The Design Transplant: Setting up in a New City
Pursuing a design career sometimes means uprooting a life and moving it somewhere new. Opportunities are more obvious in larger cities, where meeting new people, taking risks, and getting involved in a design community are more the norm than in small towns. And sometimes a small town offers the respite necessary to push through creative blockage.
As someone who has made the transition three times, crossing two international borders, I can confidently say it isn’t as easy as it looks. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Is where we live important?
Richard Florida writes in Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life:
The place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being. It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our children and families.
Further to this, I would add that exploration of the world is deeply satisfying for many people. While in school my design professor urged those of us with any curiosity about living in a big city to move now while we remain flexible enough to live in closet-sized apartments with multiple roommates.
I believe he knew that moving to a new place is a life-changing, creatively exhilarating experience that outweighs the hardships of travel. New sights and senses, friendships and opportunities open the world to a person, and it is something so many of us crave but so few of us act on. But at any age, even several years out of school, the essence of my professor’s advice remains true; if you’d like to live somewhere else, there is no easier time than now. What are you waiting for?
With so much to do, where do you focus first?
The first question to answer is “Where are you going?” Some designers have always harbored dreams of living in New York City, and others have vaguer notions, wanting to settle down somewhere between Portland and L.A. or anywhere in Europe. You could road trip and pick a place along the way, or you could secure a job before you move in hopes the new company will pay you a relocation fee. However, it is worth bearing in mind that unless you are a hotshot designer or have very good connections, employers tend to interview potential employees who already live where their business is located.
After the general country and region is settled upon, I would concentrate on long-term goals first, like acquiring a work visa if you are moving to a new country or saving the amount of money you think you’ll need. Work visas, especially, take a long time to acquire. By the time you have gathered your paperwork then passed it on to the government to process, six months to two years may have elapsed. Set your paperwork in motion before looking to complete any short term goals, like selling your belongings or finding a place to live.
How much do you need to save?
More than you imagine! The going piece of advice when you begin risky endeavors is to have a stash of six month’s worth of living expenses in your savings account, ready and accessible. Expenses will include: rent, food, utilities, health and medical bills, going out/social events, travel costs, phone bills, a deposit for your first apartment, and surely a few other things you will not predict.
I prefer to save nine month’s to a year’s worth of costs, simply because when you travel, you never know what will happen. A job may be more difficult to secure than expected. A landlord may not rent to someone without a credit history in that country, requiring tenants to pay six month’s rent upfront. Furthermore, there could be natural disasters or you may have to make an emergency return trip home. I’ve never actually needed more than six month’s worth of savings, but having the extra cushion certainly made me feel safer.
What do you need to take?
Underwear, your laptop, and a smart outfit for interviews. That is all. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a credit card in a new place, so you may want to keep one of those as well. Everything else you will need will be available to buy there.
I moved to England straight out of college and took with me notes from my design classes, a physical portfolio, fifty printed resumes, sample paper stock, and all kinds of adapters I was sure I would need. Don’t do this. I wish I had taken only my most valuable assets that would be expensive, or a hassle, to buy again. It would have made traveling on public transit so much more bearable. Take what you need to survive for a few days and begin buying material goods only once you’ve settled into a more permanent living space.
How do you meet new people?
Nothing can be more valuable in a new place than having one person to introduce you to who they already know. Though not impossible, it is much more difficult to parse the world of social unknowns – people you meet at bus stops, libraries, grocery stores – on your own. Finding new friends outside your industry is also rewarding. Some of my favorite new friendships have begun with roommates from all over the world. Networking events are also helpful because those who attend are usually open to meeting new folks. And of course, social media is a helpful resource to find people with similar interests.
How do you find work?
New employment opportunities can come from anywhere, but they often come from friends or people you know socially. Therefore the recently-moved person will find it doubly rewarding to meet new people. In terms of finding a job immediately, stay away from Craigslist. Look on awards sites, create your own list of viable employers, and send them emails introducing yourself. If your timing is just right, you could be the first one in the door by getting in touch before they’ve even announced they need someone, and that can be your in.
Here’s a helpful resource: 110 Ideas to Get More Freelance Work and Generate New Client Leads.
Practical advice for international transplants
- You’ll likely need a permanent address to set up a bank account, and a bank account will be helpful for applying to new apartments, paying rent or receiving your first paycheck. This can make a person feel stuck in a permanent loop, where one thing cannot be obtained without another, so ask your hotel or hostel, a travel exchange center like BUNAC or SWAP, or even your new employer, if they could let you borrow their address for this purpose.
- Get yourself some travel health insurance. Travel insurance is not the same as travel health insurance. It is worth doing the research to find a company that covers you wherever you are headed. For point of reference, I spent $600 on four stitches after a bike accident when I was, regrettably, traveling uninsured. And I was lucky.
- Scan your passport and keep a copy on file, or give a physical copy to someone you know and trust. If your passport gets stolen, as mine has, having a copy of it will make all the difference for your sanity. Some airlines will let you travel with a copy of your passport.
What if it all goes wrong?
These tips are, after all, mere suggestions. The saying “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow” holds true, but don’t be afraid to break from the plan. Timescales are important to bear in mind. It can take six months to feel newly settled in a place, but wisdom handed to me from other immigrants and travelers say it can take five years to truly feel at home. Hang in there. When homesick, find groups of expats or places that remind you of home. A quick call to an old friend can do wonders to restore your mental balance, as can keeping in mind the reasons you moved in the first place.
- Design Sponge has a remarkable collection of city guides.
- Meetup.com is a great way to network wherever you are. I’ve been meaning to try out the GOOD meetups.
- Creative Mornings, weekly talks by creative folk, are popping up around the world, from L.A. to Zurich.
Do you have other tips for recently transplanted designers? Share them with us below.