Ask DN: What is it like to be a Remote Designer?

over 9 years ago from , Designer/Founder

For designers here in DN who works remotely full-time:

  • How do you feel in general being a remote designer? Good? Bad?
  • How do you handle timezone difference?
  • How do you handle design reviews?
  • How does your team/own workflow fit-in if your engineering team is practicing agile?

Frontend/Devs can chime-in as well :)


  • Toby KellerToby Keller, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I'm the design director at an agency and have been remote for 6 years. There are positives and negatives, but for me the work/life balance it affords is priceless.

    I'm in Thailand while most of my team is on Pacific time. That's a 14–15 hour difference. Sounds terrible, but I actually prefer it to the times I've worked from Europe, which was 9 hours. I get to work pretty early and have an hour or two overlap with the team, who are just finishing up the previous day. After touching base, I have the rest of my day to work uninterrupted.

    Our entire team works asynchronously using various tools. We use Basecamp for client-facing discussions, Campfire as a sort of in-house message–board–slash–chatroom, and Invision for feedback on frames and design comps. Our files live on a company Dropbox account.

    The number one thing that makes this work: we don't do deadlines. Milestones, yes; but no "drop dead" dates. Besides the fact that "crunch mode" is unhealthy and counterproductive (http://chadfowler.com/blog/2014/01/22/the-crunch-mode-antipattern/), it doesn't work well with a distributed team for obvious reasons. But by setting realistic expectations from the start and being choosy about clients, we avoid those scenarios.

    We use a hybrid agile flow for our in-house work and something closer to waterfall for clients, and both work just fine with a distributed team as long as you eschew rigid deadlines.

    This of course requires a team of incredibly self-sufficient and self-motivated people. In my experience it's not terribly hard to find devs with those qualities, but it's insanely difficult to find designers who both produce great work and are reliable in a setting like this.

    3 points
    • Lance Q, over 9 years ago

      You got me on self-sufficiency and self-motivation. I have to admit I suffer sometimes for feeling out of sync with the team and a cold mood doesn't help my output at all. I think I have to communicate harder to overcome this.

      How did you guys arrive with the "no drop dead" deadlines mantra? Was it like that for the past 6 years?

      0 points
      • Toby KellerToby Keller, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

        Feeling out–of–sync is one of the drawbacks I alluded to. It's part of it… we're actually thinking of ponying up to fly the whole team out together every year or so to combat that very thing. But if you're remote, in the end the work itself has to be enough motivation.

        As far as no deadlines: it's a strongly ingrained belief shared by the founding members. Our mantra is more like: never promise a date. But if you promise a date, you must hit it, come hell or high water… so pad the living hell out of it. Like, to the point where there's no way you can miss it.

        If you promise something in two weeks, the client doesn't give a shit if you killed yourself with 20 hour days and just barely made it. But if you promise something in a month and deliver it in two weeks, they'll love you.

        0 points
        • Lance Q, over 9 years ago

          Under promise but over deliver – I almost forgot about that. Thanks Toby! You made me smile :)

          0 points
  • Karolina SzczurKarolina Szczur, over 9 years ago

    I'm working remotely for +5 years now. It's great, of course sometimes you miss the team you're working with (if in-house, not freelance).

    I have -9 hours difference with majority of the team in Richland, WA. Which basically means that my day tends to end when their is just starting. We don't really have any hours set, so people tend to pop up in the evenings too. There's definitely some overlap every day, but I wish the difference was smaller. The only annoyance for me is occassional meetings (or actually just chatting) when it's already evening in my timezone (sometimes I'm in a mood for rest already).

    For design reviewing we use LayerVault, obviously. Sometimes we talk in person or on chat (our own product - And Bang).

    Agile seems to be a fancy, hip word for Rails environments, so I digress. We ship daily and get things done. Don't need agile for that.

    1 point
    • Lance Q, over 9 years ago

      Thanks Karolina, I find your preference on fewer overlap hours interesting but I guess with your long experience you've found that it works for you well. In my case we have a 13 hr difference so I have to stay up late every evening to catch up. The first few months I don't mind but I find it increasingly difficult lately.

      Just curious on agile. How much lead time do you have in the design side of things?

      Again thanks :)

      0 points
      • Karolina SzczurKarolina Szczur, over 9 years ago

        Lance — it's not necessarily a preference to overlap hours. I have a routine. Evenings are usually reserved for reading, watching, playing or hanging out with friends so give away this time very sparingly. I choose to stay with the team because I absolutely love the people who I'm working with. It's fun to catch up and sometimes it's also way more effective to talk face to face/chat than email.

        I terms of how much time I spend designing — it really depends. There are weeks when I won't write a single line of code because I'm 100% design focused, and there are weeks when I never open Sketch. It depends on my involvement in projects, but I'd say that my design/dev time is basically split in half. I'm a hybrid :)

        Hope that helps!

        0 points