Pastures new

What impact can voyaging Brits make on the world's design scenes? Nick Carson hooks up with some creative ex-pats making waves from New York to Sydney.

"I don't drink coffee; I take tea my dear," sang Sting back in 1987. "I like my toast done on one side." Of course, his point extends beyond the breakfast menu: it may be nothing more than fuzzy nostalgia to imagine a modern day Englishman strutting down Fifth Avenue with a walking cane, but in the design field at least, there's a quality reputation to uphold.

We've asked a talented crop of legal aliens spread across the globe in New York, Sydney, Tokyo and Helsinki to share their experiences of uprooting from the UK, settling into a fresh creative scene and winning clients overseas.

Vault 49 was founded by Jonathan Kenyon and John Glasgow across the pond in 2004, following a successful exhibition in New York. "We became fascinated with the city's vibrancy and optimism," says Kenyon. "The only hurdle was obtaining a work visa. We had to prove what the US government describes as 'extraordinary ability'."

Fortunately, Vault49 was already held in high esteem in its adopted home. "Perhaps half of our income was generated from US clients at the time," says Kenyon. "Our work was in global demand, so we basically presented the case that the US should keep our tax money, instead of sending it abroad."

So has a change of scene made an impact on the work itself? "Our style is constantly evolving, but this has little to do with our geographic location," argues Kenyon. "Our references are truly global. We support an environment of experimentation, and that would remain the same wherever we are."

It's a similar story for Nick Hayes, co-founder of type foundry and design studio Identikal. "Off the back of projects for PlayStation, Nike, Guinness and Apple, we were asked to create an ad campaign for Ecko Unltd," he recalls. His brother, Adam, moved across to manage the project in 2004, and by the following year Identikal had a permanent Brooklyn address.

"You need a visa and a sponsor," says Hayes. "Ecko was our sponsor, and they sorted all this out for us. Our first visas were H-1B, but we upgraded to O-1 nearly three years back. That was a pain. You need to prove to the US government that you're one of the best in your field."

Fortunately, Identikal is one of the best in its field: the brothers were awarded six out of a possible seven points, making them 'aliens of extraordinary ability'. And they haven't looked back. "There are so many opportunities here in the US," enthuses Hayes. "Our clients are based all over the States - in the UK our major clients were only based in London."

The brothers have also diversified to set up sideline photography business Hayes+Hayes, and plans are afoot to relocate to Los Angeles in the near future. "What I love about this place is that you can meet a CEO and offer not only to design their logotype, but direct their TV commercials and create their photography too," he goes on. "That's pretty much unheard of in the UK."

New York may have its fair share of cultural differences, but the country does at least speak English. When Tom Vining made the move to Tokyo back in 2007, his Japanese wasn't exactly razor-sharp.

"The communication barrier was by far the biggest hurdle," he admits. "I was fortunate to be offered work with an agency that had English-speaking staff, via an art director I'd worked with in London. The downside was that it didn't encourage me to fully learn the Japanese language. Had I known the possibilities available if I'd done so, I'd certainly have made the extra effort."

Vining's move was relatively ad-hoc. He'd been working with Tokyo-based creatives to build lifestyle magazine and shopping portal Tokyocube, and was keen to visit them and see things first hand, but with no formal job lined up, he entered the country on a three-month holiday visa. "As I was also freelancing in London then, it made sense to see if it was possible to get work out there too," he explains.

"I had accommodation organised prior to leaving for Japan, as well as Japanese friends who helped me wherever possible. I think settling into life in Japan as a designer by myself would have been very difficult and even more expensive."

Vining draws particular attention to the high level of service in Japan: "People go well out of their way to make things convenient and comfortable for you, and manners and etiquette are impeccable - like it probably was in England 100 years ago," he says. "But TV is horrendously bad, working hours are crazy, and there's not really much cultural diversity."

