From taking 3am conference calls to giving client presentations on the beach, working remotely as a freelance designer poses special challenges while presenting unique opportunities. Here, some of Toptal’s top designers share freelance tips on everything from remote work lifestyles to expert design tips.
"In new client relationships, your dependability is under constant scrutiny. Own the near-term roadmap and stick to even the smallest deadlines. Get the client on your calendar. Send them new designs to review in advance of every meeting."
"Have strong opinions weakly held. Back the thought process behind your designs with data and reason but don’t get emotionally attached to your work. It’s okay (and often helpful) to be wrong."
"Reverse Brief: When you are finished receiving a brief from a stakeholder, try to repeat to them what you’ve understood in your own words—either immediately or after you are done visualizing the feature in your own mind (and written some notes). Walk them through the same brief, but with your own flavor (take the role of a persona). Highlight the issues, edge cases, and possible solutions during the reverse brief. Ask for the stakeholder’s input and listen closely. This process clears a lot of confusion on both sides and reduces the communication gap."
"Remote work often means working across different time zones from your clients or other collaborators. Even if you’re working mostly solo, establish a regular set of hours when your client and the rest of your team can expect you to be available on Slack (or other chat platform) so you can keep the lines of communication open. This will not only cement a more open, collaborative process, but will help you maintain an efficient workflow and best manage your time."
"When you are a designer who works remotely, you have to plan your time for work and rest. Keep it clear and don’t cross limits you’ve set. It’s very easy to lose the balance and as a result to experience professional burnout."
"Your remote work can mean the kind of late hours that you don’t always expect from office life. Taking a power nap is better than chugging gallons of coffee when you’re tired."
"Never just send your work. Always present your design and explain your thought process. Your clients will then see that everything is there for a reason and there is a thought process behind every pixel. This will greatly minimize changes and will make you look like the professional that you are."
"When designing, think about solving the problems that people have, not about the problems that the product has."
"Collaborate even when you work remotely. Being remote doesn’t mean you have to skip the brainstorming, whiteboarding, workshopping, and other collaborative ways of working! Many tools exist now which allow you to collect ideas, feedback, and drawings from stakeholders, colleagues, and clients online in real-time. There’s more benefit to collaboration by involving your client in the design process. When they’ve had their say in the design, they are more likely to be happier with the outcome than when they were not involved."
"Ask the right questions! Your usability testing is useless unless you can extract from the user how they are feeling about your product without leading them."
"Create a template for design presentations, invoices, etc. that establishes good documentation standards in your practice. Working as a remote designer and freelancer, you may not always have the opportunity to present to all stakeholders in real time, so having a standard for pacing, contextualizing, and annotating your design solutions makes a huge difference to your clients and collaborators. Good documentation helps bridge the gaps when meeting in person or even over video is not always convenient."
"Be good at at least two skills. The first one, you have to master and be expert at. The second skill should get you by in supporting the first one. It could be any skill - marketing/selling, teaching, writing, mentoring, selling, giving talks, personal branding, volunteering, accounting, tax, selling. And yeah, selling."
"The difference between a freelancer and a financially stable freelancer is recurring clients. Don't set your sights on the end date. Ship great work and create lasting relationships."
"Go back to basics whenever you find yourself in a tough spot or if you have designer's block. Things like magazines, TV shows, music, and even taking a walk outside can do wonders to help your creative process flow naturally. Best thing? Your inspiration sources don’t even have to be design related. Everything is design and communication in one way or another."
Don't fear asking questions—fear having nothing to ask, especially in new projects when your questions help a client understand your mindset.
"Everything in your design should have a purpose. Always ask yourself what you can remove to make this better and simpler. Don’t focus on a design task without understanding the main project goal. Think from the aspect of the business owner and users using your product. Your designs will end up being much more thought out and your clients will be happier"
"Don’t get too attached to a specific design tool or workflow, no matter how familiar you are with it. You have tons of alternatives to better deal with different situations; use them instead of the same solution every time. It's important to experiment with new and different ways to do your work."
