1 September 2017

“Everyone should be a foreigner somewhere”: 11 creatives give their advice on working abroad


1 September 2017


Whether you agree with artist and illustrator Jon Burgerman that “everyone should be a foreigner somewhere” or the idea that it might make you a more understanding human, the question of working abroad is likely to arise for many of us at some point. Be it a tactical professional move, a familial one, or a craving for sand and sea. Over the past two weeks, Lecture in Progress dedicated its content to creatives who have left the UK to work in distant lands. From Sydney to Singapore, Barcelona to Berkeley, they recounted tales of how and why they uprooted, and their tips for others considering the same. Here we share a selection of experiences, and you can read the full articles over at Lecture in Progress.

Perfecting work-life balance in Sweden

Adam Tickle, content manger at Sneakersnstuff (Stockholm): Before moving from London to Sweden in 2016, I switched jobs three or four times in three years. I didn’t really have a sense of direction, and I was trying to solve this by jumping between different positions. After a while I realised it wasn’t the jobs, I just needed a new location or environment.

Sweden is welcoming to international talent. If you have a bit of experience, exciting ideas or are just really hungry to do good work, you can really make an impact. Most places will seem less stressful if you’ve worked in London, and the work-life balance here is significantly different. There’s definitely a bigger focus on well-being and lifestyle, so in the long run, people are very loyal to the companies they work for here and generally much happier. People take five weeks off in the summer, and get six weeks for the year. I think it’s great that companies really want you to take a break, and not just burn yourself out.

"There’s definitely a bigger focus on well-being and lifestyle, so in the long run, people are very loyal to the companies they work for here and generally much happier"

Adam Tickle, Sneakersnstuff, Sweden

Japan to NYC: How to start over twice

Shantell Martin, artist: I can’t speak for London now, because I left 15 years ago, but for a working-class person to go to one of the best art schools and graduate top of her year, the options were still very slim. So I decided to go and teach English in Japan for six months, which turned into five years. There was a really strong sense of collaboration; I’d meet people making music, so I would do the visuals. From there I grew a VJ career, which really helped me find my own voice. One thing Japan taught me is that people try to master things over generations, and there’s complete patience there. There’s no rush. For me it was mastering a line, and making it look recognisably me.

When I decided to move to New York, I naïvely thought my life would transition to the US, but it didn’t – I literally had to start my career all over again. I had been exposing my art to thousands of people each week, then I moved to New York and no one knew who I was. I found an immigration lawyer and applied for an O-1 visa (the artist visa). I needed to show all my past work, good references and an itinerary of my plan. I ended up staying on my friends’ couches because immigration lawyers are actually quite expensive – you can spend up to five thousand dollars. Then once I had it, this visa meant I couldn’t do anything but make artwork, so I found little jobs and bartered to pay the bills. I just worked and worked until opportunities, collaborations, projects started to come back to me.

"When I decided to move to New York, I naïvely thought my life would transition to the US, but it didn’t – I literally had to start my career all over again."

Shantell Martin, artist

Shantell Martin, artist, NYC via Japan

California calling

Alex Tieghi-Walker, creative director (Berkeley): I first moved to San Francisco to create a one-off journal produced by Airbnb, and I’ve now been living in Berkeley since late 2015. There’s a definite pack of creative transplants from London to the Bay Area which seems to be growing.

The creative scene here is more ‘punk’ here because it’s still establishing itself and there’s an incredible DIY culture and attitude. If you want to make something happen, you can do it and people will be excited and support you.

Compared to London, people are less afraid to speak their mind and say why or how something will or won’t work. Ideas one might think lesser are seen as the starting jump for something better. European cities are undoubtedly future-thinking, but bound by tradition a lot of the time. The feeling of freeness, individuality and rebellion in California affects how you think, work and live in a very real sense.

In New York, networking is king

Rik Lomas, coder and SuperHi founder: New York is like an extreme version of London; everything’s higher, dirtier, busier, louder, ruder. But one of the main differences is the connections. Talk to anyone here and they’ll know exactly the right person for you to meet. It means that you can ask for help and the positive American attitude means that everyone is willing to help, even if they don’t know you that well. In my short time in New York, I’ve felt that I’ve been introduced to hundreds of people and it’s always useful. I’m not a master networker, but the New York industry has helped push open my bubble of useful contacts. The level of self-belief and positivity in America is also pretty incredible. Us Europeans should take a pinch of that confidence and learn how to sell ourselves better!

Laura Jones, music video directors’ representative (LA): While I think talent in the UK and Europe is great, many of the biggest artists and directors I wanted to work with were in LA. Music is really exciting here, and in terms of budgets, people are willing to spend more on music videos, which helps the creative process too.

[If you want to live in the US] it’s a good idea to get in with a company who has a US office, so you can eventually transfer over here. I would also say it’s about creating relationships in the US, so that someone will want to invest in you. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s about trying to make yourself indispensable. The other way would be to get an internship and see if the company would be prepared to take you on after that. Dealing with all of the visa stuff on your own is tricky!


Laura Jones, music video director representative, LA

Tapping Vietnam’s burgeoning creative culture

Dan Keeffe, designer at Rice Creative: London’s an expensive place to be unemployed, so when I was between jobs I went on holiday to Vietnam to work on my portfolio. I had a ‘when in Rome’ moment and ended up sending it to Saigon-based agency Rice Creative. They offered me a job, and just like that my new life in Vietnam started.