Graphic designer Chris Bolton opted for a more relaxed pace of life than buzzing metropolises London, New York and Tokyo when he relocated from England to Finland back in 1999. Following a successful college exchange trip, he got his foot in the door at BBDO in Helsinki for a month's work experience. "That was quite successful, and I was offered a job," he recalls. "So I went home, finished up at college and packed two suitcases. Ten years later, I'm still here."

Bolton's first client at BBDO was Finland's most famous brand, Nokia. "I soon realised that advertising uses a different part of the brain to graphic design - which I lack," he smiles. He began calling round design studios, all of which were very accommodating of a non-Finnish speaker, and eventually offered his services for free. "I ended up at a great studio full of talented people, including Klaus Haapaniemi," he says. "After making an impression over a few weeks, I was given a full-time job."

So what appeals about the Finnish lifestyle? "I have more time to enjoy the everyday things in life," Bolton reflects. "My commute's a 15-minute bike ride. But I do feel a greater need to look at things that are happening around the world in graphic design - things I might be missing out on."

Alongside Oslo-based Kjell Eckorn, Jon Forss is one half of design duo Non-Format. He moved from London to Minnesota in 2007 to join his American fianc . "I entered the US on a fianc visa, which granted me a Green Card to work here after we were married," he says. "The main concern was whether Kjell and I could continue Non- Format after the move. We owe the past two years to broadband, email and Skype."

Forss points out that while Minneapolis has a healthy design community, many local designers pitch on a State level rather than pulling in national or international clients - which would make Non-Format, with a heavyweight client list including Nike, EMI and Coca- Cola, something of a big fish. "Nowadays, designers can be based wherever they like, and still do work for global clients," he says. "Non-Format is a case in point, I hope."

Every Non-Format project is a joint effort between Forss and Eckorn, so sitting seven time zones apart can make logistics interesting. "We have a narrow window of opportunity to chat to each other about projects, but this can be a benefit to our creative process," Forss insists.

"When we sat next to each other, we'd discuss every minor detail, but now we rely on our own initiative for many hours of the day. It results in a tag-team style of working: we'll swap files, so I carry on with a project while Kjell rests. It works well for us and our clients, many of whom get design developments sooner than they expected."

So with more than 30 years of overseas experience between them, how do our group of British designers compare the UK design scene with its counterparts in the States, Japan and Australia? "It's highly regarded for its diversity, quality and heritage," begins Brighton-born design icon Vince Frost, who set up his Australian studio in 2004. Fellow Sydney-based Brit Oz Dean, aka forcefeed:swede, agrees: "UK designers are seen as sitting on the cutting edge; as being innovators."

"The British design scene is among the best in the world," is Hayes' view from New York. "So many great talents have influenced design as we know it. Its biggest weakness is the lack of clients. Everyone's stepping on each other's toes."

According to Vining, the Japanese designers he's worked with have a great deal of respect for his creative culture back home: "They all see the UK as one of the core global hubs of design, where fashions are established," he says. But as Forss points out, being progressive is a double-edged sword. "I've heard the UK design scene described as anything from innovative and challenging to vacuous and fashion-obsessed," he reports.

"It's a small country, with a tightly knitted design community and media network. New innovations take hold quickly, and spread from the underground to the mainstream. But that creates a pressure-cooker effect," warns Forss. "There's a voracious appetite for new ideas and styles, with the media falling over itself to discover the next big thing. This can make it hard to stay relevant for very long."

If you're keen to quench your own thirst for global adventure, whichever country is your starting point, these designers' overwhelming piece of advice is not to skimp on the preparation. "Go have a look first before you commit," says Frost. "Stay positive, and enjoy every moment of the exciting process."

"Contact designers who are already based in your country of choice, and build a relationship with them," is Dean's advice. "Failing that, get on the relevant design forums for that country and ask questions. Most designers are happy to help out. And ensure you're in the country for any interviews - don't do them over the phone, if you can help it."

Forss also stresses the importance of a strong website when pitching for work. But his concluding advice returns to that endearing image of a quintessential Englishman in the States: "Don't forget to bring Paxo stuffing, mint sauce and Rich Tea biscuits," he grins. "None of those are readily available."