FFF Podcast #04: Frankie Ratford on The Design Kids
FFF Podcast #04: Frankie Ratford on The Design Kids
The Design Kids is a global design community and online resource for design students aiming to bridge the gap between students and professionals. Their website features design studios, jobs, events, meetups, workshops, interviews, student work, conferences and loads more.
In the fourth episode of our podcast I had the chance to speak to British/Australian designer, adventurer and TDK founder Frankie Radford. We chat about her TDK project, traveling while teaching and her epic 6 year road trip.
Glenn Garriock: Welcome to the podcast, Frankie.
Frankie Ratford: Thanks, Glenn.
GG: So, how about you tell us a little bit about yourself to kick things off?
FR: Okay. So, I was born in the UK and I lived there until I was 18. I was really fortunate to be taken on holiday by my parents to Australia when I was about 14 and I remember this stark contrast of windy, cold, grey England and then going to Cottesloe in Perth and the sun was shining and the ocean’s sparkling and I was like yep, this is it and so I told my mom I was going to move to Australia in which case she said yeah, that’s fine. As long as you finish school first and that’s what I did. I bought a one-way ticket when I was 18 much to the surprise of everyone else. I was always kind of obsessed with graphic design so it was easily my favorite subject at school. I actually did a graphic design project before I had the class like a total nerd. My friend had the class six months before me because it was on rotation and she told me what the brief was and I just kind of had a stab at it and I think it just came really naturally. I don’t know why. It was just kind of a really good combination of maths and art which were my two favorite subjects. So, I went to Melbourne University — well, Swinburne University in Melbourne I should say. Right now I have a house in Tasmania but I don’t live there. I’m officially a nomad so I spend ten months a year on the road and two months a year fixing my house that needs a shit ton of work.
GG: Tell us a little bit about this project you call The Design Kids? You had a job before you started this project. What was the progression from university to founding The Design Kids?
FR: When I was at university, I was really, really keen because my two loves are travel and design and when I was 18, I traveled for a year and a half, then I went to university and the whole time I was traveling, I wanted to see design and the whole time I was at uni, all I wanted to do was travel and so by the time I got to uni after two years of traveling, I was so hyped on everything and I put my hand up for everything, I was involved in everything and I graduated the four year course with three and a half years’ experience. So, I literally was helping lecturers, doing exhibitions, I was working in a screen printing place, I did book binding in the summer holidays, I did mentoring, I worked at a design studio that was really crap which was awesome because it taught me so much. I really believe that the worst experiences are, the more you learn from them and that was massive for me.
When I graduated, I was really obsessed with Frost all the way through uni and I managed to get a job there. It was my graduating job which was amazing. I really have a lot of time for Vince and I think the standard of work is amazing and it was one of the top studios in Australia at the time. So, it was a real honor for me to work there. But after about six months, the novelty started wearing off and I was getting very frustrated sitting at a desk and also very confused. I’d worked really hard for four years to get this job and actually I didn’t really like it and that’s nothing to do with the studio. Now I look back and it makes total sense. I’m not made to work at a desk but at the time I was really, really thrown. I didn’t really understand what’s going on. I think in universities they teach us the studio fit mentality where you work really hard and you have to get a job in a design studio; otherwise, you’re a loser and I think there are so many other possibilities within the design industry for different careers and that’s one of the things I’m trying to educate people about with The Design Kids.
So, yeah, basically I quit Frost in the middle of the recession after 18 months, went travelling again, I went grape picking in the South of France, I hitchhiked across Europe, I went to New York on the day Michael Jackson died and I also found myself in Madagascar and I had this pivotal moment with a Madagascar friend called Giorgio, but we call him Armani because they have a little fake rip-off that’s over there. So, I think he had a Giorgio Armani t-shirt on that was spelt wrong and so we just called him Armani which he loved. Anyway, I was traveling with my brother and they said to Joe what do you do and Joe said I’m a teacher and I was like I’m a graphic designer and he didn’t really understand what that was and he was drinking a bottle of water at the time and I said the label, we designed that and he said why and I was like holy shit, that’s a really good point. I’ve just come from Sydney in Australia and I’ve got my iPhone, got a latte in my hand, I think I’m the shit and then I’m in Madagascar and they don’t have any water and I’m looking at the kerning on the bottle and I was wow, it’s a bit a shock to the system and I’m not dissing design because I love design but it was a huge kind of wow, the world is bigger than this tiny bubble that I’ve been in.
