Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography supplied by Frankie Ratford
Frankie Ratford knows how to break free from expectations and create her own. A print designer by trade, she dislikes working with clients, sitting still, having a desk and looking at screens all day, so she decided not to. Instead, she has built an impressive online community called The Design Kids (TDK), delivered over fifty keynotes and talks, and is currently travelling the globe.
Now in its seventh year, TDK has morphed from an online shop and series of exhibitions into a comprehensive resource for design students around the world.
Frankie funded the first four years of TDK herself – including a trip around Australia to get an on-the-ground understanding of the design community in various cities. Now with sponsors and an international team of almost thirty, Frankie’s job is to make sure the ship is sailing in the right direction as she continues to traverse across the globe.
As part of this six-year international road trip, Frankie has just returned from a 15 month trip around the United States in an RV, building TDK and boosting the design community in each city.
The little home on wheels offers complete freedom and ability to follow invitations on a whim – as Frankie visits different cities, she interviews famous designers for the TDK website, runs folio workshops, talks at schools and universities, and meets up with existing communities including AIGA, Creative Mornings, GDC and more. On top of that, there is room for the spontaneous – people will reach out on Instagram and offer to take her to galleries or exhibitions, out to dinner and even invite her into their home to crash on the couch.
"Everything I do is built into my personality and what I’m good at. I’m really good at travelling on a budget and operating on the move and that’s how my brain works, so doing The Design Kids on the road is way more beneficial to me than living at home."
With the adventure captured on social media, Frankie is quick to dissemble the glamorous façade the online world can perpetuate.
"It’s my dream life, not everybody else's. I actually think many people would hate my life – it might look cool, but it’s definitely not glamorous. One time the shower broke and we were using pots and pans to bathe, and the RV died halfway through the U.S trip."
Travelling solo can also have its ups and downs. "I definitely experience loneliness. When you are such a solo warrior, you are not checking in with anyone, so if you don't come home no one is going to notice for a while and I think that is really disorientating. Nothing feels real because you have no one anchoring you down."
When daily life is filled with the unpredictable and so reliant on your own initiative, motivation can be nebulous. But goals and deadlines help keep Frankie on track. "I want to grow The Design Kids by 400% each year and I think having that number in my head is a really good motivator."
From reading a book a week, to travelling on a shoestring and meeting extraordinary strangers, Frankie is a rare example of how to steadfastly chase your goals and build the life you want, while maintaining complete freedom and spontaneity.
I love waking up to natural light with the curtains open. However, life on the road means each day is totally different and if there is a plane to catch or some kind of deadline to make there’s probably an alarm involved.
My main problem with my routine is my lack of one – I feel like every day is starting from scratch. I’ve been reading a lot about routine and it was something I really wanted to get my head around this year. Most people wake up in the morning in their own home, they brush their teeth, drive their car out of their driveway, and head to work. All of that is on autopilot so your brain can switch off a bit, then when you get to work there are all these different challenges – that's when your brain kicks in. In my life there is no routine whatsoever so all those challenges constantly vary every day – where am I staying, eating, showering, washing my clothes, working from? I thrive off the adventure and the thrilling side of my life, but with all the business challenges on top of the life ones, it gets really exhausting.
Breakfast is the only constant in my life. Definitely the most important meal of the day, and something I would never skip. I’m a massive poached egg fan – I can't actually cook, but I can poach the perfect egg!
"In my life there is no routine whatsoever so all those challenges constantly vary every day – where am I staying, eating, showering, washing my clothes, working from? I thrive off the adventure and the thrilling side of my life, but with all the business challenges on top of the life ones, it gets really exhausting."
I start my day by checking in with my team based mostly in Australia. We also have a host in each city who curates local design events and news so the team is now dotted around four countries in 28 cities.
After that, I’ll head to the “office”. I've lived in Starbucks most of the year, which is hilarious because I don't even drink coffee. But after spending 30 minutes every morning trying to find a local cafe with good WiFi, driving there and ordering a tea before realising the WiFi is down, I’ve started defaulting to Starbucks.
