The Remote Designer: How to Work While on the Road

The last two years have been a rollercoaster ride for digital employees. From massive corporate layoffs to newfound digital freedom – designers, online artists, and developers have had to create new ways to bring in clients, manage their time, and increase their income.

Beach NotebookSource: Giorgio Montersino

However, for some, increasing income isn’t the direct goal. Ever since Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Workweek hit the shelves, more and more digital professionals are giving up the endless quest for wealth and are beginning to embrace new lifestyle ideas. Designers, while occasionally plagued by ultra-complex workspaces, are some of the most non-location dependent digital workers around.

If you want to make long-term trips out of the office less of a novelty and much more of a regular occurrence, these strategies, tips, and methods are sure to help.

Managing clients remotely

What seems to be the hardest step about taking your design business mobile is actually one of the easiest.

Most clients, save for the occasional high-maintenance monster, are easy to keep in touch with, even if you don’t have a direct internet connection. Checking your emails once or twice per day – once at noon and once at night seems to work well – allows you to respond to urgent client enquiries, all the while giving you time to explore.

Managing clients remotelySource: Ben Dodson

Of course, there are going to be times when you need complete connectivity for design work and client management. Instead of fretting and spending all day in an internet cafe, use technology to solve the problem.

In most countries, McDonald’s and Starbucks are a great source of free internet, and in countries with low mobile data costs, remote Edge and 3G access allow you to tether your phone and access the internet wherever there’s a signal.

Managing your work remotely

Mobile design isn’t a process of technology addition, but one of technology elimination. You’re not going to be able to replicate your dual monitor office on the road, but remote designers shouldn’t be aiming for that.

Instead, focus on developing a remote office setup that allows you to perform most design tasks.

What about major tasks that require a full design office? There are several ways to tackle that problem.

Outsource

If you work within a design team or organization, cover tasks that can easily be managed remotely and allow the rest of your team to tackle tasks that are only possible in a physical office.

Split your projects between remote and non-remote

During the week that you’re away from the office, cover tasks that are easily performed from a notebook. Then, work on the more complex tasks once you’re back home.

Design your workload so that non-remote design is minimized

This requires long-term client filtering and strategy, but is one of the best options for long-term remote designers.

Managing your work remotelySource: Alex Steffler

Fine-tuning your remote income streams

There’s an overwhelming focus on now, especially amongst digital workers. Instead of focusing on the long-term potential of our talents, we squander them on short-term incentives and busywork. Freeing yourself up for remote design means fine-tuning your income and possibly even creating long-term passive design income. Here are some tactics that have been effective.

Turn down more clients

Every designer knows that some clients just aren’t worth the headache. From client entitlement complexes to limitless revisions, some design projects end up as complete disasters. Minimize their potential to interfere with remote work by turning them down.

Prioritize long-term projects

It’s much easier to manage one project remotely than it is to manage ten. Remote designers should prioritize single long-term projects before multiple short-term ones.

Focus on the most profitable aspects of your design business

If you work independently, cutting the fat away from your income is a great way to free up time for traveling and exploration. With a couple months of monitoring and analysis, it’s fairly easy to see which clients bring in the highest per-hour or per-day income for you.

Prioritize your clients

Don’t necessarily turn down the others – their business can be valuable – but focus intensely on the most profitable aspects of your design business, and allow them to expand while smaller, less profitable aspects shrink.

Add stock designs, blog themes, and multi-purchase designs to your portfolio

Design doesn’t have to operate on a service model. A lot of businesses require a web presence that’s relatively cookie cutter; a simple five-page template, some great web copy, and a domain name is enough for them.

Cater to markets that require no direct input by creating per-sale products instead of providing a direct design service. What do you think makes more: a home workout DVD series or a weekly class at the local gym? Producing design products requires minimal input, and can generate long-term passive income.

The remote designer’s office

The remote designer's officeSource: Mackenzie Kosut

Simplicity wins. As much as designers have grown accustomed to flexibility and power at home, the priorities change when you’re constantly on the move. A mobile design office should be based on portability – ultra-lightweight equipment, technology, and devices – and simplicity. That means discarding 17 inch design-focused laptops, and instead embracing ultra-portable mini-notebooks.

For Mac designers, it’s best to stick with the Macbook Pro range of notebooks. While the Macbook Air wins in terms of size, the lack of features and processing power make it a pretty poor design rig. The 13 inch Macbook Pro is cheaper, has a wider range of features, and more power for late-night Photoshop sessions.

PC designers have a lot more options to choose from. 12 inch notebooks are great for portability, but they come at a price. Just like that Macbook Air isn’t ideal for long-term remote design, most ultra-portable PC notebooks simply don’t have enough power or screen space for practical design. Aim for 13 inches or more of screen size, along with a decent amount of processing power and memory. Lenovo has some great options for long battery life, and Dell is beginning to offer good laptops for long-term travel.

Making it happen

Most designers can’t just run out their door and expect to work from anywhere straight away. Taking your income mobile requires some planning and changes to the way you handle clients’ business. Take small steps first – three days of work inside the office, and two out – and gradually shift to more remote work as you and your business adjust.

Designers and developers have some truly awesome opportunities to enjoy their lifestyle and earn great money, and there’s nothing worse than squandering that chance through poor planning. Take it slow, plan carefully, and reap the rewards of an online career.

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