The Designer/Illustrator's Guide to Moving Abroad

Photo: Jon Burgerman

While Jon Burgerman, Gemma Correll and Tom Mac all built successful careers in the UK, they've all moved to the US looking for a happier life and more creative fulfilment.

All say the move has been worth it, and none plan to move back to England anytime soon. But it hasn't come without a few tricky challenges.

With Brexit making us wonder if we'd be better off in another country, we asked them what the best bits are about living abroad, what the challenges were, how its changed their work and if they would recommend it to you.

Jon Burgerman

Illustrator Jon Burgerman moved to NYC from his native Nottingham six years ago to broaden his experiences, meet more people, have more fun, see different things and eat better food. He's an advocate for change, and says he's more comfortable being an outsider.

MH: What have been some of the challenges of moving abroad? What have been some of the best bits?

JB: "The biggest challenge was perhaps all the paperwork - visas, new bank accounts, health care, taxes. Oh how we all hate having to deal with that stuff. Isn't it amazing we can move around Europe without having to worry about most of that... oh wait.

"The best bits are discovering new things and new people. Making best friends you'd never of met otherwise and in some cases collaborating or doing projects that just wouldn't of happened had you not lived in a certain place."

MH: What advice would you give another illustrator looking to move abroad? Would you recommend the US?

JB: "If you can work from anywhere (all I needed really was a laptop and scanner) then why not see what it's like somewhere else?

"I'd advise spending a few months in a new place first before deciding to do the whole hog and move. I was in LA and NYC for three months in 2009 before I moved in the winter of 2010.

"The US is a very big country and soon it might be the kingdom of a maniac so it's tough to recommend without know more specifically what you're after. But there's stuff for all tastes here - crazy big cities and huge expanses of wilderness and everything inbetween."

Burgerworld colouring book / Jon Burgerman

Did you have any trouble getting a visa?

JB: "Not really, it just took some time and some money. It was smooth. Being organised and anal and not missing deadlines is imperative. 

"The only trouble I had was at the US embassy in London. The guy running the small cafe inside the embassy wouldn't give me change to use the passport photobooth. So I queued up with a bunch of products to purchase to break my £20 note. When I reached the front of the queue he refused to sell me the items.

"He said I only wanted the change. I said I was very happy to be buying four bananas and a couple of packets of crisps. He wasn't amused and, quite illegally I'm sure, told me if I didn't return the items to the shelves that instant he'd personally make sure I'd be leaving the embassy without a visa.

"This whole episode, along with having to then leave the embassy (with its airport-style security) and find a shop and then get back into the embassy proved quite stressful. My immigration lawyer wanted to report the cafe guy but I thought we should just let it go."

Customised room for DIFFA / Jon Burgerman

MH: How did you go about getting work in the US when you first got there?

JB: "I didn't. I half joked when I got here that I'd come to retire.

"I was burnt out with work so when I arrived in NYC I didn't get a studio space and I didn't start looking for clients. I decided to take my time and do other things.

"Eventually when I saw the damage living in NYC was taking on my bank account I revised my plan somewhat. Getting work here is no different to getting work anywhere these days I think.

"It helps to meet people, show them your stuff, keep in touch, attend events, be active in a community and be present online."

MH: Has moving to NYC changed your art?

JB: "Sure, I never drew pizzas until I got here!"

Gemma Correll

Gemma Correll is a cartoonist, writer and illustrator originally from Norwich but now based in Oakland, California. She’s known for her adorable pug drawings. She and her boyfriend visited California about eight years ago and fell in love immediately with the weather, food, amount of space and things to do.

MH: What have been some of the challenges of moving abroad? What have been some of the best bits?

GC: "I miss my friends from back home, but it's easy to keep in touch with them over the internet. I also really miss good Indian/Bangladeshi food. It's difficult to find around here.

"I was worried that I wouldn't like it here as much as I anticipated, but I think I actually love it even more. I've been to so many amazing places. The US is so varied, every state is different - even counties in the same state can be completely unique. I've been really lucky to be able to travel to places like Kentucky (which I loved!) Chicago and Milwaukee through work, and just driving around the Bay Area where I live is exciting.

"I love food, so I've been eating some amazing things that I've never tried before - Burmese food, vegan soul food, salted ice cream... plus there's a restuarant here in Oakland that only serves mac and cheese.

"Work wise, I do the same thing here as I did in the UK, which is work from my home studio. But here I go out during the day and draw or write in other places (like my favorite local place, which is a cemetery) whereas back in Norwich I didn't go out much!"

MH: Did you have any trouble getting a visa?

GC: "It did take me some time. The US doesn't have a visa for freelancers. So if you want to work for yourself as an artist (or musician, or actor) you have to find an agent to sponsor you for the O1 visa, which is for "aliens of extraordinary ability" (which makes me laugh every time!) - you have to be able to prove that you're recognised in your field and have won awards, done lots of work for internationally recognised companies, that sort of thing. I waited a few years to apply for the O1 as I wanted to have plenty of decent evidence to show immigration.

"It took several months of collecting evidence, getting letters from people I'd worked with, or planned to work with in the next three years (the duration of the visa), then going for an interview at the consulate in London - it was probably a year start to finish of quite intense planning - it was like having an extra part-time job!"

MH: Has moving abroad changed your work?

GC: "I don't know if it's changed the nature of my work, but it has changed the way I work - I go out more and work in places other than at home in my studio. I take more time out, walk more and generally have a better work/life balance."


MH: Are you ready for another change? Are you thinking of returning to England?

GC: "I'm hoping to stay here but it depends if US immigration will let me! My visa is for three years and then I plan to apply for a green card, which is an even lengthier process."

Tom Mac

Tom Mac is an illustrator and designer who moved from London to New York City to work at creative agency Vault 49. He has been a part of the team for almost two years now.

MH: What have been some of the challenges of moving abroad? What have been some of the best bits? 

TM: "First challenge was deciding whether to ship my all of my possessions over, I had a life in London when I got the job with a flat full of furniture and artwork. In the end I decided to basically sell everything and start again! Ended up flying over with nothing but a suitcase, it was a pretty liberating experience and allowed me to take a step back and hop around different boroughs of the city via Airbnb for the first couple of months before nailing where to settle and fully settling in."

Pride / Tom Mac

MH: What advice would you give another illustrator/designer looking to move abroad? Would you recommend the US?

TM: "I would absolutely recommend NYC. The city is a haven for any creative and has so much to see and do, providing unlimited inspiration - to me it feels like London on steroids! The wider US in general is such a vast and diverse place, ever changing landscapes bursting with inspiration. I know a couple of creatives who have committed to working remotely from obscure places like Nashville or Philadelphia for example."

MH: Has moving to NYC changed your work? 

TM: "Moving to NYC has definitely made me more focused and inspired as a designer. It's no myth that in the USA people work longer hours! I have ended up putting the majority of my efforts into broadening my skills as a graphic designer in areas such as branding, as opposed to an illustrator, keeping a balance with illustration being more of a hobby to relieve stress. This is something I am really enjoying. The team at Vault 49 has phenomenal variety of talent from around the world in different creative fields so we are always learning fresh skills and discipline from each other."

MH: Are you ready for another change from NYC? Are you thinking of returning to England?

TM: "I have absolutely no desire to leave NYC, that's for sure. I have had chats with my wife about in the long run, if going back to the UK is on the cards to maybe look at Manchester or Bristol as options as they are rapidly growing creative areas, but also potentially Berlin. I think Germany would be a great place to live! But for now, Big Apple is my home and couldn't see myself moving anywhere else!"

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