And so, I started thinking about ways I could help people and I thought anyone can build a well or go and volunteer somewhere and that’s awesome. But I think to get the best results in life, you have to play to your strengths and my strength is definitely the design industry. So, I was like how can I make a difference in the design industry and I started thinking about students and studying and the whole problem I’d had with Frost and the studio fit mentality and I thought there’s a lot of people getting churned out at the end of these design courses with no job prospects, not because they’re not very good but because they haven’t really zoomed in on what they’re good at and what they could offer the industry and they also don’t much about the industry and so, I started The Design Kids. Originally, it was a shop. We had this farfetched idea — I say we, it was just me at that point. I always say we. It’s a really bad habit. Yeah, it was a shop to start with. So, the idea was students would design t-shirts and posters and tote bags and all these kind of fun things, we would sell them, they would get famous, they would get rich and somehow they’d get a job and it was this very loose kind of idea that was just a complete nightmare.
I was making the products, they were designing them, I was shipping them off and then I was like you guys ship them off and make them and it was just so sketchy. But I kind of look back and I’m kind of proud because I had no fucking idea and I was like who’s going to do it and I think having that blind ambition is really good because I think we can kind of trip ourselves up with perfection and kind of wait and wait and wait till something’s perfect. So, I kind of blindly stumbled through the last eight years of my life but that’s okay. So, yeah, the shop went surprisingly well considering how bad it was. I started teaching part-time to support myself which was actually when it was suggested to me I was like no, I don’t want to do that and then they told me what the hourly rate was and I rethought my decision and I’m actually really glad I did because I would actually teach for free now. I absolutely love teaching. The students are amazing, they teach you so much.
They also have no kind of concept about how talented they are. I think there’s a real divide between them and the industry and they don’t have any points of reference. So, to kind of nurture them and give them that confidence is really rewarding for me. So, The Design Kids started to do exhibitions where we teamed students up with creative directors. I ran 16 exhibitions over three years, 740 people took part and we had around a 30% hiring rate afterwards so it was really successful. It was super exhausting. I nearly killed myself doing them. I’m not doing them anymore but that really changed the shape of The Design Kids because we started putting together lists of all the studios that were in the shows, the students and a list of events for them to go to, blah, blah, blah and the shop kind of got lost on the way. We shut that down. It was like okay, let’s just get rid of this headache and so The Design Kids became an online resource and a community.
GG: That’s incredible to hear the story of how it developed from something that you were sort of just doing to start anything to something that really helped people get a job as well.
FR: I think it was cool, the teaching was actually accidental. That wasn’t part of my grand plan but actually it was kind of like market research, really high paid market research twice a week which is amazing. Yeah, I was so lucky. I think I totally fluked that but it’s awesome because it means The Design Kids is actually built around the students, not my idea of what they want. It’s built around them whining to me, I don’t know how to do this and what is this and being completely clueless about people and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah, it was really awesome.
GG: In the last, what, four or five years now, you’ve been travelling across Australia and New Zealand, America and now Europe on an epic The Design Kids road trip. Tell our listeners and readers about your trip for those that haven’t heard about this yet.
FR: It started back in 2012. So, I was living in Byron Bay in Australia. I’d recently moved from Sydney and I was paying $300 for my little tiny bedroom in Sydney in a flat and I went to Byron on holiday and just looked around at real estate like you do and the guys were like oh, we’ve got some commercial properties for you and I was like what does that mean? He said warehouses and I was like hell yes. I want to live in a warehouse. Let’s go and check them out and we went to this warehouse and I just fell in love straight away. It’s a hundred square meters, tree growing in the middle, had a toilet and shower. A lot of them didn’t have that because it was illegal to live in them but whatever and it was $350 and I was like this is a no-brainer. It’s just genius and so I signed on the dotted line, moved to Byron and then kind of thought about where I was going to work very secondary and I started looking at design schools and the best combination of class size and wages and all that kind of stuff was in Brisbane which is a six hour drive. So, three hours there, three hours back and I worked out I could either work 96 hours in Bryon making coffee or I could drive for three hours and just work a day and a half a week which I decided to do.
This is typical for our workweek. It’s relative income, not your real income. Anyway, so I was driving three hours to work every week and I was really bored of everyone kind of saying what’s the surf doing today. My friends are all obsessed with surfing. I am obsessed with design. I like surfing but I’m really obsessed with design. That’s where my loyalty lies and I kind of thought I’ve got to get out of here, didn’t really know where to move in Australia and I thought well, actually, you know what? I’ll go to every city in Australia. I’ll go to the five major cities anyway and I will take The Design Kids to those places. I will suss out what the design landscape looks like in those places so if I was a student studying in Adelaide, what does it look like? What schools are there? What studios are there? How do they hire? What job boards are there, recruitment agencies, magazines? What conferences are there? How many events are on that they can go to and basically what does that look like? If I was the keenest student, what would I have available to me?
