The Remote Designer: How to Work While on the Road

Jan 14 2010 by Mathew Carpenter | 28 Comments

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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About the Author

Mathew Carpenter is an 18-year-old-business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @SofaMoolah.

28 Comments

Brankic1979

January 14th, 2010

I’m always on the read and have to manage my clients remotely. Thanks.

Rochelle Dancel

January 14th, 2010

I think one of the challenges in mobile working is to get into the *mindset* of mobile working. When I first started, I would spend the whole day thinking of where to find an internet connection, or some other more complex work-related requirement, for when I would spend the actual two hours working. It takes a while to mentally switch off, adjust, and ultimately enjoy the Tim Ferriss’ utopia.

Dan

January 14th, 2010

Great article Mat, I’m slowly becoming more and more mobile in my work, I actually finished fine tuning my last website on the train back to Newcastle :) My only problem is I tend to get distracted in environments like café’s and such – but that’s personal habit :P

Great post, would love to see some more similar to this!

ArtZo

January 14th, 2010

Seriously, do you at the Six Revisions have a review process at all or you just let any piece of crap to show up on your site as an article?

I don’t see the point of that Mathew guy, he has a website that’s just as badass as a drawing of a 7 year old child suffering from down syndrome, and the typo is crappy as well.

Do you really need that kind of hypocrite articles at your site?

Callum Chapman

January 14th, 2010

Great article Mat! One day I’ll be switching my iMac for a Macbook Pro and 24″ display ;)

Josh

January 14th, 2010

One of the best articles I have read. Well written as well, it’s amazing how people have the smallest but nicest office/workspace at the same time. Very interesting article.

James

January 14th, 2010

Often, less really is more, hey? Good article and some great ideas to play with there. Cheers.

A question, if I may. Things like invoicing, and other admin tasks; for a small business without staff, would you usually suggest looking at options to outsource these as well? Or would most designers be perhaps better off to make time to do those things themselves, instead?

Murlu

January 14th, 2010

Great read to start the work day.

I think the key, as you said, is simplicity and knowing which clients are worthwhile and which will be headaches.

You don’t want to spend the entire afternoon doing countless redesign for clients when you could be moving on with other, more profitable projects.

I think it’s important that every developer has their own projects or blog for the downtime between clients. Sure you could quickly grab a small job but if it costs you endless hours of pixel pushing, you might as well just work on your own things and skip it.

I love my little netbook for quick updates but something that is more flexible in size is worth the added weight and price.

Farhan

January 14th, 2010

Great Article, I’ve been working remotely for a year now. Have lots of connectivity problems in my country but with multiple backups to that everything is working nicely except my sleep!

Thomas

January 14th, 2010

Great article! A tip that I use is while on the road, I use remote desktop to connect to my home PC so I can still access all documents and files, access backup-drives, render stuff etc — a really practical way to be out of the house and not have to be afraid you’ve forgotten something.

Jordan Walker

January 14th, 2010

I was able to work remotely while in Natal, Brazil. I must admit that it is difficult to get wireless access on the beach.

David

January 14th, 2010

Pretty good article…for freelancers. Would love to see this idea flushed out for ‘in-house’ designers as they are also away from the office for large portions of time.

Destiny Islands

January 14th, 2010

Nice article man, as always! I frequently find myself needing to work on the road, not sure where I’d be without my laptop

ThisIsInspired

January 14th, 2010

Very good read. As a remote freelancer for much of my design career I can say you’ve covered several important topics very nicely.

Well done. Thx!

Black Sand

January 14th, 2010

I also work when I am not at home

Jane...

January 14th, 2010

“The Remote Designer: How to Work While on the Road ”

Great concept. Got it right away! Beautifully executed.
The problem is every designers Nightmare.

Thanks for sharing.

gweb

January 14th, 2010

easy to saw but hard to work thank’s for the advices man I hope I can do the helf of them

Arnel Siazon

January 14th, 2010

Awesome article! Working remotely gives me time to be with my family and friends more often to enjoy, which fuels my creativity.

melzor

January 14th, 2010

I was worried about getting my nice new MacBook Pro stolen from my room while surfing, trekking, etc. until I found this:

http://www.pacsafe.com/www/index.php?_room=3&_action=detail&id=119
or
http://www.pacsafe.com/www/index.php?_room=3&_action=detail&id=117

melzor

January 14th, 2010

My biggest concern when traveling is finding a place with WI-FI since I like to get off the mainstream beaten path. I like surf chill surf towns in Central America, but staying in budget places, they often don’t offer wireless.

This brought me to think about alternatives to access the internet: a 3G USB stick (with unlocked SIM card) like the Option Icon USB Modem or using an iPhone (but seems the latter can’t really be unlocked, therefore you end-up with a huge bill).

Anyone have neat solutions regarding this? or could suggest good products?

Omar Abid

January 15th, 2010

Great article.

Back to 2007, I setup a Terminal Server Network for a company. The reason is that they want to work remotely. All data where in the company servers located in their headquarters and using Windows Server 2003, I made it possible using any internet connection to point to the main server. Each user logins using his credentials and then see his desktop; it can be slow if your internet connection is low, nevertheless it still productive (especially if you set 256 colors).
Remote Desktop for windows has a similar functionality, though it can’t run more than one instance.

calgary

January 15th, 2010

One of the hardest things I do is leave my client 2 times a year once for 10 days in europe ( where i can not afford the cell phone bill) And once in mexico where i just do swallow the bill. Both time cause me much panic and worry, but such is the deal of owning your own business.

dannyd

January 15th, 2010

It’s like saying obvious things…

sidharth

January 18th, 2010

this is quite good…………

CWD

September 5th, 2010

I’ve always found being mobile is the best way of changing your scenery. (no sense feeling trapped in an office)

Been finding Jing to be a great program to keep customers informed and keeping employees on task when delegating from the road. (so long as you’re not overseas using bandwidth of course~!)

Yancikdev

November 21st, 2010

I’m always on the go. When I can’t find wireless anywhere, I use my BB as a modem. It works fine for me.

Claudio Merino

February 3rd, 2011

great advices!
I’m starting my “on the road” face in tree weeks and these tips will become very handly.

Muchas gracias!

Andreas

October 28th, 2011

This would only really work in extreme niches. Most businesses want to deal with their design / developer in person. By not being physically available you are pretty in the same playing field as a $10/hr guy in India. That’s heavy competition.

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