Sun, sea, sand and CVs

Should you throw caution to the wind, quit your job and go to work somewhere exotic? John Stones weighs up the pros and cons, and discovers that finding employment in a foreign country is not all plain sailing

The nights are drawing in and there is a nip in the air. As summer drifts into a hazy memory, so the thought of working abroad becomes increasingly attractive.

Designers are not immune to the Shirley Valentine effect. ‘It has its comical side – we get candidates, mainly very junior ones, asking if there are jobs in places like Ibiza,’ says Stuart Newman, managing director of recruitment consultant Network.

But for a significant few, working abroad is a serious proposition. As confidence returns to the UK design market, quitting your job doesn’t seem quite such madness. The reputation of British design, together with a global skills shortage in this field, means there is plenty of interest from abroad – BDG Xchangeteam says it has seen inquiries from other countries for UK designers rise 20 per cent in the past year. Consultants mention corporate identity, graphic design, packaging and interiors as areas that are particularly in demand.

Of course, it is a two-way process. Not only do some UK designers pine after new shores, but a significant number from abroad also want to find work in Britain’s high-profile design industry. And the shortages mean that UK employers are more willing to consider designers from other countries.

According to Fiona Watson, a senior consultant at recruitment consultant Periscope, creatives, rather than suits, have more chance of getting work abroad. ‘Creative skills are more easily transferable from country to country, whereas for account management, language skills are crucial,’ she says. But even on the creative side, once you reach a certain level of seniority, if you can’t present ideas to clients in their own language, you will find it hard to find the level of work you want.

For a job in the UK, good English is a prerequisite, and recruitment consultancies have to cope with many foreign designers wishing to work in the UK who have unrealistic expectations or don’t completely understand the visa requirements. Paula Carrahar, a director at Major Players, says, ‘Generally, applicants from overseas are competing with better designers in the UK. Designers should do thorough research before arriving in the UK, and send PDFs of their work to get honest opinions of their potential in the UK market.’ She also warns about salary expectations, particularly from New York, where salaries are usually much higher.

According to consultants, the places most keen to take on UK designers are Germany, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Southern European countries, popular for obvious climatic reasons, tend to be more hesitant about employing UK designers, and usually favour people with native language skills.

The most popular countries with British applicants are Australia and the US. While a two-year visa is a possibility in Australia, depending on your age, working in the US is fraught with difficulties, so much so that many recruitment agencies avoid placing UK designers in the US altogether. Newman warns that the harsh US work ethic can also come as a shock.

In the UK, there is a large influx of young designers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa who are looking for work. Recruitment consultants say UK design employers will look favourably on Australians and New Zealanders, if they have gained proper experience back home, but warn that South Africans have a harder time, as the design education and the integrated approach is at odds with the UK’s very specialised portfolios.

Visa restraints mean freelance work is usually the only option. ‘The legal length of stay often forbids an individual developing a solid career path,’ says Paul Wood, co-founder of recruitment agency Purple.

If you do decide to take the plunge and work abroad, detailed preparation is obviously in order. And while salaries vary enormously, this needs to be put into the context of the cost of living and taxation levels. Newman mentions someone who was placed in Mauritius on £9000 a year, but as the deal included accommodation, it allowed him to live like a king. But it’s not always plain sailing – sometimes people arrive in a new place and soon discover the reality is not what they expected. Often they get cold feet at an even earlier stage – once they have sold the house and put their belongings into storage, they suddenly realise exactly what they are doing. For hesitant UK employers, BDG Xchangeteam has a ‘try before you buy’ service for candidates with no previous work experience in this country.

Strangely enough, a stint abroad is not generally considered career enhancing, according to consultants. But while working abroad does require preparation and caution, the advantages mean it is something that most people don’t regret. •



Design director

$90 000 (£50 000)

Graphic designer

$56 000 (£31400) 

Junior graphic designer

$32 000 (£17 950)


€73 508 (£49800)    

€39 994 (£27 100)

 €25 105 (£17 000)
Germany €85 500 (£57 900)
€73 300 (£49 700)

€44 250 (£30 000)


€68 858          (£46 700)

€59 988 (£40 650)

€28 060 (£19 000)


€35 500          (£24 000)

€23 000 (£15 600)

€13 300 (£9000)

Czech Republic

€15 531          (£10 500)

€15 103 (£10 200) €5 688 (£3850)

Note: All salaries shown are median Source: Aquent

Case studies

Alley Cane, senior creative director for communication design at Philips Design in the Netherlands

CV: Landor Associates in London, then three years at Design Bridge Amsterdam as creative director, followed by a brief return to the UK, before returning to the Netherlands.

Pros: ‘The design ethic in Holland is very similar, and standards are the same if not higher. It’s very rewarding to be working with, say, someone who is Norwegian on one side and from Japan on the other. Designers are lucky in that we are in such an open industry – I now have as many Dutch friends as I have ex-pats.’

Cons: ‘You can get homesick, so make sure you plan trips home or have people come out to visit you.’

Advice: ‘Before you accept the job, work out exactly what you would like as part of the package, such as flights home, medical cover and shipping costs (both ways). If you are going abroad, make sure it’s for the right reasons and not money. Also, if you are moving, take things with you – don’t leave it all behind, as you will need to establish a new home.’

Phil Percival, creative at Landor Dubai

CV: Enterprise IG and Wolff Olins in London, then FutureBrand in Singapore. After returning briefly to the UK, freelance and then semi-permanent work with Landor Dubai.

Pros: ‘Meeting new people, including in the world of design. Not paying tax is a major benefit. I am doing the work I really want to do and can see myself staying out here for another few years at least.’

Cons: ‘You do miss family and friends, but you can get home in seven hours.’

Advice: ‘Give it a go – you can come home if it doesn’t work out. It’s really not such a big thing once you do it. To find a job, scour the websites of the companies you want to work for, as many of them will have recruitment sections, or go through a specialist recruitment agency.’

Matina Magklara, assistant lighting designer at Speirs and Major Associates

CV: Study in Greece followed by an MSc in Lighting Design at the Bartlett, London, then Speirs and Major.

Pros: ‘Job opportunities in Greece aren’t the same, but it’s not as though I am an economic migrant. I will go back at some stage, but I’m worried about the kind of work I would do. I am sure there would be ups and downs, and I think if I did, I would probably do things myself.’

Cons: ‘England can come across as a superficial and slightly unfriendly place. In Greece, even if people work very hard, there is a way of life that supports more social relationships and it is more relaxed.’

Advice: ‘Have lots of energy, be prepared to take chances as they come, and be prepared for things to be very work-focused.’

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