Creative Crushin': How This Designer Quit Her Day Job and Became a Nomad
First off, are nomads still a thing? Yes. Yes, they are. And in the case of Cat Coquillette, they come in the form of an insanely inspiring artist! Self-described as “a location-independent designer,” Coquillette’s story is one that will certainly inspire a healthy combo of hard-workin’ hustle and dreamy wanderlust. In just two years, Coquillette has lived in 13 different countries, and she’s barely scratched the surface when it comes to all the places she wants to check out.
Coquillette’s most recent adventure brought her to the exotic land of San Francisco (!) where she filmed Brit + Co’s newest online class on Stylizing Lettering in Photoshop. Check it out, and get ready to up-level your lettering skills :)
Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Brit + Co, and unofficial Cat Coquillette fangirl. Read our latest installment of Creative Crushin' to learn all about how Cat got started, what sparked her nomadic life change, and some of the wildest things she’s experienced over the last couple years.
Brit + Co: First, the basics. Where are you from? Big or small family? What did you study in college? Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional artist?
Cat Coquillette: Despite only having one sibling, the house I grew up in was bustling with energy– we had dogs, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, doves, frogs, turtles, and more gerbils than I could count. My brother even had a pet snake that lived in the basement — until my mom found out about it. Growing up in this environment is probably why I’m such a huge animal lover today.
I grew up near Kansas City, which has a top-notch art and design community. I’ve always gravitated towards creative paths and have been drawing for as long as I can remember. My art teachers encouraged me to pursue my passions, so by the time I got to college, I double-majored in graphic design and illustration at the University of Kansas.
B+C: What types of day jobs did you have before you were able to go all in on art and design?
CC: If you want to go way back, my first job was at a paint-on-pottery studio when I was 16. It was short and sweet — I was canned after a few months because I spent more time painting the merchandise than doing my actual job. So I guess this was pretty foretelling of my future career as a self-employed artist.
Fast-forward to the more recent past: My design professors in college had great industry connections, so I hounded them to help me get connected with Willoughby Design, an award-winning branding firm. Willoughby offered me an internship during my senior year, followed by a job offer. I was ecstatic.
I worked as a designer and art director there for four years and loved every minute of it. The founder, Ann Willoughby, is an incredible mentor to me. She started the business from the ground up back in the '70s, when women in design were few and far between. She continued to grow and cultivate the firm into the success it is today.
I had so many opportunities while working there and learned from the best in the business. I worked alongside a team of talented creatives as we whipped up logos, branding identities, websites, packaging, photoshoots — you name it.
My job was incredibly fulfilling and challenged me in all the right areas. A lot of the methods I use today are based on the things I learned during that job, like crafting the perfect proposal, working with clients, and laying down a solid strategy before diving into the creative process.
B+C: Was there a turning point when you realized you could turn your side hustle into your main hustle?
CC: The turning point for me was fairly straightforward. When I started earning more with my side hustle than I did at my regular job, I made the decision to pursue self-employment. It was a slow-build, so I had a lot of the logistics worked out before I put in my two-weeks notice — I’d incorporated as an LLC, worked with my CPA to establish how much I should expect to pay in taxes, and saved up a “nest egg” of income just in case things went south.
It was incredibly difficult to leave behind a job that I loved so much, but ultimately it was the right choice for me.
B+C: What inspires you? Why do you love to make things?
CC: Travel has become my primary inspiration for the artwork I create. I snap photos of the interesting things I encounter around the globe, then use the photos as references for my paintings. Because of this, each of my paintings holds a special memory for me — my alpacas watercolor is more than just a set of six cute alpacas; to me, it’s a memory of my trip to Peru with my family when we hiked up to Machu Picchu.
B+C: On your website, you note that education is a huge focus for you. We’re so thrilled to launch your class here on Brit + Co (more deets here!). Tell me more about what drew you to teaching.
CC: I believe in community over competition and have devoted a large part of my brand to creating resources that allow fellow artists to thrive. After all, I sought help from artists’ blogs and entrepreneurial programs when I was first getting started.
Before I got involved with art education, my focus was on growing my art portfolio and business. I have to admit that education wasn’t even on my radar. However, as my brand expanded, I began receiving emails from people that were seeking guidance about how they, too, could find success in creative fields. This was the first time that I ever considered that I might have advice worthy of sharing.
