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Velora Newsletter | Issue 18 | February 1st, 2013


How would you like to travel around the world and be able to work on what you enjoy most? Making the decision to start traveling with your work takes courage and may appear very difficult, but illustrator and author Alex Mathers shows us that traveling while working is easier than it seems.

The secret? Think outside your own boundaries and set your goals right! Just like we've traveled the world with BrightLounge, learn how Alex Mathers challenged himself to take a 9 month trip to Japan while continuing freelance work with great companies like Google.

We hope that after learning about the inspiration and benefits that travel provides, you will try long-term traveling for yourself!

This Month's Interview:

 Alex Mathers
Illustrator and Author of "Promo 3.0"

Alex is a self-taught illustrator and author of four books aimed at creatives and freelancers. Alex has been building a great web presence for the past 4 years, curating two blogs about illustration and design, Ape on the Moon and Red Lemon Club. One day Alex decided to take full advantage of his flexibility as a freelancer and travel to Japan, where he lived for 9 months in 2012. 

V: How did you get started as an illustrator and what kind of projects are you currently working on?

Alex: Well, initially I did a degree in Geography at the University College London (UCL) and after three years I moved to a Masters in Real Estate, because having done a Geography course, I was not really sure, like many other students, what exactly one could "do" with Geography. So I ended up doing an entirely different course again, and then - during that Masters in Real Estate I decided to do some part time illustration work - just for fun and a little bit of pocket money on the side. Since then, it has grown into a full time job. People have gradually started to contact me more and more often. Currently I work with companies like Google and Popular Mechanics Magazine, Wired Magazine - a good range of fun clients.

"Snow Apes Portrait"

V: Yes, that does sound like a bunch of great, fun clients. So you're in every sense of the word a self-taught illustrator. Did you at any point start preparing on a theoretical level, by reading design theory books?

Alex: To be honest, the only learning tool I was using was, where you can find great videos that teach you how to use Adobe Illustrator. I went straight to using Adobe Illustrator from the start and I think I learned how to use that in about 2 weeks. In terms of theory, I guess I am unexperienced still, but I learned by practicing my skills and looking at how other artists do the things I do. Also, I learned a lot through iStockPhoto - this website really got me thinking about how to make work that was commercially successful. That was the main thing, creating a part time income on the side, and thinking about making work that would sell.

"Flying low over Kidney Island. A self-initiated illustration"

V: Writing for and curating Red Lemon Club and Ape on the Moon, it doesn't seem like you would be the type of person who would suddenly decide to travel to a different country and live there.

Alex: Why do you think that?

V: Because you seem too busy to even consider traveling. What made you decide to change your lifestyle, take your work with you and move to Tokyo for nine months?

Alex: That's a good question. I was sitting down in my bed and kind of day dreaming about the places I could go and visit. I didn't have anywhere in particular that I wanted to go, but it occurred to me that, with everything I was doing at that point, even though I was very busy, I was actually able to take my laptop and tablet anywhere in the world. I realized I was completely footloose as a freelancer, I didn't need to be based anywhere, even though I love London very much, I realized that I didn't need to be based there. In a very bold moment, I thought "Why not go to a place I really loved?". I've been to Japan twice before, so I thought of it almost immediately, and I said "Why not give it a long go?". In about two months from that very bold moment, I was already in Japan. I realized that it was a lot easier than what I had thought.

Taking the idea and going for it. Alex in Japan.

V: So it took about two months of preparation: finding a place to stay and getting mentally prepared for it. Would two months be enough for anybody to prepare for a long-term trip?

Alex: I would say two months is plenty of time for most people to get themselves prepared. If you're in a flat for example - it's enough time to find someone to live in there or to move out and book a place to stay in the other country. If you're really focused on what you're doing, it doesn't need to take that much time at all. It was surprisingly straightforward.

V: In your post about this 9 month trip to Japan you're challenging other freelancers to get out of their comfort zone and travel more often. What is there for them, other than the sheer experience of seeing a different country, to decide that it's worth making that decision for themselves?

Alex: I think one of the best thing anyone can do is travel, in terms of growing as a person, expanding their horizon, seeing the world from a totally different perspective and pushing through their comfort zone. Also, in terms of boosting one's confidence and sense of independence, there's nothing better than traveling. That was part of the reason I did it, because I knew that kind of challenge was there to expand me as a person. I thoroughly recommend it. Looking back there's very little against taking the big step. That's just one reason. Another one was that I wanted to learn the language and be inspired by the local culture and the artwork there.

Mount Fuji, a picture taken by Alex during his 9 month trip to Japan

V: Did you gain any particular insight about communicating through design, after being in touch with the Japanese culture?

