While the demand for remote work is constantly growing, the tradeoff for the freedom and independence it offers is less in-person interaction. What many call “the future of work” brings a new set of challenges to collaborating effectively with remote clients and teammates. Nevertheless, careful planning and management can help remote designers overcome many of these difficulties and deliver great work for their clients.
Managing expectations is extremely important, particularly when working remotely. Asking clients the right questions in the beginning will give you insight into the way they think and what is most important to them.
Whether it’s a new client or one you’ve worked with for years, it’s a good idea to always be on the lookout for ways to improve collaboration and your relationships, build on successful interactions, and identify and fix problems quickly. Developing great client management skills can make all the difference to a freelance designer’s career and reputation.
Common Problems of Freelance Collaboration
It takes a few years of experience and multiple projects under a designer’s belt to understand what builds winning relationships with clients. Here are some common collaboration issues and freelance designer tips for working remotely:
- Starting a new project is exciting, but that enthusiasm can cloud everyone’s judgment. Too much excitement for a project may prevent the right questions being asked early in the process, or from a clear alignment on workflow and deliverables. Resist the urge to “get started” before the project framework is agreed upon and documented in writing.
- Deliverables that do not meet the client’s expectations typically require additional hours of work, causing loss of time, money, and trust. This creates frustration for both remote designer and client, damaging the professional relationship in the process. Define levels of fidelity for deliverables up front. Schedule frequent, regular check-ins to track progress, get feedback, and share ideas.
- Ill-defined workflows can create confusion on how much “managing” of the design is expected (or discouraged) on the part of the client. Whether from enthusiasm or a lack of trust, some clients can get into the habit of micromanaging designers, especially when they can’t see what the designers are doing in real time. It is essential to establish a sense of trust in the designer’s professional expertise and ability to manage their own time. Reinforce this trust by keeping the client “in on” the process by sharing progress frequently.
The Most Important Steps to Managing Expectations Before You Start a Project
Starting a new project is a great opportunity for a designer to learn, create, and lead, but it is a serious business and must be treated as such. A poor start can generate a lot of friction that may continue throughout the process.
Being proactive is one of the most essential client management skills. It’s always a good idea to be ahead of your client—to lead the project, anticipate their needs, and build reasonable expectations. The more focus you put on a good start, the more smoothly the rest of the collaboration is likely to go.
After being given a green light to start working on the project, follow these steps to establish and build expectations:
Establish a Shared Vision
At the beginning of the project, you should learn about your client’s personal style, their thoughts and feelings regarding the products they use, and also about their management and preferred communication style.
Find out what frustrates your client with other products, and what inspired them to find a better solution. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll discover and the amount of value it brings to your collaboration by simply asking questions and learning about the client’s vision for the project—use this information to plan and frame your design decisions.
Create a couple of slides showing different examples from the web for what, as a web designer, you consider to be good/bad references in the context of the project, and explain why. If you’re a product designer working on a new app or tool, get your client to open up about what products they like and use, as well as those they don’t—be sure to ask for their reasons why.
Explain to your client the motivation behind the exercise; make sure to discuss the slides and take notes during the meeting. Be sure to capture strong statements where you both agree/disagree.
You may be surprised how different your perception as a designer is to those of your collaborators and clients. The goal of this exercise is to allow you to get to know each other better and understand the differences in each other’s mental models.
Be a Design Educator
One important role for a designer in any project is to educate and advocate for design’s importance in creating a successful product, be it an app, website, or identity design. Sometimes, this means making sure the team understands the different phases in the iterative design process. For instance, a client may not be sure of the difference between user experience design, visual design, and branding.
Understand that your client almost certainly doesn’t have the same work experience and knowledge of the process as a seasoned designer does. To avoid a client being disappointed that a simple wireframe shared with them “doesn’t look designed,” walk them through examples of the different phases of the deliverables and explain their fidelity and purpose.
A great way to ensure a frictionless experience with your client is to ask them about their experience working with other freelancers in the past and what they learned from it. Understanding issues that may have come up during previous projects with other designers will help you anticipate them and avoid recreating them.
Establishing a shared understanding of various deliverables and how to refer to them will smooth out friction and improve the quality of feedback. Not only does this help manage the client’s expectations of the workflow, it gives them a peek into how the magic happens.
Define Ownership and Responsibilities
An excellent way to set accurate expectations and build more trust in the relationship between you and the client is to discuss high-level topics early in the project—such as who is responsible for delivering feedback, setting milestones and delivery schedules, and communication methods.
Find out how much involvement the client would like to have during the project. Some clients like to feel they’re on top of things and want to be very hands on. Others may give a 100% free hand and let you make most major decisions. To find the right balance of involvement, discuss with your client when and how much you need them during the design process.