I can’t imagine being anywhere more exciting to be working in branding. There’s no established design scene and it’s a developing country, but it’s one of the fastest growing in the world. Living in such a drastically different environment to London has given a kick-start to my senses. Everything around me is new and I’m inspired by everyone I meet. I’m learning a new language, broadening my mind and feel excited to step outside every day. Closing doors can be really daunting but it’s doing this that leads to surprising new ones opening. There’s a hell of a lot of exciting stuff brewing in our industry outside of London. 

Face-to-face in Barcelona

Josh Nathanson, freelance graphic designer: I was born, raised, educated, lived and worked in London, so after 27 years it was time to do something different and get out of my comfort zone. I kept thinking ‘When I’m 50, do I want to look back on my 20s having not done anything a little mad?’ I wanted to experience a different culture, learn a new language and get a new perspective. 

In the summer of 2016 I quit a job I loved at GBH London and headed to my new life in the sunshine as a freelancer. It was a leap of faith, but totally worth it. There was no plan, but I think this worked to my favour. I discovered that in Barcelona things only really get done talking face-to-face, and many job vacancies are through word of mouth. Listening and taking on board words of advice when you’ve arrived really helps to form an idea of what is you want to do, and how to tackle it. 


Josh Nathanson, designer, Barcelona

Berlin’s sociable design scene

Joel Antoine-Wilkinson, graphic designer at HelloMe: I always liked the idea of working or interning abroad, but never really thought I would have the chance to do it. With this in mind, I decided to contact a couple of studios in Berlin to enquire about an internship. I met Till Wiedeck [HelloMe founder] while on holiday there, showed him my work and had a really enjoyable chat. Fast forward four months and I’d started my first day. I was living outside of London for the first time in my life, getting to experience a great city and of course, with the job. There is a very strong graphic design scene and community who regularly hang out with each other, including Dinamo Type foundry, Dan Solbach, Philipp Lehr and Immo Schneider to name a few.

If you’re a student wanting to live abroad, I’d really recommend looking into post-university Erasmus funding. I wish I had known about this when I finished studying. The last thing I would say is beware of Brexit. Think about the timing and pay attention to what laws will be put in place.

Switching lanes in Sydney

Chloe Yeoman, freelance art director: It was mainly curiosity that first brought me to Sydney, but my love for beaches and good weather helped. In terms of work, it’s actually very similar to working in London. There are lots of English people working in the industry, the culture is similar, the language is the same and the visa (if you’re under 31) is easy to apply for.

The country is growing fast and it’s a smaller market than London, so there seem to be lots of opportunities for designers and art directors. When I moved over, I side-stepped from editorial and magazine design into advertising. This was something I’d been interested in doing for a while, but I couldn’t see myself making the transition in London without taking a big step back. Here, I’ve been able to make that move pretty seamlessly.

My advice to anyone considering moving here would be: do it! But don’t rush. It’s a big decision, and one you have to be sure of. I had been thinking about it for a good few years before actually making it happen. I’d say it helps to understand why you want to move, and what you want to get out of it at the end.

"My advice to anyone considering moving here would be: do it! But don't rush. It's a big decision, and one you have to be sure of."

Chloe Yeoman, freelance art director, Sydney

Joel Antoine-Wilkinson, graphic designer, Berlin

Speed-working in Hong Kong

Charlene Man, artist and illustrator: I was born in Hong Kong, so I always knew I could go back if I wanted to. I’d been back for holidays but hadn’t really experienced it as an adult. I was at a point where London was getting to me, and I wanted to try something new.

While Hong Kong has a small [creative] industry, there are a lot of opportunities, and you get to know a lot of people quickly. There are new agencies coming up, but they won’t necessarily require an illustrator, so it really helped to have a basic knowledge of graphic design. The pace here is also very fast, so I learned to do things well, quickly and by myself.

Certain parts feel quite British. It’s a really easy place for a Westerner to live and you don’t have to worry too much about visas at the beginning. You’re allowed to stay in Hong Kong for six months, and it’s quite a good alternative if you want to work and travel at the same time. It’s especially worth it if you’re already freelancing. You might also spend that six months trying to look for a job. If you do, then it’s quite simple for your employer to get you a work permit.

Singapore: A tech-oriented melting pot

Rob Peart, designer: Singapore is a hugely tech-oriented country, with lots of government subsidies and support around tech and innovation. What I most enjoyed about being there was working with people from totally different backgrounds and cultures – China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Canada, USA, Sweden, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Russia and more. We think about London as being pretty diverse, but the design companies I’d experienced were overwhelmingly white European. It challenged some of my own habits and assumptions, and I learned a ton. 

There are a few practical things to be aware of; the main one is that you’ll need a sponsor (a job) before you can go and live there to work. There are strict rules around the number of foreigners that companies can employ, and employers must pay a levy for each foreigner that they hire. I’d really recommend going to work in another country and culture if you can. It will surprise you, challenge you, and ultimately make you a more understanding human and designer. 

Lecture in Progress inspires and informs the next generation of creatives with advice, insight and first-hand accounts that demystify the day-to-day workings of the industry. Lecture in Progress is made possible with the support of Brand Patrons, GFSmith, Squarespace and the Paul Smith Foundation. Sign up below.


Charlene Man, artist and illustrator, Hong Kong

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