The best thing about working in a cafe is no distractions. No desk to tidy, no fridge to pick at, no washing to put away – all those mini distractions that come from working at home. It's so easy to get a load of work done – no one is calling you, because by that time most people in Australia are asleep.
For the USA road trip, I spent anywhere between one week and three months in each city. I’m the first touch point for The Design Kids, and I’ll spend the first day in a new city stalking the local design scene. By the end, I have a list of schools, studios, illustrators, organisations, events, magazines and more so we can present the local design industry in one place for students.
The next stage is to start contacting people and interviewing them for the website. Because the scale in America is so massive, I try to limit it to 15 people in a week and try to cluster those meetings together and spend two days running around. The rest would be email interviews, which is much easier, but talking to people in person can give you more insight.
I have a 50% response rate when I reach out for interviews, but once you meet the right people in each city, and they understand the mission, they’ll tend to hook you up with the other 50%.
I'm definitely a morning person so once I’ve powered through as much as I can, I’ll take a break for lunch. I eat out for most meals – time restrictions and constant travelling makes it a nice treat – it reminds me I’m somewhere new (again!) I don't normlly eat at Starbucks because it's horrible and I hate supporting them, but I do like stealing their WiFi!
Everything is shifting constantly depending on where I am, but at around 5pm Australia wakes up and that's when the real work kicks in. Emails flood my inbox and our studio manager Chloe will be tackling half of those from Brisbane, while I do the high level ones, and new ones from the USA.
I knock off about eight and either make dinner or just go out – I eat out a lot and I normally eat by myself.
I do 90% of things by myself, which I love because when I’m with other people in meetings, or giving a talk, I give it 200%. Then when I head home to the RV or to a friend's place, I need that chill time to recharge.
If I’m still awake, I’ll try and cram in some reading – I’ve been trying to read a book a week for the last three years – or make phone calls with family and friends. I’m actually terrible at keeping in touch with people, but when I do see them, they have my full attention and I’m not on my phone.
More than anything, I’ll just go to bed super early. I can sleep anywhere, I’m constantly exhausted so I think going to bed early is awesome.
"I do 90% of things by myself, which I love because when I’m with other people in meetings, or giving a talk, I give it 200%. Then when I head home to the RV or to a friend's place, I need that chill time to recharge."
DAY OFF ROUTINE
Whether it's working, travelling or running around a city squeezing in a meeting, my days are extremely exhausting so I grab a break when I can. Sometimes, I’ll just take a full day off and just lie in bed all day if it's been a few weeks of non stop action, just to make sure I don’t get sick.
Since I left my full time job seven years ago, I have Frankie Fridays where I try not to work, or at least try not to go on the computer. Screen free days mean I can plan stuff in my notebook, brainstorm ideas, tackle problems, or take a train somewhere so I can think properly.
Saturday is the only day where the whole world is having a weekend, so it’s my only day off and I can do whatever I want. I normally go on an adventure, which means lots nature and no WiFi. When I had the RV it was a road trip somewhere or getting out of the city or going camping. No work and no guilt, which is a big one. Not feeling bad about not working is really hard...
It's been really great meeting so many people on this trip, I have a bunch of awesome new friends and have kidnapped so many for last minute weekend excursions.
Sunday in America is Monday in Australia, so I have to work which is hard because my head is in weekend mode. I’ll write a round up of what's happening in the industry that week, check over the new interviews and send out each cities newsletters.
BEHIND THE SCENES
On searching for the elusive daily routine…
I'm constantly creating lists and ideas of what I’m going to do every day – planning out my week like a sane person. But then Monday comes around and it's like, shit I’ve got to figure out this other stuff NOW. It just seems like I’m chasing my tail constantly with my routine – I’ve read four or five books based on routine because I’m really fascinated by it, but I can't seem to get it under control and I’m kind of okay with that now. I think Frankie Routine just means No Routine.
If I’m staying at someone's house and I have my own room and I feel content there, then I will get up and go for a run because I know I have access to a shower and I don’t have to think about anything. If I’m staying in a hostel, I don’t want to go for a run because I’ve still got to figure out the internet and what I’m going to eat. My life is minimising the pain each morning depending on where I am, so I have really good periods and bad periods.
