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Creative & Design

How to work with a remote designer

How to work with a remote designer

Kenny Doss

Art Director

September 29, 2020

For much of my professional career (10+ years), I was an in-house designer. I headed to the office Monday through Friday, working hand-in-hand with fellow creatives and other teammates from various departments. In the summer of 2017, I started freelancing full time, working from home. A year-and-a-half later in January 2019, I landed here at Manual Labor as Art Director but continued working remotely as I live in Baltimore, Maryland while Manual Labor is based in Brooklyn, New York. 

What all that means is: with years of experience with working from home, the mark of COVID-19—and the implications to work from home—wasn’t a massive shift. Dedicated work area: check. Time-blocking my day to take care of priority projects: check. (If anything changed for me, my days got a little brighter as my fiancé started working from home. I now had someone to chit chat with in the morning, someone to share lunch with, and someone to grab an afternoon coffee with!)

I did, however, see and hear the challenges from colleagues and friends who were now working from home. And while September means we’re fairly acclimated with the work from home situation, (what day is it?!) working from home can still be a challenge.

Working with someone who is remote is tough. Working with a designer who is on the other side of a screen and trying to make creative magic together is tougher. So, as a remote designer, and thinking about non-design colleagues who are now working with remote designers, I believe there are three key areas vital to the success of any project designers and marketers are working on together:

  1. Kick-off: How to be prepared and organized for a project
  2. In the thick of it: Giving constructive feedback
  3. Wrapping up: Retrospective on what worked and what could be improved

Whether your in-house designer is now literally at their house, or you’re working with a freelancer or an agency, below are best practices for how marketers can work better with designers.

Phase One: Kick-off

Can you hear me?! Can you see my screen? You're on mute!

It’s time to get to work! Before we would have likely met in a conference room or over coffee at Starbucks. Now that we’re all remote, set-up a video call to kick things off.

Pro Tip: I prefer video as it allows both client and designer to share their screen, and it's helpful to review any pertinent materials. I touched on the benefits of video conferencing in 5 essential steps to creating a logo, but a video call or phone call will allow you to hash out questions and brainstorm quicker than the back-and-forth of an email. Plus, it’s more personal, and allows you to connect.

If video isn’t an option, a phone call will do (just be sure to share any materials ahead of the call - check the list below for ideas).

For the kick-off meeting, it’s vital to come prepared and organized. Whether it’s a small project or a large project with a lot of pieces, having reference materials in front of you is only going to make both yours and the designer’s jobs easier.

More often than not the designer/agency will have you complete a design brief prior to this meeting.

More from Shopify on the benefits of a thorough brief:

"While every designer and agency tackles creative briefs in their own way, you’ll get the most out of it by collaborating with your client at the onset of a project. This way, your design brief allows you to clarify goals and objectives, get input from important stakeholders, and, ultimately, hold both parties accountable for the final product."

The kick-off meeting and brief should include essential elements of the project, from brand guidelines to target audience details. Essential areas I like to cover:

Project background:
  • What’s the project? In one or two sentences, describe the project and purpose. 
  • What is the goal? Building off the project definition, include your project goals. For example, is this asset helping customer acquisition for a demand generation campaign? Is it supporting a product marketing launch? Will it be used as a follow-up from a trade show? 
  • Who’s the target audience? Who is the intended audience? What are they going to care about? 
  • Check-In Dates? Including check-in dates can’t be understated: this is to help ensure you’re getting steady feedback ahead of the final due date. (Details on what to cover during check-in dates in setting a roadmap section below.)
  • When is it due? As an added incentive: setting check-in dates and due dates in advance will help the I-have-one-last-edit-sorry-it’s-6pm-on-Friday issues. :)

Design build materials: 
  • Inspiration

  • Brand guidelines (if your designer is your in-house designer they likely have the guidelines and assets)

  • Brand assets

    ◦ Logo

    ◦ Fonts

    ◦ Icons

  • Content docs

  • Specs

Together, set a roadmap for moving forward: 
  • Are there milestones that need to be hit before the due date?
  • Are we going to have a cadence of check-ins between now and the due date?
  • Are there any other stakeholders that need to be included for review?
  • How many rounds of revisions?
    First round: time to provide feedback on the biggest parts of the project: if there are concerns with the design, layout, or imagery, now is the time to share.
    Second round: refinement after the first round of feedback.
    Third round: minor edits, including grammar and copy changes. There shouldn’t be any huge design edits at this point.
Establish lines of communication: 
  • Quick questions: Slack, text message
  • Check-ins: Google Meet, Zoom
  • Reviews: Email, Asana, Trello

Lastly, the designer should ask you a lot of questions in this kick-off! They should be a partner and really understand the project, the product and the company.

Phase Two: In the thick of it

This is an exciting time! The designer has been designing away and doing what they love. This is their time to shine and soon you’ll soon be receiving the masterpiece for review.

Whether this is the first or the third review, there are some important things to keep in mind during this phase.

First, always offer constructive criticism with context and specifics. Offering feedback without much reasoning isn’t helpful to the designer and it can really slow a project down.

Here are some examples of how feedback can work better using context:

Second, be sure to consolidate feedback and edits. Whether you’re reviewing alone or there are multiple stakeholders on a project, it’s best to get everything together and in one place for the designer. 

Having to sift through multiple emails or across different channels for the feedback and edits can be confusing, frustrating and bring the momentum of a project to a halt. Also, make sure feedback and edits are clear and concise. At Manual Labor we find putting all edits into the design PDF is an easy way to consolidate feedback.

Putting all edits into the design PDF is an easy way to consolidate feedback.

Third, be mindful of the timeline that you and the designer established in the kick-off. Be sure to get the feedback and edits to the designer in a timely fashion so they have ample time to turn it around before the next deadline. 

Lastly, don’t micromanage the designer. It can really stifle their creativity and if you meddle too much you could ruin the integrity of a design. Letting the designer lead on the design side of things will set the project up for success.

Phase Three: Wrapping up

As the project concludes, it’s a great idea to have a final check-in to reflect on what worked and what could be improved moving forward (also known as a project retrospective).

In office settings, this would include project stakeholders in a conference room, driving questions, Post-it notes and a whiteboard. Retrospectives can work as effectively remotely. At Manual Labor, we like to use Miro to complete these retrospectives: a tool that helps you collaborate and visualize ideas in real-time.

Miro fosters collaboration with the help of digital stickies.

To begin the retrospective, give everyone stakeholder five minutes to to collect their thoughts in response to the following questions:

  • What went well?
  • What did you like?
  • What did you learn?
  • What tools or techniques were useful?
  • What was lacking?
  • What do you want less of?
  • What should we do differently?
  • What isn’t clear?
  • Where did things go wrong?
  • What is stopping us from moving forward?

For whoever is leading the session, it’s important to start on a positive note when discussing feedback. Then move to what could be improved - not discussing people, but instead specific areas where the design outcome could be improved. Finally, close the session by writing concrete next steps on what can be changed moving forward.

Key Takeaways

  1. Arriving prepared and organized for the kick-off will set-up a solid foundation for the marketer, designer, and the project itself.
  2. Consolidate feedback for the designer, and always offer constructive criticism with context and specifics. Offering feedback without much reasoning isn’t helpful to the designer and it can slow a project down.
  3. As the project concludes, have a final check-in to reflect on what worked and what could be improved moving forward.


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