Frankie Ratford is the Australian designer, adventurer, and powerhouse behind The Design Kids (TDK) — a global graphic design organization that helps university students and recent graduates bridge the gap between study and work.
What started as a simple idea quickly snowballed into a one-of-a-kind platform for education, inspiration, and connection. Thanks to Frankie’s intense restlessness, curiosity, and why-the-hell-not attitude, TDK currently has around 120,000 people in its (growing) community across Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, and Europe.
We caught up with Frankie to chat about life, TDK, and the six-year road trip she’s currently taking around the world.
Can you give me a quick rundown of how TDK started?
When I was at university, I wasn’t really educated on the industry itself. They teach you about graphic design, but nothing about the world you’re about to enter. I got my dream job in Sydney after graduation and thought I was set for life, only to realize that, despite it being an amazing job, it wasn’t an amazing job for me. I stuck it out for 18 months, but knew my next move had to be more in line with my values.
After taking six months off to travel and figure out my life, I knew that design was still my passion, but I wanted to help people — namely, students. I launched TDK back in 2009 as a shop where students could design posters, tote bags, etc., and sell them to connect with the industry. It was extremely far-fetched, and I had no idea what I was doing! I eventually got rid of the shop when I decided that building relationships was more important than selling t-shirts. That’s when it changed into a platform to provide resources, connect students, and educate people about the design world.
How did TDK turn into the six-year road trip?
I was really bored during year two of TDK. I was living in a massive warehouse in Byron Bay with loads of friends, teaching one day a week, and surfing all the time. Life was good — too good. I decided to challenge myself and do the opposite: live in a tiny space on the move. The original plan was to just road-trip around Australia for five months while speaking at universities, running exhibitions and design workshops, and interviewing big-name designers. It quickly doubled to 10 months…
Let’s go step by step a bit. So, the first leg of the road trip started in 2013 in Australia — what can you tell me about that portion of the trip?
Initially, I had some potential sponsors who were interested in the project, but the week before the road trip, they pulled out. I had already given up my home, sold my possessions, bought a van, slapped some graphics on the side of it, and told everyone I was leaving — then the funds fell through. I love solving problems, but this was a big one! The year before, I had been teaching in Brisbane one day a week and commuting six hours a day from Byron Bay. That got me thinking that six hours isn’t that far. So, instead of letting the road trip fall through, I did it anyway, drove 11,000 kilometers around Australia, kept my job, and just flew to work every Wednesday and Thursday to fund it. My flights in advance were cheaper than my rent, so I was actually doing better than when I was living at home! It was exhausting, but I was stoked. For the first time in my life, I was combining my two loves: travel and design. Momentum makes my brain work!
In 2014, you focused solely on Tasmania, and in 2015, you moved over to New Zealand. What were those parts of the trip like?
After the initial road trip, I wasn’t sure what to do. I had moved to Melbourne and was offered an amazing job — in any other circumstance, I would have taken it, but my shoddy, non-paying business made my heart sing. After seeing the results we were getting from the industry and the students, I just couldn’t give up on it.
I got a large sponsor onboard, an industry driven design school called If Academy, which gave me enough funds to do TDK full time. That’s when I was able to focus on what was next. I ran eight exhibitions across Australia that year called Fourplay, comprised of collaborating teams of two (one student and one creative director), and went to Tasmania to complete the Australian leg of the trip, while also sitting down to plan the next few years of TDK.
Side note: While in Tasmania, I fell in love with the beauty of the amazing island and bought a shack in 24 hours. I owned nothing, but I bought a house I couldn’t live in yet — go figure! Since then, I’ve used it as my home base for the two months out of the year I’m not traveling, and I also rent it on Airbnb. I call it the Tassie Design Shack.
Anyway, back to the story. In the beginning of 2015, I got the keys to the shack, spent two weeks sitting on the floor because I didn’t have any furniture, hired my friend Yve to help with TDK, and took off to New Zealand. We didn’t have a van, and renting one was the equivalent of our week’s wage in a day, and we were going for three months. So, I said to Yve, “Worse case scenario, we’ll borrow a car from someone or hitchhike.” We were both pretty excited about the latter, and so I started thinking: The worst thing about hitchhiking isn’t the possibility of getting murdered; it’s the horrid typography on the hitchhiking signs you travel with! So, we ran an Instagram typography competition to design our signs. We had 500 entries, picked the best ones and, at the end, we had a big exhibition.
During this time, we didn’t have a tent, just a bivvy bag, a stove made of an old tuna can with holes in it, and two metal cups for eating, drinking, and playing music. We slept in a cow pasture, on a beach, in a pool shed, in an abandoned hotel, and on the Kiwi Of The Years’ couch, plus 80 other random places. Our audience doubled from in just three months, we met practically everyone in New Zealand, and we were able to experience the country’s beautiful landscapes first hand. It was incredible.
Then in 2015 through 2016, TDK ventured to the U.S. and Canada, right? Can you tell me about your two-year span in North America?
After New Zealand, we went to Bali for a month to plan the U.S. trip. I took a business course where you write down personal challenges in order to break them down and (hopefully) solve them. But I only had one challenge: my U.S. visa — Yve is half American, so she was set. Basically, I didn’t have one and we were supposed to be leaving in three weeks. So, we did some research, flew to a tiny city in Java that had the quickest processing time and highest success rate, nearly slept in a chicken shed for accommodation, and were on our way!
