From the mountains to the ocean: FreeHeel Design

Many of us hanker to follow our dreams - move away from it all, set up a business, work on what we love…

Rob Moss founder of FreeHeel Design talks to Helen Trevaskis, Writer & Illustrator about his journey from corporate designer to freelance creative in Cornwall.

You’ve had a varied career linked by your love of the outdoors – can you share some highlights?   

I’ve been fortunate since I graduated in 2001 to be able to align my interests with the brands I’ve worked with and to live and work where the products I design are being used. From working for Lowe Alpine as an apparel designer in the Lake District, to four years in the Alps working ski seasons or full-time as a designer, to bringing my experience skippering boats and teaching sailing to design work for Crewsaver and Spinlock, to putting my love of cycling into work with DHB, Rapha CC and FROST&SEKERS

Image: Courtesy of Helen Travaskis

I find that when you work on products related to the activities, you’re engaged with you naturally get into the nitty gritty. So how does a jacket work under the shoulder straps of an over-loaded rucksack when you’re struggling up a hill, and with the layers underneath? Or how do all the components of a running bag you’re designing combine to make a marketable, saleable on-trend product for a brand and customer to be proud off? 

It’s part of what excites me about my work – the reality of use – and it fits the user-centred approach to design that’s been with me since university. In my first role at Lowe Alpine as a product team we would head out on the hill together climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and running, to test clothing, packs and other products – when I come across product development teams that don’t  do this it amazes me! When you do its just brilliant – working with Jorrit Jorritsma and his team at Millican in the Lake District was just a beautiful experience enrapturing the true essence of the brand and taking forward the environmentally sensitive ethos they have lead the way with through new product innovation.

Image Courtesy of Millican Ltd
What does a typical week look like for you running a design consultancy from Falmouth?  

Unlike my time working for big outfits like Mammut and Samsonite, which I also loved, every week and every day is different! The trick is to be flexible and inventive. 

One day I might run to work to test a running rucksack another I might cycle home with the latest development for the mountain bike industry on my back! In between I’m working on client briefs or chatting with manufacturers in Asia, Europe and the UK or developing collaborative projects with other creative kindred spirits. Unexpected calls come from unexpected quarters! This year it’s included from a new active clothing brand setting up locally, an organisation wanting to know what to do with hemp they grow on their family farm, and a local orthotics company with spare production capacity! 

Until recently I also taught sportswear design one day a week at Falmouth University, teaching first year students and providing industry insight and connections to the final year. Developing the confidence and skills of young people is close to my heart and designing projects which brings them together with the local community and with amazing world class organisations and brands like SPEEDO and the RNLI has been exhilarating. 

People think of Cornwall as all Poldark, buckets and spades, and pasties – what’s the real picture?

“Be inquisitive. If you’re not curious about life, about stuff, about brands, about the world then you are unlikely to ever be a great designer”. 

The creative scene in Cornwall is pumping! 

Even though Cornwall is the second poorest region of northern Europe, the creative industry is the 3rd largest employment sector here and the creative range of skills is incredible – from multi-million gaming and app development companies, to hand-crafted lamp shades sold by top end London retailers, to talented individual artists and makers. But it’s tough developing a business here which is why the Council has its own Culture and Creative Economy Team and why there’s a network of organisations – many EU funded, helping build a supportive, fertile environment for commerce.

Image Courtesy of FROST&SEKERS
What proportion of your work comes from this local scene?

It’s probably 40% local which is a mix of individuals pursuing a passion, entrepreneurial small business and start ups and collaborative projects with other consultancies. The other 60% is a mix, of UK, Europe and International. It’s interesting to see some customers looking to Cornwall because of the region’s reputation for creativity and quality is growing, and because the population is small and we are isolated making it a great product testing ground. 

“Unlike my time working for big outfits like Mammut and Samsonite, which I also loved, every week and every day is different! The trick is to be flexible and inventive”. 

I am currently using B-Impact Assessment criteria to improve my design business model” 

How has Coronavirus affected Freeheel Design?

Strangely, so far it has been really busy including helping with a couple of what I call “passion projects” where lockdown has given people the time to pursue projects they’ve had on the go for years. While we’re all holding on for the economic shockwaves to come, facing adversity is where the flexibility of a freelance model comes into its own.

What advice would you give young designers entering the professional world?

Research is your friend. Use it to help you find the right place to work, the right reference points for developing new products, unexpected opportunities when times are hard. 

Be inquisitive. If you’re not curious about life, about stuff, about brands, about the world then you are unlikely to ever be a great designer.   

Build your network. Linked In is brilliant for this, and when you find someone you could be of interest to or vice versa – pick up that phone! Then when you’ve made contact stay in touch. 

Oh and of course, if you love design, then whatever happens, never give up! 

“We are going for B-Corp status and I want us to be part of that movement of businesses that believe things can be better and are doing something about it through who they work with, the way they work and the choices they make”. 

What are your ambitions for the next five years and what advice would you give yourself for achieving them!

We’ve three big ambitions

In 2018 Cornwall was reported as the 2nd poorest region within Northern Europe. It’s a passion of mine to take on student interns, and by 2025 I’d like to be working with a small, focused team made up of designer-makers with our own facilities capable of both physical and virtual sampling. 

We are currently using B-Corps’ B-Impact Assessment criteria to improve our design business model. To systematically change as part of a movement of businesses that believe things can be bettered and are doing something about it through who they work with, the way they work and the choices they make.

I’d also love to have launched a brand with a product range that helps Cornwall be seen for what it really is – a dynamic and creative environment as well as beautiful place with a reputation for quality.

Rob Moss Owner / /Designer FreeHeel Design @robmossfreeheel

Helen Trevaskis Writer / Illustrator @thetrevaskis

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