Alex: Coming from London, Japan is pretty much the complete opposite really, as a culture. That's the reason I was drawn to it. Design is obviously reflected in a different way; I think that people respond to design in a different way than they would in the UK. They have a lot of cute characters and cartoons everywhere. I'm not sure how well that will go down in the UK - but it's definitely more part of the Japanese culture to have cartoons. On the other hand you have a very simplistic style in design, which applies to everything from houses to page layouts and graphic design. Having seen it work so well there you understand that it's one of the global aspects to design that work everywhere, across the world. Simplicity works, no matter where you are.

V: So simplicity is just one of those universal styles in design that will work no matter what...

Alex: Yes, that and I think certain styles of illustration. Some can work in one country, but not so well in another.

V: It also seems like the Japanese culture is receptive to having a lot of emotions expressed in design. Is that something that differentiates Japanese culture from other Western European countries?

Alex: I haven't traveled to as many countries in Europe, to get a sense of how illustration styles varies from country to country, but definitely the Japanese like to express emotions through the characters. It may be something that reflects the reserved personality. People may use illustration as an outlet to express themselves and that works very well.

"Illustration for an article on downhill running, for Wired Magazine"

V: It seems like you'd be interested in exploring other parts of the world as well. Are you planning to travel anywhere else for a longer time period in the near future?

Alex: Having been away for 9 months, I'm enjoying being in London again. I think I'll be staying here for a good while but I have definitely not lost the travel bug. I have an idea of traveling to India. The flexibility that comes with freelancing is great and now that I've seen it work, it's exciting to know that I can go somewhere else.

V: From our own experience of traveling around the world for about two years, we've noticed that freelancers are concerned about staying productive while being on the road. How did you address this issue and managed to stay productive yourself?

Alex: I would say that the most important thing in maintaining a consistent level of productivity, (which is difficult while being on the road) would be to find somewhere to work that is separate to where you sleep. You need to work in a place where you can avoid distractions, and even commute there. I took a membership in a library in the middle of the city, and I would go there most days, that was a consistent place for me to go and work. That's really good for productivity, but it also depends on the kind of trip you're doing - if you're on the go 24/7, then you could go to a coffee shop. That would be the best bet, or wherever there are fewer distractions on a consistent basis.

V: It is tough, because of the "tourist mindset" you may find yourself in. Did you have a certain work schedule?

Alex: I am not the type of person sticking to schedules so much, but if I'm doing work that I'm motivated and passionate about, I will have time and get the work done. I didn't see myself so much as being a tourist. The traditional view of travel is that you separate work from leisure. I incorporated the two - it's such an exciting idea that you can mix travel with doing work in the same place. I didn't see myself as a traveler, rather was imagining myself in a "magical" setting.

"Volcanic Secret" Personal piece showing a subterraneous urban city.

V: Is it difficult for clients and friends to understand this kind of mindset? Are they questioning your availability and focus?

Alex: I didn't come across that many clients or friends challenging my willingness to go abroad and do work there. There are so many tools and ways to continue a fluid online relationship. Working remotely is not as challenging as you think. It wasn't so disruptive to go abroad. The type of work I do is perhaps better suited to remote work. If you have an internet connection and you've got a laptop, most of what you normally do can be applied.

V: Did you use particular apps to stay on top of certain things, such as timezone difference and scheduling meetings?

Alex: Well, I don't think there's any app that can change the time difference, my only tool was the alarm clock: getting up at certain times when the meeting was scheduled. For example, talking with a team in California, which was 16 hours behind my timezone, I just had to organize with them a time that we could meet and then just carry on with our Google hangout.

V: You mentioned before that traveling boosts your confidence. Is that deeply connected to improving oneself professionally as well, being a freelancer?

Alex: I think that going beyond what is comfortable and beyond the routine is inherently going to boost your confidence. Going to freelance from a place you're not familiar with requires much more responsibility. It takes a bit more courage and any form of courage taking will result is an equal measure of confidence in return. Traveling and freelancing will definitely make you a much more confident person as a result.

"Great Wave" by Hokusai. A famous Japanese piece that inspires Alex.

V: What designers and styles are you inspired by?

Alex: I have a lot of interest in other vector artists. The people who inspired me to start were illustrators on iStockphoto, namely Simon Oxley. What I liked about his style was that it was very controlled, very clean and that definitely rubbed off on my work. Also, Russell Tate is an Australian vector illustrator who inspired me to work in the way that I do. I try to dig in to older designers and illustrators like Piet Mondrian, Édouard Manet, and Japanese artists, such as Hokusai who did "Great Wave" and "Mount Fuji".

V: So you've been looking at and learning from the best...

Alex: Yes, I would say so. If you're at a lost as to who to follow, I would go back in time a bit and look at the older masters.

V: That's great advice and thank you for sharing your insights with us!

Did you know we have video interviews with designers and creatives around the world? Watch BrightLounge and discover inspiring stories from different countries.

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Getting done what you need to do is one thing, but having time left for what you want to do is another challenge. Being able to visualize this can provide startling results. We built Clear Goals to show you where you are doing well and what needs improvement, so that you can do more of what you want, more often.

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Until next time -
Be Brilliant!

The Velora Studios Team
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