On our first day in America, I bought an RV on Craigslist that slept nine people — we were so excited! But it was complete rubbish. After a few laps around a field getting used to driving something so long, on the other side of the road, and with a stick shift, the RV died. We got it towed, but it was useless. We were back to square one. After another six weeks, we found our second RV, Sunny — a 1974 Dodge Sportsman with wood-paneled interior, bunks, a bright-yellow table, and an eight-track player. It was so cool.
I planned our route around the weather — I hate the cold and no one wants to do a round-trip in bad weather, right? The plan was to cover the northern states and Canada in the summer and the far south in the winter. The trip took 18 months, and Sunny only lasted for nine. She was leaking, or pouring, petrol and sputtered to a stop in the middle of a five-lane highway. She refused to start in a parking lot occupied by 17 guys with guns, and little old me. I swear she was trying to kill me! I did the rest of the trip via buses, trains, and boats, and even flew a tiny 1964 Cessna across the top of Canada!
This road trip concept was the same as the Australian one: we spoke at universities, ran exhibitions and workshops, and interviewed designers. We then took all of that content and put it on our website as a giant resource for students. I got to party in the vault at Pentagram NYC, I drove two days into the desert to interview Paris Review editor Lorien Stein (who was living in the ex-Armageddon movie control center in a junk yard), I flew to Florida with Will Bryant to drink margaritas and speak at a conference, I hugged Swiss Miss in NYC, I ate burritos in the mission of San Francisco with Jessica Hische, I interviewed Tim Goodman on a rooftop for a podcast I didn’t even run, and I even got to high-five Kate Bingaman Burt when I finished the trip! I met hundreds of top designers across the U.S. and they were all lovely. We also grew our community to 100,000.
And then you headed to Europe. You just wrapped up your 2017 trip — how far did you make it, and how was this trip different than the others?
This year was the most hectic! During the U.S. trip, I covered 14 cities in 18 months. But this year, I did 28 cities, in 20 countries, in six months and traveled 16,000 kilometers (almost 10,000 miles) in total. I got to meet some of my long-running design crushes, such as Hey Studio, Studio Dumbar, Base Design, Snask, Eduardo Aires, Write Sketch &, Risotto, and Studio Furious. And I met all sorts of new designers that I’m equally impressed with (there’s another 150+ of them so I can’t exactly list them all, but special mention to Brand Brothers in Paris and Hmmm Creative in Tallinn).
So, after four years, are you sick of driving?
I’m originally from the U.K., so it was nice to be able to spend time with my family again. Unfortunately, my grandad was very sick, so I was juggling flying home on the weekends to see him as well as handling a serious breakup back in Australia. So personally, it was very hard. I think because I’ve blurred the lines of work and play, when things are good, they’re cracking! Getting paid to do life is GREAT. But when things aren’t so good, it’s terrible because you can’t separate them, and you have to keep going anyway.
I’m proud of this year — European design is top notch — but I will definitely say it’s been the hardest. I don’t think many people realize the sacrifices you make to live on the road, that when you say you’re on a six-year road trip, it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes it’s incredibly hard. But most of the time, it’s awesome — otherwise I wouldn’t do it!
How has traveling across different continents changed your perspective on design?
I’ve learned that everything varies from city to city. For example, Portland has a huge community of great illustrators and designers, San Francisco has a massive tech industry and more disconnected community outside of that, New York City is hardcore but the place to be if you want to be successful, Paris is cool, Tallinn is cooler, London is big, Glasgow is arty, Melbourne is boutique, Wellington is crafty. Does that rhyme?
Anyway, you should match your city to your future career. I also don’t really get nervous meeting people anymore, because of this global perspective. They might be extremely famous where they live, but not somewhere else. People are just people, and I treat everyone the same. I find humans fascinating!
Has travel inspired your personal work and how you see TDK evolving?
I no longer sit down to do graphic design as such. I now see myself as much more of a creative director, an entrepreneur, and a strategist. I love problem-solving but I love coming up with ridiculous ideas others are too scared to do, and just doing them, even more. My role plays to my strengths (all seven of them) and ignores everything else, but it’s taken a lot of soul-searching to figure out what those are. Work and play are blurred into just my LIFE — how I want to spend my time on this planet.
What has been the biggest takeaway from this whole experience?
Life is amazing! Make it fun. Never make any decisions based on money — do what makes you excited and the money will follow. Jump and you’ll land somewhere. Ask for help (read “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer). Design your life (read “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss). Put in the time (read “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell).
Getting a job is easy, so get to know your industry first — everything about that industry. The more you know, the better; the more people that know you exist, the better. I think students just study and expect a job, but the industry doesn’t owe you anything. Start giving back and you’ll see results!
Do you have advice for anyone looking to drive a van across the world?
Pack light, buy a van that works, don’t plan too much, lower your expectations, and everything will be awesome. Don’t budget, but if you do, double it, roll with the punches, and trust people — humans are wonderful.
And lastly, where to next?
Filling in the gaps! South America, Japan, China, South Africa, India…