Initially, I was pretty timid about marketing myself as an educator. After all, I’d never taught anything in my life and wasn’t sure how to go about doing so. However, I saw a need in the realm of art entrepreneurship — so many creatives had the potential to succeed, but weren’t sure where to begin. This is exactly how I felt at the beginning of my career, so I decided to focus on helping this audience. I realized that I could use my experience to help other creatives reach their full potential.
B+C: When did you take the plunge and become “location-independent”? Did a specific event spark your decision?
CC: One of the best perks about working online is that I have complete freedom over where I do my work. As long as I have a steady WiFi connection, I can pretty much do my job anywhere.
After the lease expired on my Kansas City apartment, I packed up all my belongings and stored them in my brother’s basement. I tossed the rest into a duffel bag and spent the next six months road-tripping from Colorado to California. I worked in coffee shops and stayed in Airbnbs.
My goal was to spend those six months testing the waters and figuring out where I ultimately wanted to live. There was only one big problem — I didn’t have just one favorite city, I loved the entire experience of exploring every new place. It took me the entire six months to realize that I didn’t need to pick a new permanent home; I could make this nomadic lifestyle work instead.
Since that moment, I’ve worked and traveled through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, and the USA.
B+C: How long have you been a nomad?
CC: Only a few short years — I’ve been location independent since July of 2016.
B+C: Alright here’s a tough one. Top five craziest/best/most inspiring/incredible moments from your travels so far?
CC: 1. Staying up 'til Midnight on My Birthday: What made it particularly unique was my location — I was looking at the midnight sun’s reflection off a fjord in Norway. My birthday is in June and the summer sun never sets that far north. My boyfriend and I were staying in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, just 12° away from the North Pole, the furthest north we’d ever been in our entire lives. I never imagined I’d be celebrating my (summer) birthday by hiking up a glacier and petting snow dogs. Fun fact: any time we left the town perimeter, we had to be accompanied by a guide with a high-powered rifle. The last thing they want is for one of their tourists to wind up eaten by a polar bear.
2. Eating a Fried Tarantula in Cambodia: I chewed and swallowed the legs, but I chickened out when I got down to just the body. I was too squeamish about it potentially being gooey inside! Since then, I’ve eaten loads of crickets. Those don’t bother me and are surprisingly tasty when deep-fried.
3. Getting First Place in a Halloween Costume Contest in Thailand: I’m really really into celebrating Halloween. It’s the one time of year where I get to have fun with SFX makeup. I was in Thailand last October and convinced my friends to let me give them gory makeovers. I’ll never forget the looks we got on our motorbikes on our way to the Halloween party.
4. Earning My Scuba Diving License in Ko Tao, Thailand: I was so focused on following the instructions and doing everything right that I completely forget to reapply sunscreen between dives. By the end of the week, I’d receive both my scuba license and the gnarliest tan line you could ever imagine.
5. Hiking With My Family in Sapa, Vietnam: We were led by a local Hmong guide named Ze. She told us stories about growing up in a small village and how her life eventually led her to learning English and becoming a guide for foreigners. We hiked from village to village and spent the night in locals’ homes, ate with their families, and learned about their culture. The entire experience was beautiful and unforgettable.
B+C: Is there a place that you’ve stayed in that you could see returning to for a longer stint? Why? Or why not?
CC: I’m absolutely smitten with Mexico City. It was never really on my radar, but I recently visited CDMX for a conference and left with a solid appreciation for this city. Between the street food, friendly locals, art culture, great coworking spaces and cafes, and nearby mountains, I’m adding this CDMX to my list of “must return” places.
B+C: Given that you’re on the move all the time, what does your support system look like?
CC: I’m so grateful for my family for providing such a solid support system. Without them, this lifestyle would be much more challenging to maneuver through.
My brother is a computer genius, so he helped me set up a remote server that backs up to the Cloud every night, so even if I lose my computer somewhere in the world, my files are always safe. My brother also set up an alert system so that if I ever go 24 hours without opening my laptop, he gets an email. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from him over the years asking if I’m alive. On those occasions, I’ve had to sheepishly explain that I’m taking a *rare* weekend away from working.
