Sofia and Maria first met in Berlin when Maria was giving away some of her old music records. They hit it off, stayed in touch and eventually realized they not only enjoyed each other’s company, but had the same passion for design and travel.
Today they work as the creative duo behind SOMA design dealers, traveling the globe as digital nomads and drawing inspiration from their surroundings. We chatted with them about their travels, how they overcome remote work challenges and why being location independent is so good for creativity.
Name: Sofia & Maria
99designs handle: SOMA design dealers
Location: Digital nomad
Specialty: Packaging & label design
Tell us a little about yourselves
Sofia is a visual communication designer from Uruguay and Maria is a graphic designer/developer from Germany. We met while living and working in Berlin. Maria was giving away some of her music records (really good ones, as Sofia might say), and Sofia picked them up.
We stayed in touch and after finding out that we shared more than the same music taste, we started going out and fell in love with each other. Months later we moved in together and decided to start traveling and living abroad while pursuing our passions.
Living together was going great… and then we discovered that we also rock working together 🤘. Because of our different backgrounds, we complement each other very well. Sofia was a freelance designer already, and Maria was partner in a Berlin-based company and enjoyed designing and coding on the side.
Where did the name SOMA design dealers come from?
The name SOMA is a combination of our names. It started as a spoof on people that call their brands after the names or initials of the founders. But it also has many other meanings.
For example, “Soma” is the drug given to people in Aldous Huxley’s classic “Brave New World” to maintain social order and keep people from feeling any negative emotions—hence the reference to us being design dealers. Many of our clients like the name SOMA because they immediately recognize the personal meaning behind it.
Letting your work be influenced by new surroundings, people and cultures makes being a designer one of the most perfect jobs for travel.
What brought you to 99designs?
When we switched our individual projects over to SOMA, we decided to broaden our scope—not only in quantity and quality, but also in diversity. 99designs allows us to see various business models and how product and design trends adapt to stay in line with them.
It encourages us to design in various styles and for different materials, while offering us the chance to showcase and improve our own style—not only by competing against ourselves but also other artists from around the globe.
Tell us a little about your travel lifestyle
We choose to live with very little possessions, ergo when we travel we don’t need that much stuff either. It’s just ourselves, our tools and some clothes. It’s very easy to build a temporary base in a place we like and travel to cities and countries nearby. It allows us to continue working and have a “home” to go back to, but at the same time conquer more of what is out there.
We both enjoy a healthy balance of working a few hours a day and then exploring the city we’re in, rather than taking long holidays completely off work.
How does being a designer enable you to combine work and travel?
They say the more you travel the more you’re inspired. As a designer your main resource is your creativity. Besides that, all you need is some paper and a pen (and a laptop, who are we kidding?). You can take your favourite Moleskine or your Wacom tablet if you can’t live a day without them. But that’s about it, really.
Of course, there’s responsibilities and deadlines to commit to, so planning ahead and self-discipline are key. But the fact that you’re not bound to an office or a boss telling you when and where to be gives you the freedom and space to let your creativity run wild.
We are children of experiences. Everything we see and everything we learn influences our personal style.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Being aware of different time zones. Right now we have a lot of clients in the US and Europe, which means we usually have to be reachable from early in the morning to midnight. Communication can be difficult when written, so an actual face-to-face chat or Skype call helps fill in the gaps.
Once in a while you might be stranded in a place without proper Wi-Fi or a good data connection, so you’ll have to catch up on a ton of work once you’re back in civilization.
What’s your advice for a maintaining a solid designer-client relationship when traveling?
For designers: Let clients know your availability so they can plan ahead. You don’t want an inbox full of unread emails that needs an all-nighter to catch up on. You also don’t want an empty inbox because you neglected your clients. Checking in with them one too many times is better than not checking in at all.
For clients: If you’ve found a good designer, stick with them. We’ve seen many brands go to a different designer each time they need something and end up with a collection of “mini” brands instead of a solid and consistent one. Also, let your designer know if something is urgent. Many times, the designer doesn’t know your schedule. Communication is key for both sides.
Do you prefer to work from cafes or somewhere else?
We usually prefer to rent an apartment and work from there. Cafés and busy spots are nice to grab some fresh thoughts, but when it comes to a heavy workload we find it easier to stay focused in a more quiet and comfortable environment.
Of course, sometimes it happens that a deadline falls into a time when we’re checking in on a plane or are out and about. But carrying a few necessary items makes it easy to find a quick spot to put in an hour of work. Maybe you can call this controlled flexibility.
If you’re traveling on a budget, going to a co-working space or a café might not be the best choice, since you’ll burn a lot of money just to have a place to work. But as a single traveller, you might want to stay around people. Maybe it’s different for us because we are already a team, giving each other company.
Where’s the best place you’ve worked from?
The library at De Hallen in Amsterdam! You can choose between the tables at the cafeteria on the ground floor or go upstairs, where they have long tables and sofas. It’s very quiet and you’ll get the best lunch right inside the Food Hallen.
A bit more exclusive and difficult to reach is Sofia’s parents backyard in Uruguay. The hammock under the tree, the breeze coming from the beach and the birds singing make it the best place to work. Actually, we should consider submitting it for an award.
What’s most important when planning a working-vacation?
Come up with a budget and don’t lose track of it. When you’re travelling, unexpected events might occur—projects might get cancelled or postponed or you might miss a flight. If you have at least two or three months of living costs saved up, you’ll be covered for most events.
If you’re dealing with clients in different time zones, remember that you’ll need to be available at different times when making your travel-work schedule.
Also remember that some places don’t have Wi-Fi or high-speed internet, so plan ahead and check for national SIM cards or, when you find a place to stay, ask your hosts how good their internet connection is.
Don’t just travel for the sake of traveling. Try to find a benefit you can bring to your work and life.
What’s your advice for fellow digital nomad designers?
- When something is urgent, try to do it as soon as possible. Then your clients will give you the free time you need when something is not as urgent.
- Keep an eye on your things if you’re in a public place. Get insurance for your laptop or have enough money as backup in case it gets broken, stolen or lost. Don’t forget the backups! You don’t want to look unprofessional in case your laptop crashes and you lose all the recent progress on your clients’ designs.
- Don’t get lost in your computer or phone. Go out, feel, listen, smell, see! Get in touch with the locals. They always know where to have the best time and will give you a better feel for their city than anyone else.
- Meet other travelers, designers or folks that are like you. They can give you good advice for work/life hacks or places and ways to work.
How do you decide where you’ll head to next?
Our time spent traveling depends on the destination and reason for the trip. We mostly travel for a few months before going back to Berlin and checking in on our loved ones there. But if it’s just a place we want to see and it’s close, we usually go for a few days or a week.
We’ve been in South America now for a couple of months to visit family and friends and to dive into South American culture, away from European stress. You’d never guess where we answered the questions for this interview… We started in Santiago de Chile, continued it in a basecamp at the Aconcagua, and finished it in Buenos Aires.
Where do you plan to go next?
For the rest of this year our plans include the US, Greece, Iceland and Japan. Right now, we’re also looking for a place to relocate our homebase to and expand SOMA by creating a collaborative space. We are open to suggestions and art collaborations, so tell us if you think your city is the one for us!