Stuart Williams | Freelance Senior UI & UX Designer | CRO Consultant

3 years on – What I’ve learnt from being a remote designer

Cover image by Stuart Williams (me)

It’s impossible to believe I’ve been remote working for 3 years, but it really has been that long. The in-house agency life is long behind me, and I’m in a much happier place now both mentally and physically.

Since I started contracting for the remote digital design agency Moken in June 2016, it’s been an incredible ride. Not only have I felt like I’ve improved as a designer, but as a salesperson, spokesman for design and most importantly, as a person. When the offer came onto the table to join this new team, I snapped it up. Remote working allows you to control when and where you work, so I was able to make some important life decisions.

The agency life I was accustomed to for 2/3 years prior had taken its toll on my mental health, slipping in and out of depression, with a lack of support or guidance to seek help. Taking a remote role meant I was able to make time to seek professional help, and overcome my issues. 3 years on I’m now based in Finland and I’m healing.

A new life awaits me with new responsibilities, new people and a new language. They say you never stop learning, and this is ever apparent as I try and learn the Finnish language. It has been a huge cultural shock, but I’ve never been happier.

But what impact has my position as a remote designer meant for me personally? I discuss my learnings below with some real insight into my problem solving approaches, and will hopefully be something to look back on in another 3 years.

1/ Listening

You can’t do a design job without listening. I’m a strong listener, even though I’m a little deaf on one side! But it certainly helps to add distance from an issue or query whilst working remotely. By adding distance, I mean stepping away from a point or a question to help devise a response. This is a type of restraint which prevents any subjectivity forming within my response. This also buys me time to write a reply which represents my thoughts better than at the heat of the moment. 

As the design lead on the team, my job is to listen to other members on my team and from the overall team to ensure communication is kept consistent. I tend to hold an approachable style of listening both during working hours and throughout life; this helps me establish a connection with the speaker, and sustain a strong relationship.

2/ Work and life balance

Maintaining a strong work ethic alongside building a life for yourself isn’t easy. I started off in my cramped bedroom in Hackney, trying to support myself. Every day working away on a table which I found in a skip, and a temporary MacBook-to-Monitor set-up. It felt like a dream; the lack of commute time meant I had time to breathe in the mornings, cook a meal every lunchtime, and go to the gym.

I think every designer needs an element of project manager in them, and this is how my role progressed. This added responsibility meant long hours, and lots of them. But as a remote worker, you need to keep a balance and learn when to say “stop”. We all know of burn-out, and I don’t recommend it. The need for rest is real, and it was clear I needed to maintain this throughout my career. 

Who doesn’t love sleep? Sleeping long hours helps reset my brain and makes way for more ideas and a refreshed output each day. Press that “reset” button once in a while, I promise it makes all the difference.

3/ The correct tools for the job

A tradesperson can’t do their job without tools, so why should we as remote designers? There are new tools launched daily for productivity, just check ProductHunt! Slack and Sketch which are an integral part of a remote working designer’s toolkit. With this in mind, I advise to pick the tools you feel most comfortable using. From design software such as Sketch, Figma, Framer and others needed for User Interface design (UI), there are plenty of choices. Communication tool decisions are also crucial to get right, from Slack, Sketch or Google Hangouts, the choices are endless. 

Make sure to manage your subscriptions as a remote worker – especially for tax! I also subscribe to Dropbox to help maintain my personal files across my machines, so nothing gets lost! But we can’t always count on technology, so external hard drives help me back-up my work on a daily basis. Hard drives also allow remote workers to bring their work anywhere, to work anywhere they wish. So as long as you have the right tools for the job, it makes life a lot easier. 

There are always new techniques to learn and new software which becomes an intriguing part of the online design community. It’s hard to keep up! But making time to research into these emerging technologies and beta programs helps me expand my knowledge of the industry tools, and adds a platform for learning.

4/ Make time for development

Like I mentioned in the previous section, learning is an integral part of the remote worker’s ethic. I’ve struggled to make time for this recently but I have a clear amount of set goals which I’d like to hit to help me improve personally and professionally. You can easily forget in the day-to-day that professional development is also as important as quality work. 

Even if it’s a half an hour on a Sunday, making time for your professional development as a remote worker is crucial. Becoming stagnant in a constantly moving design industry can become detrimental to your development. This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting down to read a non-fiction book, or start designing on the next big product, it can also mean reflecting on what your strengths and weaknesses are. Once you’ve identified these, it’s easy to set your goals. Personally I find strengths in user interface design, design thinking and user psychology. 

5/ Meet the team

No physical team next to you, no boardroom meetings, just you and your computer. That’s the remote working life I’ve become accustomed to. It can be lonely, don’t get me wrong, but it also serves its advantages such as being in control of your own thought process, and an environment curated to serve your freelance needs. 

Team meet-ups are rare with remote teams, as someone may be hundreds maybe thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. At every chance however, meeting the team in person is invaluable and can strengthen the bond between team members. 3 members of our team including myself recently met up in Barcelona for the OFFF Festival 2019, and it was super. You gain a whole new perspective on teamwork and what can be achieved through the face-to-face, but also allowing yourself time to get to know the people behind the screen. 

In conclusion

As I work into my fourth year of freelance remote working, I come across a lot of people wanting to make the jump, but can’t bring themselves to do so. My advice is to ask questions, be inquisitive and ask designers who have done the same. My DMs are always open.

With three years behind me, I’m looking to the future; with plenty of ambitional projects in the pipeline, there is lots to do. You forget to make time for yourself amongst the hustle, but having the ability to step back and reflect is just as important as your work.

Keep moving, keep listening. 

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