Helping Creatives Follow Their Calling: The Design Kids

July 17, 2017


Frankie Ratford – founder of The Design Kids – is a typical entrepreneur in that she’s anything but ordinary.

The director and founder of The Design Kids (TDK), a social enterprise that connects college students and professionals in the graphic design industry, she runs her business the same way she lives her life—with vigorous abandon. Operating on equal parts gut instinct, business acuity, design talent and outright rebellion, she’s master of an enterprise only she could have created.

TDK is built on a travelling circus concept, except instead of peddling entertainment, Ratford is breaking down the barriers that exist between talented graphic artists and their dream jobs. The website and Instagram account uses 12 different initiatives to help educate designers about the industry, to create a global resource online and inclusive community offline for them to be part of.

On the road for more than 10 months a year, Ratford visit schools, universities, famous designers and other design organizations to bring all the content available for a student under one roof—their website.

The Origin Story of The Design Kids (TDK)

Not surprisingly, Ratford describes herself as a willful kid. Growing up in “grey and boring” England, she fell in love with Australia at age 14 while on a family holiday. She reminded everyone she knew that she would move to the sunny continent at the first opportunity.

She had a similarly intense reaction to graphic design around the same time. “My friend took a graphic design class first and told me about a project that included designing a perfume bottle. I was so excited by the idea that I went on holiday to my grandparents’ and spent the entire time sketching out my perfume bottle and creating logo and packaging ideas.”

It was a lot of work for a class she wasn’t yet enrolled in.

“I don’t know why I did it,” she laughed. “It was just so much fun.”

The experience inspired a desire to study graphic design. At 18, she made her own dreams come true by buying a one-way ticket to Down Under, enrolling in communication design at Swinburne University in Melbourne. “When you stumble on something you love it’s not even a decision,” she said.

Ratford finished with top marks in university and promptly went to work in a swish design studio. It lasted 18 months.

the design kids

“I hated sitting at a desk. I hated going to work at the same time as everyone else. I hated the same routine. I hated looking at the same person in the gap between the desks. I hated having the same sandwich for lunch every day. I just hated the same-ness of everything.”

One morning she went into work an hour later than usual, missing the morning rush on the bus when all the design and advertising professionals were rammed together. “I felt so free and happy that I was alone on the bus. I realized I don’t like routine, security and I don’t like sitting still.”

With that, she quit one of the best jobs in Australia — in the middle of a recession. Despite warnings from the practical people in her life, she felt like it was a no brainer to leave. “My ultimate dream job wasn’t actually it.”

To cleanse her palate from routine, she went travelling for six months, falling hard for the nomadic lifestyle in the process. You can guess where that’s led her. “I’ve been travelling ever since, about 10 months a year.”

While winding her way through far-flung places like Réunion Island, New York City and several points in between, she considered what she might do professionally. “I decided that graphic design was still my thing but I wasn’t fit for a studio role. I was a good designer but I just didn’t get much satisfaction from it.”



When she returned to Australia in November 2009, she conceived of TDK with a goal of helping students get into the design industry. “The original idea was to get students to design products like tote bags so they’d get money, their name would be out there and they’d get jobs.”

While she was learning how to sell things online and make connections, she found herself with four other part-time jobs, including two teaching positions as a design lecturer, a graphic design job and a design blogger for a popular Australian design market.

Her teaching work helped her build and shape where her company was heading and offered financial freedom to let it develop slowly. Plus, spending time with the students was tremendously beneficial. “It was basically like spending two days a week with my target market. We built TDK around them.”

The Design Kids Reaches 100k

In time, she ran her own design exhibitions and events. The TDK website became a huge resource for students and the TDK Instagram following began to creep up. With the urge to travel again, she set out on a six-month road trip around Australia where she planned to put on events bringing students and professionals in the design industry together.

“My overall mission is to make the design industry to be a more collaborative place. [TDK] has already changed thousands of people’s lives but we have so much more to do!”

Mostly living in the van she travelled in, she gave talks, ran exhibitions and met up with the top studios across Australia, finally combining her love of travel and design. “Our audience is now 100,000. I think I’ve physically met 40,000 of them!” she said. When Australia’s Desktop Magazine offered to sponsor her future exhibitions, the business turned a corner. “It gave us the credibility and reach we needed to get to the next level.”

The six-month road trip turned into a six-year odyssey, including a stint that saw her in eight cities in eight weeks. “I’d fly in, sleep on someone’s couch, print off artwork, set up the show, take down the show, then jump on a plane and go to the next place. It was insane and after that I started questioning the impact vs. the energy of everything I do. TDK became a lot more efficient.”

The Power of Social Media

In 2014, she landed a major sponsor that allowed her to pay herself full time and hire a friend to work alongside her. They decided to start in New Zealand and ran a competition on Instagram for designers to create hitch hiking signs for their travel across the nation. “We got 500 entries from around the world and it was so beautiful. Strangers designed our way around New Zealand.

“Some of the places we went to had eight people living there and others had a population of 3 million. I love the idea of an art director in New York Googling this tiny village in New Zealand to try to design some typography in tune with local characteristics.”

The contest helped double the TDK Instagram audience from 10,000 to 20,000 in three months. A two-year American road trip followed, helping to inspire another 80,000 followers.

Finding Work for the Next Generation of Designers

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Ratford’s favorite part of TDK’s success is that it truly achieves her original goal to help students get hired. “If I’m a student studying graphic design and have no idea how to get a job, I can go to the website and find design studios, local events, jobs and organizations in my city. If you’re studying in Toronto but want to move to Sydney you could jump on the Sydney page and have everything you need to start a career there.”

One of the features she’s most proud of is the #TDKpeepshow on Instagram under which students can upload their final assessments. Out of the more than 35,000 pieces of work, TDK chooses five each week that go out across all their social media channels. “It’s so exciting that one person gets the love daily. We help them get much needed exposure and job connections.”

Today, she has a seven-person team working remotely, plus 30 hosts in cities around the world that are trained to run TDK locally, curating content for their city and running a monthly local meet-up #TDKtuesdays.

Ratford is about to kick off a European road trip and is in the planning stages for a tour through South America, tagging on South Africa, India and Japan next year. “We want to hit a million people by the end of 2019. I want TDK to become the global design network for graphic designers.”

“My overall mission is to make the design industry to be a more collaborative place. [TDK] has already changed thousands of people’s lives but we have so much more to do!”


about the author

Freelance Contributor Heather Hudson is an accomplished freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publishing, corporate and agency clients who depend on her to deliver high-quality, on-brand content and journalism with a fresh perspective. Learn more about her work at heatherhudson.ca.