"Position yourself as an expert on at least one particular industry and skillset. Find a niche and make sure you know that industry inside out! Healthcare, fintech, education, entertainment, and retail are all domains which are ready to explode just like eCommerce. Your chances of getting hired are much higher if you can show depth of experience and knowledge to your clients. Sometimes, it is better to be a big fish in a small pond."
"Nothing substitutes for actual user feedback. Creating a focus group or getting beta testers from the product's actual user base goes a long way towards assuring the success of a design and a product. It's never too early to get feedback from real users."
"If you think the final shape of product you’ve designed could be better, never blame your client. Usually, the client knows what he wants to achieve, but could have wrong idea how to do it. It’s your role, to use the knowledge and convince the client to follow the right paths. It’s a crucial skill for the successful designer."
"Overcommunicate! Did you ask a critical question and your colleague or client hasn’t replied in days? If it’s blocking your work, follow up and ask again. Did you create the final designs but the client hasn’t reviewed it or signed it off? Follow up with your client and let him/her know that you need his/her review to complete the project. In a remote engagement, you’re not sitting side-by-side with the people you work with, and it is common for your colleagues or clients to miss replying to you. When that happens, make sure to follow up and ask again. Don’t be afraid to follow up. Unless you are sending them tons of emails while they are on vacation or when you know they are in an important meeting, it is not “pushing too hard,” especially if their lack of response is blocking your work. If it happens very frequently, discuss with your colleagues or recruiter to let them know about your frustrations. Communication is key in a remote engagement."
"Video conference apps stall during meetings, leaving the unprepared scrambling to re-establish some mode of communication. Always have a backup plan when conferencing with remote clients. Know your client’s phone number just in case your coffee shop wifi slows to a crawl mid-chat so you can jump back into your conversation before you both lose your train of thought."
"Show, Throw, Repeat: Pen and paper (or whiteboard) are the most flexible design tools available to a designer. Quickly sketch as many ideas as possible for a given problem in say 5 mins. This allows your mind to look at the problem from multiple angles. Do not stop just at sketching; present these rough sketches to stakeholders and discuss what/why/when/how for all the solutions. Benefits: 1) You quickly iterated through many ideas with stakeholders. 2) You got feedback that’s GOLD and 3) You did not got emotionally attached to any ideas (since they were just few mins of effort). Productivity all the way!"
"Teach/Share Your Knowledge. While trying to explain concepts and how things work, you’ll gain much deeper understanding of a topic than you had previously. That can be done in many different ways. Just find one that best suits your personality and style: Explain your work processes and tips to friends and colleges, speak on meetups and conferences, write blog posts, lead workshops to different audiences, etc."
"Take the time to prototype your designs. Having your design and/or micro interaction prototyped helps you, the client, and the developers better understand your thinking."
"Understand the business of your client and their competition. While user testing gets a lot of spotlight, competitor and industry analysis is equally important. You can have the most delightful interface in the world but won’t have many users if you are not solving the right problems."
"Tip: When designing a product, always think about the user needs, but don't forget about the business side as well. A good product needs to work for both client and company, otherwise the balance won't work."
"If during product design you have to decide between cooler look and better functionality, always choose the second one. Even the prettiest products with poor functionality are useless."
"If you travel or change locations often, you should definitely get as much of your practice on the cloud as possible. Back up all of your files to a cloud-based service—you never know when you might misplace a laptop or have it damaged in flight. Cloud-based note-taking is a life-saver (I use Evernote) for documenting ideas and feedback from clients. Sign up for something you can access them from any device, so if you get an idea when you’re away from your machine, you can jot it down on your mobile and sync it."
"Remember you’re providing a service, so customer service is very important for clients. Try to anticipate client needs and suggest solutions that could save them time and money. Also follow up with clients after project completion, to ensure project satisfaction."