And so I went to each city and I interviewed designers and I gave talks and I kind of sussed out the lay of the land and then I put all that information online. But just before I was going to leave, I had a sponsor jump on board. So, I got rid of the warehouse, I bought a van, I put some graphics inside. It was a very, very shit van and I had a couple of sponsors that were like yep, we’re going to give you ten grand and all that and I was like amazing, I’m rich. I don’t know how long that would last you. Probably just my petrol but whatever. Yeah, so, I was like okay, this is great. Everything’s ready to go and then I think the week before I left, they pulled out. I think they actually saw the van for real and realized that it was probably on the more homeless side of cool. I made it look as best as I could but it was still pretty derelict and I think they were like yeah, nah. That’s not a thing and I’m like oh, God, what am I going to do? I’ve got $64 in my bank account. I have a well-paid job in Brisbane and I have a van and I kind of put all three together and I was like okay, I’m going to do the road trip, fund it myself and I’m going to fly to work which again made perfect sense.
It comes back to the Byron and working 96 hours or working 12. It was exactly the same for me. It was an easy decision. It was like well, it’s actually quicker to fly to work than it is to drive so that’s what I’m going to do. So, that was the first road trip and it was a massive success. It was very cool to be on the ground, hanging out with people. I really love people and…
GG: Just to interrupt you there and to recap. So, you were teaching while driving around Australia, flying back to do your lessons from wherever you were and then flying back to pick up your van wherever you left it and continuing your journey?
FR: Exactly. It’s totally wild and everyone always laughs at me at this point but I just think dude, that was genius.
GG: It was genius because you had enough money to do it and you were still progressing on this road trip, hats off!
FR: I think it was funny. I remember doing talks and stuff and the lecturers are like what are you getting from this? You’re just kind of cruising around Australia. I wasn’t getting paid or anything. It was something and I was happy to put my own money into that. I think that was cool and when I finished I actually had a meeting with the design school and I just got offered this amazing job at my favorite magazine to head it up and it was a really amazing opportunity. Had I got it two years earlier, I would’ve jumped on it but at that point, I’ve kind of got this sense of freedom. I’d really found my groove with the design and travel thing and I was like oh, I just can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t sit at a desk. Anyway, I’d met up with this school. Simon Pemberton was the head and I said should I ditch this project? I don’t earn any money from it. Do I take the real job? What do I do? I’m really unsure and he said I think you should keep going. He said we’re going to sponsor the website and he basically didn’t ask how much it was for ads on the website. He said how much do you need to survive, working backwards. How much do you need to keep doing what you’re doing and honestly I owe so much to Simon. He’s really responsible for The Design Kids.
So, I thought we’ll try it in New Zealand. I already knew everyone in Australia. It’s kind of easy. You’re just filling in the gaps. What if we go somewhere where we don’t know anyone and I hired my friend. We couldn’t get a van and I said worst case scenario, we’ll just borrow someone’s car. Worst, worst, worst case scenario, we’ll hitchhike and sleep in bushes and she kind of said I like that idea and I was like me too. I think I’m a sucker for adventure. The harder it is, the better it is and that’s what we did. We ran a hitchhiking sign competition on Instagram to typographers that wanted to design our signs because the worst thing about hitchhiking isn’t getting murdered, it’s the hideous typography that you have to look at and so, I was like yes, we can solve this problem. It will be amazing and we had 500 entries. We went all around New Zealand for ten weeks. We literally slept everywhere, like in a cow field the first night, in a pool house, the beach, in a bush, in the National Park, on the riverbed, in a cabin. It just went on and on and it was super fun. It was very easy.
I was surprised how kind of excited the design industry were to take it up and so that was a huge success. So, I was like alright, what’s next? Let’s take over America and so I even flew to America and I bought an RV. It lasted a week. It was a total disaster. I spent six weeks looking for another RV and got this amazing one called Sunny. We spray painted it yellow and we got Will Bryant to design the body of it, to cover it in patterns. Will does stuff with Obama and Nike and all these huge, huge clients and I convinced him to do it and I paid him in tacos and so I drove around. Eve did the first bit and then she went back to uni. So, I did the rest. Drove around America and Canada for 18 months and then yeah, this year has been Europe and next year, South America. So, it continues.
