a year - staying in Japanese Ryokans, traditional Japanese inns, until the firm gave me a very small apartment in Ichikawa. I spent a lot of time learning Japanese and etiquette, which is very important in all areas of Japanese life."
Obtaining a level of success abroad not only requires local knowledge but the ability to adapt your working practices, especially if you initially end up running your business from a backpack. "When working so much on the road, it is absolutely essential to be able to respond to things in a timely manner," says Craig Swann of interactive entertainment agency CRASH!MEDIA, who has travelled extensively. "Some suggestions are to have a custom set of communications applications available and at the ready via a USB key. These portable applications are ready to use anytime you need them from any machine."
"You must also have a back-up drive that is bootable," Swann continues. "This allows you to get back up and running with your own applications, files and preferences. Good time management is an important element and something that I manage on my laptop but also synch to my iPod. My iPod is like a secret weapon that stores back-up of important files, presentations, portable applications, appointments and contacts."
Work placements are always an option for those wanting a taste of cosmopolitan life without the commitment of studying abroad. If you are an EC national you have the right of access to higher education in any other EU country for full study courses, assuming you have the relevant entry qualifications. European-wide schemes, such as Socrates, Erasmus, The Leonardo da Vinci programme, Eurochoice, Ecotec, NARIC network and UNESCO, provide everything from help and support to financial assistance and grants. For those considering studying in the UK, the British Council (www.britishcouncil.org) offers information on courses, qualifications, institutions, English requirements, visas and travel.
Another option is to have overseas clients coming to you either by seeking them out or finding suitable representation or an agent. "The single most important factor that has been key to me attracting overseas clients is a good web presence and an unyielding commitment to self-publicity," says Kelleher. "The internet allows people all over the world to see what I can do, send work instantly and communicate regularly, which are all essential to sustaining a successful, thriving business."
Researching online for specific contacts can also pay dividends. "Find a way to broadcast what you are offering to as many people as possible," says Oxley. "If you are determined to relocate to a particular place, a few politely worded emails and letters will make it a real proposition. Avoid sending generic emails; be sure to construct a well thought out, considered request direct to a specific individual. The personal references to their work will help them to understand that you are serious about working with them."
If you do make the move you will need to ensure local potential clients know that you are there, ready and willing to undertake work. "After arriving in New York, the greatest challenge for us was making people aware that we were here and available for work," says Kenyon. Even before the move, Vault49 began targeting clients based in New York, including a Flaunt magazine cover, which became one of their most referenced pieces of work and played a large part in how quickly their business and recognition grew in the US.
"We updated our website with a New York theme, emailed our growing client list, and made several postings on design forums to try and alert as many people as possible," Kenyon continues. "Perhaps our more productive decision was to focus our marketing towards notable New York clients, not just the US as a whole. We felt it was essential to become known as a 'New York' design company, so we successfully pitched for business from the New York Times, the New York Magazine, Bloomingdales New York, and other such historic institutions and obtained many regular commissions, which really helped establish us as a 'local' studio."
Vault49 and others have successfully combined working for new local clients while maintaining professional contacts made before the move, although physically overseeing a job from a distance can be a challenge. "Even though I have contacts in the UK, the distance seems to get in the way of being able to secure work," says Dean. "I believe you have to be in the locality of where the work is being commissioned, because logistically it can be an issue to project manage when your team is dispersed. That said, I have been working with a toy company called Red Magic over email for the last year and a half. I have never met them face to face, yet we launched my new toy this week."
Back to your roots
Ultimately, if the move doesn't turn out as planned you can always return home with some valuable work and life experiences, and hopefully a good tan. Uncertainty can be daunting, but if you don't try you will never know, and you may live to regret not making a move later in life when other commitments tie you down.
"Understand that you must be prepared to be flexible and be willing to learn the language while expressing an interest to get involved with local life," Oxley concludes. "If you like your home comforts you probably won't last, but that is fine, because apparently everyone returns to their roots eventually. Be prepared for adventure, keep an open mind and enjoy all the oddities and curiosities of the culture you're experiencing. Successful design solutions arrive from a searching mind."
Find out what the following destinations have to offer digital creatives on the move
"If you don't have a green card and you want to work in the US, you need to attain a working visa," says Stephen Kelleher. "These can last from just a few months to a number of years. It took four or five months to secure mine." With major markets and clients in the US, Kelleher found budgets and wages bigger and better. Michael Gillette agrees: "The US pays better than Britain, although with the weakness of the dollar the gap is definitely narrower."
While London will be an expensive location for many designers on the move, the UK has a wealth of design talent across the length and breadth of the country, backed by some excellent industry websites, forums, blogs and podcasts. EU and EEU citizens don't require work permits and you are even free to set up your own design business in the UK. However, you may need to register as a worker under the UK's Workers Registration Scheme.
South Africa has suffered something of a brain drain in recent years, with a lack of suitable candidates for many skilled jobs. However, employers wishing to bring workers from abroad have to satisfy the Department of Home Affairs that they are unable to secure the required personnel locally. To gain a work visa you need to have a firm offer of employment and you will require a work-seeker's permit to enter the country. Visit recruitment sites such as Jobs.co.za to gauge what type of design jobs are available.
"The budgets are lower in Australia than in Europe, which affects the job with regards to the amount of risk that the client and agency is willing to take when heading down into new territory," says Oz Dean. The Australian INfront (www.australianinfront.com.au) is an excellent designers' and artists' portal that proved welcoming and useful when Dean made the move Down Under. After securing a visa and sponsorship, he is now eligible to apply for citizenship.
The United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, offers a more relaxed western outlook and excellent income potential, offering attractive tax-free salaries. Job adverts for graphic designers, web designers and art directors can be found in the pages of UK newspapers, trade magazines and even local English press and typically can pay above UK equivalents. Gulfnews.com offers a flavour of life in the region as well as a useful Classifieds section.
Foreign nationals wishing to work in Japan require a visa, which can be hard to obtain, especially because the Japanese language can be tricky to grasp. A working holiday visa may be an option for some aged 18-30, as is studying in Japan. Some Japanese design studios offer website content in English, while websites, such as Japanguide.com, provide free forums that cover areas including working as a graphic designer. Remember, many Japanese live to work, so be prepared to put in the hours.