All of my personal and business mail goes to my parents’ house in the US. They also let me keep all of my staple belongings there so I always have a place to crash when I’m back home. I’m also incredibly grateful for my mom, who spoils me every time I’m home by stocking the fridge with my favorites — brie cheese and dill pickles. Yum! My brother and sister-in-law also let me store all my extra belongings at their place (and trust me, I have a lot of shoes.)
B+C: How do you manage your time? Do you come up with set hours for yourself or just go with the flow?
CC: I keep my schedule fairly flexible. I work when I have things to accomplish and step away from my computer when I need to recharge. If I’m working in a coffee shop and catch myself idly browsing through Facebook, I close my laptop and take that as my cue to go for a walk and get some fresh air.
I’ve never been a nine-to-five kind of person; instead, I take plenty of mini-breaks throughout the day and get the bulk of my work done in the evenings. I feel most creative at night, so that’s when I spent my time painting, drawing, and brainstorming new creative avenues. Ultimately, I’ve found that this is how I am most productive.
B+C: When you’re feeling creative burnout, how do you reset?
CC: The best cure for creative burnout is to get out of my comfort zone, even if that simply means exploring the other side of the city. It can be refreshing to get lost in your own city and to discover things for the first time.
Another remedy for burnout is to head into nature, whether it’s a walk along a nature trail or a day in the mountains.
B+C: What’s on your studio playlist?
CC: I’m a huge fan of podcasts. My favorites: Radiolab, The Daily, How I Built This, Reply All, This American Life, Planet Money, Lore, The Moth, TED Radio Hour, Stuff You Should Know, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Freakonomics Radio, Creative Pep Talk, and Home of the Brave.
B+C: What advice do you have for emerging artists who are ready to take the leap and work for themselves?
CC: Explore various avenues and find what works best for you. One person’s success won’t be the answer for everyone. Once you find your jam and hit your stride, capitalize on that momentum and hustle hard.
Embrace the business side of your career. Being creatively talented got me far, but my interest in business got me to where I am now. Andy Warhol said it best, “Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist.”
I get so amped up over the entrepreneurial side of my career. I’m constantly trying out new tactics and it’s exciting to see what sticks. For every hour that I spend painting, I typically spend another marketing, promoting, corresponding with clients, or doing any number of tasks like adding new content to my site or updating financial spreadsheets and tracking invoices.
B+C: Any tips/tricks/tools you’d recommend for someone who wants to try their hand at a modern nomadic lifestyle?
CC: Adaptability isn’t just great for my business, it’s also key for my location-independent lifestyle. My best advice for anyone that’s interested in traveling full-time is to be flexible, open-minded, and curious. Some of my favorite adventures happened after I took a wrong turn or had to change plans at the last minute.
You don’t need to have every little detail planned out before you embark on your journey. In fact, when it comes to both traveling and running my business, sometimes it’s better to work things out along the way as I strive towards my larger goals. If you would have told me a few years ago that I would have quit my stable job, left the United States, and spent 24/7 exploring the globe and working on my laptop, I would have had a million questions about how this was even possible. What about all of the minutia it takes to do this, like not speaking the local languages, finding a place to live, and ensuring that I can continue earning enough to support myself? When you consider all of this at once, it can be overwhelming, which often leads to inaction. Instead, I prefer to envision large goals and deal with the small steps it takes to achieve them as they arise.
B+C: In five years, where do you see yourself? :)
CC: The world is a big place, and I’ve experienced a sliver of it. In five years time, I hope to still be traveling with the same zest and curiosity as I do now.
“And at the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy and your eyes sparkling.” ― Shanti
Wow. Talk about inspiring. You can follow Cat's adventures @CatCoq on Insta, check out more of her work at CatCoq.com, and school yourself on how to stylize lettering in Photoshop in Cat's online class.
For more crush-worthy creatives, be sure to check back on our Creative Crushin' series. We've got lots of bold, brilliant, badass stories to share with you!
Let us know if you have a creative crush you want to share @BritandCo.
Author: Anjelika Temple (Photos via Cat Coquillette and Brit + Co; Design by Sarah Tate)