GG: For those who haven’t been following your trip, along the way you’re meeting with an endless list of talented people. Do you plan these meetups up front? Do you just kind of say hey, who’s here, who wants to come and talk to me? What’s your goal when you get to the next city?
FR: Yeah, there’s a lot of research that goes into each city. I used to do it all myself. The American one, I had to do it myself. This year I was lucky enough, my really good friend Corrie Anderson or Corrie [inaudible 18:34]. She just got married. She’s always wanted to work for The Design Kids and she’s based in London. So, it was perfect timing to hire her. So, she’s been doing all the research for each city. So, basically we have all these spreadsheets of everyone we think is awesome in each place and then two weeks before I get to that place, I reach out to studio schools, organizations and anyone else around and then catch up with those people. Schools, I do workshops and talks and the studios, I just kind of go and have a chat with them and see their studio, hear everything about their studio and then we follow up with an online interview and then once we have enough interviews that content goes live and that is The Design Kids resource for each city. After that, we then hire someone and they become the seed for the community. So, that is where our meetup comes in. We have a monthly meetup. We have a Facebook kind of group forum for each city and we have a newsletter and so the community is built around that information.
GG: So, for any students that are listening to this or that read the article afterwards, what can they find on the TDK website?
FR: Our new website is about to go up. It’s very sexy. I’m working with some guys in Berlin, Rascality and we’ve just divided it into three sections. So, what we can offer for students, lecturers and studios. So, for the students, we have industry interviews and the idea is that their websites are client-based so the more information you want to know about them like how they started, what they look for in a folio, blah, blah, blah, we ask them all those kind of questions. We have a full list of jobs and internships. We have a meet-up, TDK Tuesdays, which is run by grads. It’s an event for students and grads to feel really confident, because I think a lot of events are industry-focused so it’s a bit daunting. We also have a list of all other design events going on. So, there’s no excuses for them not to go. We have a hashtag TDK Peep Show on the Instagram and we feature one piece of work a day. So, that’s student and grad work and we have annual awards where we pick the best students and grads from around the world and we promote the shit out of them basically. For lecturers, we have a list of competitions to tell the students, we have a list of blogs and other design companies they should be aware of, we have a full design directory and we have internship advice from the studios themselves and for the studios, we can feature them, they can post a job, they can find an intern or they can speak at our TDK Tuesdays events.
GG: For anyone crazy enough to want to do a road trip like yours, what have you learned over the past four to five years? How does the beginning compare to now that you’re close to the end?
FR: I think after every road trip, I have this real hindsight of why didn’t I do that. I think the vans are really interesting. If you look at my first van, there’s literally a dent in it. That’s it. When we were hitchhiking, that was pretty good. I wouldn’t change that. The American vans were awesome because they’re fully equipped and when I got to Europe, I knew exactly the type of van I wanted. So, I think the vans have slightly upgraded so that you have everything you need. I think planning-wise, I think that’s my favorite bit actually is the planning. It’s kind of predicting the future. So, you have this plan to do a road trip but it’s very vague. So, it’s like okay, well, actually where am I going and I remember when I planned the Europe road trip, I was like okay, I’ve got between three and six months and then I wrote down all the major design cities in Europe and then I divided them up. So, if I spent a week in each one, it was going to take me nine months and I was oh, that doesn’t work. So, then you start kind of dividing it up. So, these cities are close together, maybe we can do two in one week. I did the whole of Belgium in one week and to be honest, it has been a bit rushed this one. In America, I had a lot more time. But yeah, I think the planning gets better, the organization at the backend gets better, the follow-up gets better.
One thing I wish I’d done with the Europe trip is a Kickstarter campaign to be honest so you could pay for The Design Kids to come to your city or your school. That would’ve been better because I think it gets you a lot more traction and obviously, it’s paid for. We were lucky enough to get sponsorship from MU this year and we were chasing a bunch of other sponsors that kind of didn’t come through and that’s not really where my passion lies. It’s not that I can’t be bothered. It’s just that really getting that across the line is not my priority. It’s all about the community. So, once we have enough money, it’s kind of alright, I don’t really care and so I think I need to spend a lot more time in the planning and the kind of proposals of sponsorship. But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think that much has changed. Naturally, I’m a pretty basic traveler. I’m pretty happy anywhere. A lot of people are kind of — I go and visit them in their studios and they’re like oh, I would love your life. I’m like no. Here’s the keys. Please take them and I can guarantee 95% of people wouldn’t last more than a week. It’s so manic. I wake up at 7, the first thing I do is check all my emails because it’s 4:00 p.m. in Australia. It’s the end of the day. I’ve only got this tiny window to catch everyone. So, it’s instant stress as soon as you wake up because you’re behind the eight ball with them and then trying to find Wi-Fi in Europe is a pain in the ass. So, I’m parked outside McDonald’s at the moment. So, it’s little things like that where the logistics are an absolute nightmare, like booking ferries, booking flights, organizing meetings, a trillion emails. It’s not kind of this glamorous float around Europe drinking cocktails idea that I think people think I do.
