The Design Kids: inspiring the next generation of designers

Frankie Ratford portrait

It’s refreshing to meet someone who is professionally successful, Instagram famous, and down to earth. Frankie Ratford, founder of The Design Kids – an international program that helps 130,000 people graduate into design jobs – is that unicorn.

Credit: @frankieratford

Frankie’s love of design began from an early age—she actually took her friends homework at secondary school in the UK, did the assignment herself and fell in love with design. After travelling around the globe for 2 years to figure out where she wanted to study, she put down roots in Melbourne only to fight itchy feet while she studied Graphic Design for four years.

Now, Frankie combines her passions for travel and design by working with budding artists from around the globe. “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,” Frankie said on the FormFiftyFive podcast. “Otherwise, you’re a loser. I think there are so many other possibilities within the design industry for different careers. That’s one of the things I’m trying to educate people about with The Design Kids.”

For 10 months a year, Frankie runs The Design Kids and organizes a remote 35-person team from the back of her van. As if that’s not enough, she also hosts design residences in her shack in Tasmania, Tassie Design Shack. So how does Frankie manage all of this madness at the same time? We sat down with her to learn more.

Credit: @frankieratford

Hey Frankie! While you’re traveling the world, how do you keep yourself organized going from city to city?

The way I work is like coloring in. The outline is there, and it doesn’t matter how the inside gets done. It doesn’t have to get done in sections, it just has to be completed. I try and plan my life in months and years. The years make it easy. 2013 and 2014 was Australia, 2015 was New Zealand and USA, 2016 was USA and Canada, 2017 was Europe and 2018 is Asia and South America.

Once I’m physically there, I can do all my research on the ground; namely gathering up the entire graphic design industry to create a complete resource for that city for graduates wanting to work there – we do the hard work for them!

There’s three stages. First, we research before we get to the city. In the city there’s meetings and talks where I gather as much information as I can while I’m there. And finally, there’s the follow-up, which is interviews, uploading all the content onto, and getting into the city’s life. I’m always sort of doing three things at once.

Credit: @frankieratford

You have an online community, but you’re also physically going to places. How do you think The Design Kids would have worked without the online aspect?

I’m quite an analog person. I don’t really like digital. I like Instagram, but I never spend a second longer than I need to on my computer. I think it’d be easy for me to do it offline. I go to a place, and then I’m really absorbed into the design community. But the global aspect of the project would be nearly impossible. I’d have to say to someone in New York, “Trust me, it’s in England, just get on a plane!”

Besides, Instagram is a major driver for us. Our hashtags are really good. Each trip has its own hashtag, and all of them start with The Design Kids. It’s a great way of us dividing our content within the Instagram space. It’s also a great way for us to make contacts with people from all over the world.

Credit: @frankieratford

How do you find the designers that you work with? Is it through Instagram?

It’s a little bit of everything. There’s Instagram. And there’s just going to our meetings and saying, “Who else do I need to meet in this city?” If I meet someone really great and ask them for three recommendations, it’s easy to go from there and keep the standard high. But that’s one of the struggles, finding enough content at that level and not dropping our standards.

What does a successful, brilliant day look like for you?

First, I’d wake up in a hotel, rather than my van bed. Then I’d have a shower, which would be amazing. Nice poached eggs for breakfast. And then giving an hour-long talk at a school. The schools have been fantastic. My private messages on Instagram are just students saying, “Oh my god, this is so amazing! You changed my life!” It’s really cool.

After that, I’d do a three-hour workshop that’s based off all the points from the talk. I like to make sure that the room feels much better about graduating, and have a clearer view about what they want to do. We go through 20 job options, and I have them think about which is best suited for them.

Credit: @frankieratford

Next, I’d have a studio visit. I never know how those are going to go. Ten percent of them are super stiff and polite. Maybe sixty percent are really lovely and friendly. Then the last thirty percent is tears and hugs and offers to stay in a spare room. And I never know when that’s going to happen!

Credit: @frankieratford

I’m living on the road. My job is my life, and vice versa. When it’s more than a job, and it’s a connection with other humans, that’s the best kind of day.

Credit: @frankieratford

Aside from your own connections, do you think that you’ve been inspiring other designers to make more global connections?

Yeah! There’s so many global connections, especially because of international conferences. That means the people that are really at the top are all meeting each other.

When I went to Hey Studio in Barcelona, we basically had an Instagram-off where we compared connections. We were sharing inspiration, and people we thought the other designer would be interested in.

Credit: @frankieratford

What has finding sponsors been like throughout this project?

I’d rather have a lot less, and a good fit, than tick the boxes and manage a lot of nightmares. Sponsorship, for me, is really secondary to the community. If I was a businessperson, I’d probably say, “This is how much money we need. This is how many sponsors. Let’s create something that we can sell to them.” But we go to a city and create a community, and we hire someone before we get a sponsor. That way we have something to work with them on. It’s a massive risk, but I don’t see it as one—I see it as what I’m doing anyway. I want to help those students, and then hopefully we find someone to partner with that city.

Feeling inspired by Frankie and The Design Kids?
For travel and life > @frankieratford
For all things design > @thedesignkids

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