Many of us dream about the idea of traveling, and using our skills as photographers, filmmakers, or designers to sustain a lifestyle that allows us to travel and work at the same time. Guys like Elia Locardi come to mind, but his methods are just one of many different ways to make a nomadic working lifestyle a sustainable one, and in this article I’ll tell you the story behind Wickstrom Design.
During a quiet evening of bouldering while out in Bishop, California last winter, Andy and Jess Wickstrom happened to cross paths with a professional climber. After chatting, they watched in awe as this climber effortlessly made his way up an enormous rock, without any sort of rope to protect himself. This climb was a "warm up" for this particular athlete, and when he was ready to climb his project, a never-before completed boulder problem, Andy asked if he could take pictures of the attempts. The climber succeeded, and those images would go on to get shared with his sponsors and the entire climbing community, and was an easy way to get some attention to Andy’s work and begin the cultivation of a relationship with a potential client.
It’s these kind of opportunities that can happen when you get out and explore, and the Wickstroms have shared with me just how they have been able to do that, full time.
Wickstrom Design is made up of Andy and Jess Wickstrom, a husband and wife team that have been working in the arts around Chicago since 2004. For the last year though, they have taken to the road while still providing creative services to clients, both old and new.
Their ability to travel was born out the “DesignEgg” project, whose name might have something to do with the shape of the trailer they work out of.
While we’re certainly doing other things to maintain our life on the road (working with clients of our existing firm, Wickstrom Design, and selling photos here and there) the DesignEgg project provided us the focus, momentum, and community-support we needed to take the leap.
Through the generosity of individual donors via Kickstarter and a matching grant from Andy and Jess, DesignEgg is currently traveling the nation and delivering over $25,000 worth of in-kind graphic design, photography, and consulting services to non-profit organizations, artists, and entrepreneurs across the nation.
Since the inception of DesignEgg, their projects have taken them all over the US, working on a variety of projects. The success of its first year has meant that Andy and Jess plan to stay on the road and continue enjoying the adventure.
I wanted to know in more detail just how they were able to manage each other, work, and life, all the while living out of a trailer. One thing that immediately jumped out at was how they both have unique strengths, which when put together gives them a broad set of skills for cultivating and serving clients. Photography is just one of the creative services they provide.
Andy: We’ve been working hard to establish roles within our business. In general, Jess handles most of our client relations, marketing, bookkeeping, design involving multi-page layouts (books and catalogues), and copy writing. I typically handle all photography projects, web-graphics, illustration, lettering, and certain clients with whom I’ve worked with for a while… I’ve started experimenting with more lifestyle images recently—and that’s an area I hope to expand and improve on as time goes.
When you’re spending time traveling to incredible places, it can be dangerously easy to fall in to a “vacation” mindset, and not spend time working. Interestingly though, the opposite was true for Andy and Jess; they wished they would have scheduled their time to allow for more opportunities to play and explore without the stress of working.
When your livelihood depends on keeping clients happy (and you are accountable to a lot of people who supported your project), there is a pressure to deliver. If we had a chance to start again, we would try and better manage our expectations of what we can reasonably accomplish in our work, while allowing ourselves ample time to enjoy the adventure.
You really have to schedule out your time—otherwise, you pretty much can work non-stop and miss out on opportunities to fully enjoy the amazing places you find yourself in.
Two major barriers to being a budget-concious, traveling creative are often power and a network connection. Going to a Starbucks every day for wifi might not be ideal, and when a team like Wickstrom Design works on projects rooted in the outdoor world, being located in wilderness areas happen all of the time. They’ve taken to using solar power generators to provide juice when there isn’t a power source nearby, and using publicly available services as well.
The GoalZero solar set-up we have (one 90W panel and two 400W generators) provides most of the power to keep our trailer operations going, plus allows us two-four charges a day of a laptop. This all depends on what programs we’re running and how sunny of an area we are in. We typically mix up workdays in the trailer with trips to a local library, coffee shop, or other spot to supplement power and transfer large files. You catch on to the little tricks of each area and adapt, that’s for sure.
When living out of a trailer, what about things like mail, bills, getting or receiving shipments? Taking care of these things are a simple matter when based at a single, physical address, but thankfully as more clients adopt an e-pay service and bills can be paid online, it’s easier than ever to not be tied down to one place. Andy and Jess decided to keep their place in Chicago, which plays in a role in how they make it all work.
We still own a condo in Chicago and rent it out while we’re traveling. It also serves as our permanent address—our renter forwards mail to us on an as-needed basis. We get packages delivered to local UPS hubs around the county and get regular USPS mail sent c/o General Delivery to whatever city we’re in.
As Andy and Jess continue to explore and work on new projects, they have experienced first-hand, the wisdom that exists in some of the old clichés of photography. Specifically, having a camera at the ready at all times.
If it’s tucked away and a shot appears, there’s usually no way to capture it if I’m fumbling around for my filters or other things. It’s typically so fleeting that every moment counts.
I think our first morning in Bishop, CA – the sunrise was probably one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I didn’t take the photo because I thought, “its like that here – it’ll do that again soon.” WRONG. I waited for 2+ months and the sunrise didn’t come anywhere near that beautiful.
Just like when you work out of an office, time away from work and taking care of your body is vital to maintain optimum creative output. Even when traveling all of the time, Andy and Jess consider down time to be extremely important for their sanity.
Andy: I think I get most stir crazy when our routine of eating a simple healthy meal, allowing some down-time for art or music or reading, getting some physical activity in, etc. get put off for weeks at a time.
Making time to disconnect or recharge can be tough sometimes, for sure. It helps for me to intentionally leave my phone or camera at home and actively enjoy certain things without the distraction or pressure they subconsciously create. Sometimes that time apart from these things (even for a couple hours) can be all you need to power through your next creative spurt and keep your ideas fresh.
If you make time for physical activity, to eat well and get adequate rest, your work days will be incredibly productive.
With all of this work and travel, don’t forget that businesses still need to self-promote and market their skills and services. The Wickstroms have taken to using Instagram, and found it to be pivotal for their business when it comes to expanding their network and gaining exposure.
I think our ability to reach more people, quicker, is really great. It’s also free. We try to post with consistency and quality while including informative captions regarding projects, current locations, etc.
As a result of our travels, we’ve also met a lot of fellow travelers – some of whom have blogs about travel and work. Some of these great people have asked to feature our project on their blogs or feeds. These opportunities have been fantastic for generating awareness of DesignEgg and my photography.
If you enjoy travel, adventure, and photography, you should definitely check out the DesignEgg Instagram feed, as well as Andy's Instagram feed, and say hi next time he and Jess are in your neck of the woods.
Many thanks to Jess and Andy for taking the time to answer my questions. Safe travels!