GG: You ruined my dream.
FR: I know, I know. You wanted the keys, Glenn. I’m going to give them to you.
GG: Well, you didn’t come past here. I would’ve totally taken them off your hands.
FR: No, I did come past. The problem was I didn’t stop. You’re in Hamburg, aren’t you?
GG: Near Hanover, close to Hamburg.
FR: Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I drove from Amsterdam up to Copenhagen but we didn’t stop.
GG: No worries. So, TDK also offers an paid online course. What could a student expect from this course?
FR: About three years ago, I was doing a lot of online coaching with different students and graduates. I think it was like a hundred bucks. I can’t remember and it was a couple of hours. We got to see their folio and their resume and what they want to do and how to do it and blah, blah, blah and it was really good but it’s kind of expensive for them. They don’t have much money and really I was just saying the same thing over and over again and we only had 10,000 students and graduates at the time. Now we have nearly 120,000. It would not be possible for me to do that. I actually don’t have time to do any coaching now. So, I was trying to think of a more scalable way to do this and so I wrote an online course, how to get a job and basically it’s broken down into three sections. So, get inspired, get involved, get hired. I think what everyone does when they’re trying to find a job is go straight to get hired. They go into the job boards, they submit their folio and then they don’t get anywhere and they’re not sure why.
So, the course takes you through 12 steps and the first four are all about the research phase and the middle is all kind of work in progress and getting involved and understanding your strengths, the industry, meeting as many people as possible, getting your work out there, kind of really trying stuff and then the third step is actually getting a job. So, yeah, it’s been really successful which is awesome. It is still live. So, it’s $49. There’s a student one and a grad one. The student one is great because it gets them early. So, it’s like guys, you need to figure this out now, ASAP. I wish I could give it to all the students in the first week of their course just to kind of scare the shit out of them a little bit but also make them aware of all these opportunities. I think a lot of students are kind of just switched off. They just go to uni and just barely pass their subjects and drink a lot and they’re just kind of cruising through and they just kind of expect this job at the end. The design industry is not like that. You have to get really involved and the earlier you do that, the better. The graduate course is kind of if you didn’t get involved and you’re six months out and you haven’t got any jobs and your mum’s starting to freak out, what you should do. So, it’s how do we get you back involved, back into the industry and get you kind of re-motivated to actually get a job.
GG: I wish that would’ve existed when I was a student.
FR: So many industry people have said that to me. It’s so funny.
GG: To finish us off, what’s next on your plan? How far in advance do you plan your road trip? Can you already see the next year ahead?
FR: Yeah, kind of. I guess I like to pencil in the next year just so I know roughly what I’m doing but specifics are really, really vague. So, I’m thinking South America next year but I also wanted to add on India, China, Japan and South Africa because I think all four of those countries are doing really interesting things. I would like some more time in Tasmania. I’m also looking at setting up a crazy Burning Man for designers in Joshua Tree in California using my old van from the US road trip and a load of other caravans sponsored by designers and you can go and stay there and they can make workshops and that kind of stuff. So, that’s been a plan for a while so I think I just need to shut up and do it and what else? I’d to run some conferences through The Design Kids. I think there’s a really good opportunity for conferences for students that are shorter, cheaper, more targeted. Yeah, so, I would like to explore that option and yeah, that’s pretty much it. I think that’s a pretty full year.
GG: Well, I can’t wait to see all that happen and you can count me in to your designer Burning Man in California. I’ll come to that.
FR: Oh, yeah. Perfect.
GG: Thanks very much for coming on the show, Frankie. Maybe you could finish off by telling people where they can find out more about you.
FR: My Instagram is @frankieratford. That has all my travels on it. The official work Instagram is @TheDesignKids and that has all our community stuff on. You can find this on the website and on all social media channels at @TheDesignKids.
GG: Thanks very much for talking to me, Frankie.
FR: Thanks, Glenn. Thanks for having me.