You and your client will also want to have a shared method for tracking the project’s progress. When managing remote teams and collaborators, some designers and developers use project management platforms like Trello, but it’s possible your client may prefer something like Asana or Basecamp.
Setting up regular touchpoints and assigning ownership also goes a long way to set the project up for success. Let your client know that providing prompt, detailed feedback on design work is their responsibility as much as the designing is yours.
Decide together on preferred methods of communication such as email, phone calls, and Slack. Establish which video conferencing platform to use so no one has to spend the beginning of a conference downloading software. Be sure to leave enough time in meetings and check-ins for technical and connectivity issues.
Agree on preferred platforms and formats for deliverables. Design prototype sharing tools like Craft, Figma, and Zeplin are some excellent remote team tools for improving collaboration, sharing designs and prototypes, and getting real-time feedback from clients and teammates.
Create a Project Skeleton
It is essential to put together a complete structure of the project. Think of all the possible phases of the project that require design research and thinking and list them under the relevant domain. Use this structure as the skeleton of the project and iterate on it a few times until you feel it’s solid.
Think of a project skeleton as if it’s a table of contents in a book. However, unlike a book, a project is a living thing with moving parts that often need to change—having a solid project skeleton is one of the strongest tools for efficient collaboration.
In addition to establishing trust with your client, creating a project plan will help facilitate any dialogue you have with them. You can both simultaneously zoom in on different areas of the project and discuss where to focus.
Kick Off Effectively with a Shared Presentation
A great way to get the project off to a good start is to share a presentation of the product vision, project plan, and responsibilities, and other details agreed upon by the client and the team. Google Slides is a great tool to use for this. A powerful kick-off presentation can build the team’s excitement around the project as well as help confirm that everyone is on the same page.
Important concepts to capture in this presentation are:
- Business goals
- Product goals
- Product plan/framework
- Expected deliverables
- Schedules and deadlines
Creating a clear outline will help you and your client collaborate effectively and be more aligned moving forward. Keep it simple, and use storytelling methods to make your presentation easy to follow. The goal is to communicate your presentation effectively so you reach maximum alignment with your client, and are empowered to move on to the next steps in the project.
Using a shared presentation about the project is a simple yet highly effective way to communicate with your client. Make it your primary tool to share your ideas and the project’s progress, and be diligent about treating it as living document that will be edited as the project evolves.
Manage Expectations and Get Off to a Great Start
Every client is different and will have their own set of expectations. Luckily, there are a few tried and true best practices for working remotely. When it comes to managing expectations, be proactive and take the first step to setting the project up for success. Explain to your client the importance of working closely and how it will ultimately save you both a lot of time and energy.
It’s always pleasant to receive kudos from your clients, but while this is affirming, it is very important to also look for constructive feedback. Candid communication is the key to providing clients with better service and for you to grow as a designer.
Ask your clients if they enjoyed their interactions with you. Find out what went particularly well and what did not. If you receive negative feedback, share with them how you intend to remedy that particular issue.
Each experience will improve how you operate and provide you with future tips on how to work well remotely as well as deliver the best for your clients.
Be Honest and Open
Ultimately, we all prefer to embrace honesty and openness. Use your emotional intelligence to identify your feelings, and be aware of their influence on other people’s emotions and behaviors.
The right mindset, a clear plan, good communication, and a shared vision will give you and your client a good chance for an efficient, effective, and exciting creative collaboration.
Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
What does it mean when you work remotely?
Working remotely typically means project collaboration is conducted without relying on face-to-face communication or co-location. While some remote teams meet in person regularly, many remote clients and designers have very little or no in-person interactions.
How does remote working work?
Remote working is usually facilitated through technology. Many remote freelancers use a combination of remote working tools and platforms such as video conferencing, shared project management, and cloud-based file sharing to collaborate.
What is a freelance job?
A freelance job is usually one that is on an as-needed basis, frequently defined in a contract by a specified project or period of time. Freelance jobs are not usually salaried, and typically don't include benefits. Freelancers usually bill hourly or by a flat rate per project.
What does it mean to work smarter?
Working smarter, not harder, means spending less time on avoidable pitfalls by anticipating and planning for them in advance. Through careful planning and management, anyone can work smarter.
What does an in-house designer do?
An in-house designer is someone who works exclusively for a company to create designs that pertain to their main product or service.
Why is graphic design so important?
Graphic design is important because it describes the shared visual language used to communicate ideas, concepts, and values between people. Graphic design covers everything from commercial advertising to persuasive poster designs.
What is a client management system?
A client management system is a system for freelance and contract workers to manage clients and relationships. These tools are useful for freelance workers, especially those working on multiple projects.