On caring about everything, but nothing…
I swing between caring too much and caring not enough. What I do is very much my life, it's not a job. I’m living on the road, and new work friends are life friends. I’m staying in people's houses – there is zero division between work and play and Frankie and The Design Kids, it's one big melting pot. I think the not caring about things isn’t just about work and whether an Instagram post is up to scratch, it's more about life and what matters and what doesn't. You still need to care, do your absolute best at the time and make something as good as possibly can – but don’t break your neck over it! I cut myself too much slack sometimes, but a happy Frankie means a happy Design Kids.
On making decisions by imagining your future daily routine…
I was offered a creative director role in 2014 and it was pretty tempting because I wasn't earning any money. But I was four and a half years into The Design Kids and I fought really hard for it and I wanted it to exist, so I turned it down and then three weeks later we got Tractor on board and they sponsored the entire site.
What really helped to make the decision was imagining my life – my routine – a year in advance. I was living in Melbourne, waking up in a little flat, making my poached eggs and then getting on my mint green bike and cycling to work and sitting down at my desk and talking to my friends. Not too bad, but then in my head I was like, "Oh that's right, I don't like desks." That was my decision made!
On funding a six year trip around the world…
My first road trip had a shaky start. I was due to drive around Australia for five months and I had around $10,000 sponsorship arranged, but a week before I was due to leave it fell through. I only had $64 dollars to my name, but I did have a job teaching design two days a week and a van – plus I had already told everyone I was leaving – so I decided to do it anyway.
I funded the first year completely myself by flying to work and teaching in Brisbane on Wednesdays and Thursdays and road tripped around Australia the rest of the week. Then Tractor came on board and was partnered up with us for the Australian site. To save money for the NZ road trip, we decided to hitchhike for three months and came up with a competition for our Instagram followers to design the hitch-hiking signs with a big exhibition at the end. Sometimes your biggest limitations lead to your most successful workarounds.
We now aim to have a sponsor in each city, and we build the community and conversation around them. There’s definitely room for improvement, but it pays 28 people to curate the news and events in each city, covers my wage, my travel and all the staff wages too. It's really tight financially but there is so much room for making this huge, so I’m excited about stepping it up next year.
"Sometimes your biggest limitations lead to your most successful workarounds."
On the difference between loneliness and fear of missing out…
I don’t think I’d ever say that I’m missing out - I don’t make any compromises in my life, I’m like, "Fuck yeah I want to do that" and I go and do it. I have no regrets or wish I was doing something – I just do it.
But I definitely experience loneliness. When you are such a solo warrior, you are not checking in with anyone, so if you don't come home no one is going to notice for a while and I think that is really disorientating. Nothing feels real because you have no one anchoring you down.
On finding a 50/50 split in work and play...
It might sound like I’m working a lot but I’m not. A few years ago I was offered an opportunity to keep doing The Design Kids as a subsidiary of another organisation. I was able to design my own job description and get a salary so I had to think about how much I wanted to work. I came to this idea of having a 50/50 split between work and play and spend half the year where they wanted me, and then the rest I’d be wherever I want. That fell through, but from then on when I designed the road trip the idea was to spend a month in each city with two weeks hustling and two weeks camping, surfing and doing all these things that I want to do in my life.
“I want my life to be a 92 year adventure – I’ve decided I’m going to die when I’m 92 – and I’m going to have a really good time up until then. Instead of thinking about things financially or what my wage is going to be, I think about how I want to spend my day, how I want to wake up every morning and go to bed every night. That’s exactly what I’m doing, so on that note I feel super stoked.”
The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
The Success Principles by Jack Canfield
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma
#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
The DO Lectures: Mr Bingo, Alastair Humphreys, Meg Lobb, plus all the others!
Loving the local design podcast Australian Design Radio. Matt and Flyn are great hosts and the line-up of people is always top notch. Being overseas, I love listening to a batch at a time, catching up with whats going on and hearing those Aussie accents!