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Design Process
9 minute read

30 Toptal Designer Tips on Working Remotely and Design

While presenting unique opportunities, working as a remote freelance designer also poses special challenges. Some of Toptal’s top designers share their expertise on the remote working designer lifestyle and managing the design process.

Read the Spanishes version of this article translated by Yesica Danderfer

Remote work has been gaining momentum in the US, and according to the Federal Reserve, the number of people working from home has tripled over the last 15 years. Stephen Shih, a partner at Bain & Company, a global management consulting firm, has suggested that the outbreak of COVID-19 is accelerating this trend, and Joe Hirsch, a leadership and communication expert, argues that there could be a shift in workplace dynamics as more companies move in this direction.

In an effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), some blue-chip companies like JPMorgan are exploring the possibilities of remote working policies, and tech giants including Apple, Google, and Twitter are urging those employees in a position to do so to work from home.

Despite occasional difficulties working remotely, according to the “State of Remote Work” study conducted by Buffer and AngelList with the participation of 3,500 remote working professionals, 97% would recommend remote work to others. As well as having a positive impact on the environment, remote work offers many other potentially beneficial options for those of us who are in a position to take advantage of them.

From participating in late-night conference calls to delivering client presentations from remote locations with less than optimal wifi, working remotely presents a number of great opportunities but also poses some unique challenges. Over the past three years, researchers working on the “State of Remote Work” study report that collaboration/communication and loneliness are two that consistently remain at the top of the list.

Some of Toptal’s top freelance designers share tips and insights on everything from remote work lifestyles and working with clients to managing the design process.

Toptal Freelance Designer Andrew Graunke working from home tips

Andrew Graunke

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Jake Frey how to work remotely from home

Jake Frey

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Arun Kumar Dadhwal remote working tips

Arun Kumar Dadhwal

"Reverse Brief: When you are finished receiving a brief from a stakeholder, repeat to them—in your own words—what you’ve understood, either immediately or after you are done visualizing the feature in your own mind (and have written some notes). 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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Bree Chapin working from home tips

Bree Chapin

"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 another 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."

Remote working designer

Toptal Freelance Designer Tyberiusz Piankowski how to work remotely

Tyberiusz Piankowski

"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 balance—and experience professional burnout as a result."

Toptal Freelance Designer Michael Abehsera working from home tips

Michael Abehsera

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Alex Gurevich how to work remotely

Alex Gurevich

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Mario Rocchi tips for working remotely

Mario Rocchi

"When designing, think about solving the problems that people have, not the problems that the product has."

Freelance design tips

Toptal Freelance Designer Jenny Shen how to work remotely from home

Jenny Shen

"Collaboration is key when working remotely. These days, there are many online tools out there that allow you to collect ideas, feedback, and drawings from stakeholders, colleagues, and clients in real time. There’s a great benefit to involving your client in the design process. When they’ve had some input in the design, they’re more likely to be happy with the outcome than when they were not involved."

Toptal Freelance Designer Michael Dedrick working remotely tips and tools

Michael Dedrick

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Bree Chapin working from home tips

Bree Chapin

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Tejas Bhatt tips for working remotely

Tejas Bhatt

"Be good at at least two skills. The first one, you have to master and be an expert at. The second skill should get you by in supporting the first one. It could be any skill - marketing/selling, teaching, writing, mentoring, giving talks, personal branding, volunteering, or accounting and tax preparation."

Designer working remotely

Toptal Freelance Designer Jake Frey working remotely tips and tools

Jake Frey

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Yesica Danderfer

Yesica Danderfer

"Go back to basics whenever you find yourself in a tough spot or if you have a 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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Michael Abehsera working from home tips

Michael Abehsera

"Don’t work in your pajamas, even if you’re working from home. Dressing up for work puts you in the right mindset to be productive and interact with clients."

Toptal Freelance Designer Alejandro Velasco tips for working remotelyAlejandro Velasco

"Don't fear asking questions—fear having nothing to ask, especially in new projects when your questions help a client understand your mindset."

Designer tips for working remotely

Toptal Freelance Designer Alex Gurevich working from home tipsAlex Gurevich

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Sérgio Estrella how to work remotely from home

Sérgio Estrella

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Muhammad Uzair working remotely tips and tools

Muhammad Uzair

"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 a depth of experience and knowledge to your clients. Sometimes, it is better to be a big fish in a small pond."

Toptal Freelance Designer Colin Allen tips for working remotely

Colin Allen

"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 toward ensuring the success of a design and a product. It's never too early to get feedback from real users."

Toptal Freelance Designer Tyberiusz Piankowski how to work remotely from home

Tyberiusz Piankowski

"If you think the final shape of the product you’ve designed could be better, never blame your client. Usually, the client knows what he wants to achieve but could have the wrong idea of 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."

Remote working freelance design

Toptal Freelance Designer Jenny Shen how to work remotely from home

Jenny Shen

"Overcommunicate. When working remotely, you’re not sitting side by side with the people you work with, and it’s common for teammates or clients to take their time to reply. When that happens, make sure to follow up and ask again. Unless you are sending them a lot of emails while they‘re on vacation or when you know they are in an important meeting, it’s not considered 'pushing too hard,' especially if their lack of response is blocking your work. Communication is key in a remote engagement."

Toptal Freelance Designer Michael Abehsera working remotely tips and tools

Michael Abehsera

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Arun Kumar Dadhwaltips for working remotely

Arun Kumar Dadhwal

"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 really useful feedback; 3) You did not get emotionally attached to any ideas (since they were just a few minutes of effort). Productivity all the way!"

Toptal Freelance Designer Ivana Miličić how to work remotely

Ivana Miličić

"Teach/Share Your Knowledge. While trying to explain concepts and how things work, you’ll gain a 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 at meetups and conferences, write blog posts, lead workshops to different audiences, etc."

Toptal Freelance Designer Karim Balaa how to work remotely from home

Karim Balaa

"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."

Freelance design tips

Toptal Freelance Designer Muhammad Uzair how to work remotely from home

Muhammad Uzair

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Carolina Poll how to work remotely

Carolina Poll

"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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Tyberiusz Piankowski

Tyberiusz Piankowski

"If during product design you have to decide between cooler look and better functionality, always choose the latter. Even the prettiest products with poor functionality are useless."

Toptal Freelance Designer Bree Chapin working from home tips

Bree Chapin

"If you travel or change locations often, you should 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 for documenting ideas and feedback from clients (I use Evernote). Sign up for something you can access 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."

Toptal Freelance Designer Marcus Knight how to work remotely

Marcus Knight

"Remember, as a designer, 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."

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog: