A funny thing happened at Portfolio Studio this month - We couldn't place an award-winning design student in an agency job.
Yep. Here's the back-story -
A student of ours recently completed his portfolio after spending the last year crafting his design projects and campaigns with care. He worked his ass off and we were excited to share his work with many of our agency partners that are looking for juniors. We were confident that we could place him right away in a great shop.
But when we sat down to talk with him about the different options, he said: "No thanks. I've decided to travel, freelance, and voluntour. After a lot of reflection I want to see the world and pay my way by designing websites."
Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor.
Not that long ago a big agency job was a huge prize. And, that still is true but, new paths are being forged.
Meet Maggie Hicks. Maggie is a former student that struck out on her own a year ago and is now successfully working as "remote freelance designer". We were able to catch up with her and found out that in the last year alone she has traveled to cities all over the world including Bogota and Cartagena in Colombia; Milan, Venice and Florence in Italy; London, England; Munich and Berlin in Germany; Paris, France; Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, Seville, Fuerteventura and the Canary Islands in Spain; Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sapa and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam; Siem Riep and Angkor Wat in Cambodia; Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Chang (pretty much all the Thai islands) in Thailand; and Jakarta, Yogyakarta (temples of Borobudur), Java, Bali and the Gili Islands in Indonesia. Wow!
She shared these tips if you're thinking of giving it a try:
Communication is key: The only reason that this has worked for me is that I've had very open communication with my clients. I've set realistic deadlines that leave a little cushion for travel pitfalls. Which means I usually deliver ahead of schedule (which looks GREAT!) but then if I ever get stuck on a bus across Thailand for 12hrs with no wifi, I'm not stressing and leaving them hanging.
Some people would love to say that they are able to keep their traveling completely secret from their clients, and that the client can't even tell if they are sitting in a home office versus working from a cafe in France. I personally don't recommend this -things happen while traveling that are out of your control and it's better to not get stuck.
Networking is a must: While you are traveling, I've found it really great to network with others that are also freelancing and working abroad. The whole "digital nomad" movement is becoming HUGE. I recommend locking down a few steady clients Stateside, but then definitely be looking for places to network while you are traveling. The best way I've found to do this, is to do my work from a co-working space. Most major cities around the world now have at least one co-working space. They often have job boards with contact information of people working on different projects. I've gotten little job offers at a few of these places just by chatting it up and inquiring about what others are working on.
Voluntourism is a plus: Even though this is not a money making tip, these projects look GREAT in a portfolio. Graphic design and digital advertising/marketing are in high demand all over the world. If you have the time and really want to dig into an area, I recommend looking for ways to offer up your skills. I spent 2 months in Spain living in the Canary Islands at a surf hostel for free. I just helped them with their website, some social media advertising, and a little bit of computer reception stuff. Most places you work a few hours a day, 5 days a week. It extends your travel and keeps your costs low while allowing for you to "become a local" for a period of time. I was also able to balance my work for clients while giving some time. Right now I'm helping rebrand a Muay Thai gym on one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand. Meals and accommodation are free as I crank out a logo, website, and marketing materials. Once I leave, my mark has been left! I'll always be able to come back and see my work in a foreign country.
With the ebb and flow of freelance work, the volunteer work can keep you productive if you are finding some down time in your client work. It is also a great way to justify your time abroad when you do go back to the job hunt in the States. Always be building that portfolio!
Maggie cautioned that there are drawbacks: One of the pitfalls of freelancing and traveling, is the fact that you aren't really on vacation. Most of the people you will meet are. So it takes some time to find the balance between exploring a new place, meeting new people and experiencing the culture, and then making sure that you are spending the necessary time working. It can get stressful trying to find a decent place to sit and get a few hours in, but planning ahead and researching fast wifi in your next destination will make it easier. Also, if you are able, do slow travel. Make sure you aren't so bogged down with work that you don't have the time to properly see the place you are visiting.
I was in Venice for a few days, but I spent most my time glued to my laptop late at night as I was starting a big project and needed to get details during regular work hours in the States. I got to wander a bit, but ended up sleeping through most the days and getting up just in time to ride ferries around the canals before the sun went down. Then I would start work again. I went to no museums, went on no tours, and really didn't do anything but work. But hey! I was in Venice, Italy!
Maggie's story highlights that there really is a new playing field. The right job at a global agency can give you the opportunity to create amazing work and open travel doors. Alternatively, remote work as a freelancer or voluntourist is now easier to find and more places are using contractors. With the right portfolio, and work ethic, you might be able to make it on your own.
We'll share more info about that in a future blog post. Here's a good resource on voluntourism.
As far as our student who is planning to break out on his own? We have no doubt he'll do great.