Meet Karla Fernandes, a mentor for Springboard’s UI/UX Design Bootcamp.
With more than two decades of experience as a designer, focusing on UX/UI design & digital product design, Karla Fernandes is a quintessential remote worker or digital nomad. She speaks four languages, has lived in 11 countries, and worked with over 150 small businesses worldwide through her design consultancy, Vitamina K. She specializes in helping clients launch fully functional MVP (minimum viable product) applications in just eight weeks using no-code tools.
After deciding Switzerland was her dream country, she sold all her belongings and left her hometown in Brazil. Even now, she says she can still fit all her belongings into two suitcases, excluding the furniture in her apartment.
One of the best things about traveling while working remotely, she says, is learning about design standards and how they vary from one country to the next. Cross-cultural UX design accounts for how cultural attitudes influence users’ motivations. For example, attitudes towards individualism versus collectivism, or the degree to which societies have a “long-term orientation” (planning for the future”) versus indulgence (instant gratification).
Karla has explored much of Europe and South America and plans to travel to Asia for the first time this year, starting with Thailand. She has been a Springboard mentor for nearly four years.
You’ve lived in so many countries and speak four languages. How did you become such a global citizen?
After leaving my last full-time job, I started my own design business. In 2011, I lived in Brazil and realized none of my clients were local. We communicated using Skype and email. So, I took a 40-day trip to Europe, and during that trip, I met my clients in Switzerland and France. That’s when I realized it was time to leave Brazil and explore. I spent some time in Buenos Aires, then came back to Europe.
Once you decided it was time to leave, how did you determine where to go?
Switzerland was always my final destination. Generally, when I travel, I’m always excited to go back home to Brazil after a couple of weeks. But when I went to Switzerland, I didn’t have that homesick feeling. I thought, oh gosh, what do I do now?
I went to Buenos Aires because I didn’t have a visa to live in Europe; I could only stay for 180 days at a time. So I sold everything I owned–my car, my furniture–donated my clothes, put everything in two suitcases, and left.
Once you decided it was time to leave, how did you determine where to go?
Deciding which town to go to next was always easy because there were so many opportunities. Once you’re on the road, you just keep going. When I was in Argentina, my client in France told me, “Why don’t you come to Paris?” Then I went to Turkey, even though I don’t have clients there, and Montenegro. One of my dearest memories there was spending time near the beach.
What are some practical considerations you made before deciding to travel somewhere?
I would consider the cost of living and whether or not I speak the local language. I speak English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, which are not spoken everywhere. When I went to Turkey and Istanbul, I knew there were a few international towns where everyone spoke English.
Some digital nomads travel constantly, while others establish a home base in a foreign country and travel regionally. What made you decide to do that?
I just knew I didn’t want to stay in Brazil anymore, and I was ready to do whatever it took. I knew that if something went wrong, I could return to my parents’ house, so why would I keep my old apartment? I already have bills to pay wherever I go.
Has being a digital nomad turned you into a minimalist? How has it changed you existentially or spiritually?
There’s freedom in knowing all you have are two suitcases. Wherever you go, all your belongings go with you. You realize you don’t need many things. For example, I realized I needed a good knife to cut and prepare food. All the other things are just extras. All my digital files are stored on my tablet.
It’s a different lifestyle. I stopped buying clothes because I realized my style was constantly evolving. As a designer, you also see this evolution in yourself. When you start as a junior designer, you have particular tastes and grow out of them. It’s natural.
What opportunities have you gained as a designer by becoming a digital nomad?
The main opportunity is understanding different cultures and working with clients worldwide. When you interact with diverse people, you see how they relate to design differently.
In China, they have these super-sized apps that are filled with information. They’re not minimalist or focused on white space. The app is crowded, but that’s considered normal.
Design standards vary widely across the world. Have you learned anything recently that surprised you?
Colors make an impact in different ways. In Brazil and Turkey, colors are used to grab attention. Here in Switzerland, they mainly use black, red, and white, and the design is very clean. I remember reading a case study about how Moroccans don’t use the color yellow on websites because it’s considered ugly.
Contrast your last in-office role with your current role. What are the most significant differences in job satisfaction and overall life satisfaction?
I had so many jobs before I became a freelancer. The most significant benefit is freedom. However, that is also my biggest problem. If you don’t know how to manage your time well, you cannot be self-employed. You must track how many hours you spend on projects or how long it takes to draft a proposal for a customer. You don’t have paid vacations, but you can make your own free time.
The second advantage is the variety of work. When you work for a company, you mostly do the same thing again and again–retouching designs or adding new features at a slow pace. As a freelancer, you can choose projects.
Many folks are interested in landing a remote job but worry they might be called back to the office in the future. How do you ensure that when you apply for a remote job, it’s genuinely remote?
This happened to me once. You can always quit. That’s my main advice. Many people think that when they get a full-time job, it’s forever. You must grow and learn every day. Maybe you start as a UX designer and move into motion design. Or you change industries until you find one you’re passionate about.
People often forget that when they interview for a job, they should be interviewing the company to see if it’s the right fit for them. Decide if you want to work there, if the product excites you. If not, what’s the point?
What are some questions job applicants should ask during the interview process for a remote job?
If you want to become a digital nomad, there are some crucial questions you should ask. Is there a daily meeting? Is communication synchronous, or can I respond later? Do I have project deadlines? Be very clear. GitLab is a 100% remote company and even provides a course on remote collaboration before you join the team, which is fantastic.
Ask about the rules of working remotely from different time zones. Be upfront. Tell them if you plan to move to a different country every three months.
If you’re planning to travel and work remotely on a temporary basis, should you tell your employer?
If it’s not written in your contract, you don’t need to say anything. The point is you are delivering what is required of you. If you’re meeting deadlines, in most cases, nobody will ask where you’re working from. As a Springboard mentor, I’ll often tell my mentees if I’m traveling, but it doesn’t change how I deliver my work or impact my students.
How has being a digital nomad made you a better mentor?
People get very excited when they hear about my travels. I get to share my experiences and advise them on how to think about their budgets. People think it’s costly to travel and work remotely; I would say it’s the opposite. You just need to choose wisely. Some countries have a very cheap cost of living.
Exposure to different cultures has also made me more empathetic to my mentees.
On that note, how do you become a digital nomad on a budget?
I’ve spent the last seven years moving from place to place. In that time, I’ve never spent more than $1,500 a month, including travel costs and accommodation. You can decide whether to eat at a fancy restaurant or cook for yourself. Traveling by bus is usually cheaper than flying. If you don’t need to live like a king, you can live well on a budget.