We live in an age where everyone seems to be working remotely, kicking back with a coconut cocktail by an infinity pool somewhere, all while making their paycheck from an untethered MacBook.
This is all well and good for the full-stack software engineers, digital customer service reps and Amazon drop-shippers, but what about industrial designers? After all, while it’s easy to send ones and zeros to the other side of the world in an instant, the same can’t be said for physical products, can it?
My opinion? I think it can be done… because I’ve been doing it for a year.
Let me share how.
Here are the three main challenges I’ve come across working remotely as an industrial designer and how I addressed them.
Prototyping is a big part of developing new products as you know. So how do you do this with just a laptop?
I’ll be the first to admit that I missed my Formlabs 3D printer a lot when I first left the UK. After all, having an idea in the evening and being able to physically test it the next day was amazing!
My solution? Using a Chinese prototyping company to cost-effectively produce and ship prototype parts to me internationally. Or using a global 3D printing service like 3D Hubs for quicker, simpler parts.
Yes, yes, I know, this is never going to be as fast as an overnight print, but it can be damn close. With the right supplier prototype parts (depending on size and materials) can be turned around in only a few days… not bad. It doesn’t cost the earth either.
There are upsides and downsides to this:
The downsides — it costs more and it does take a little longer.
The upsides — due to the extra prototyping cost and lead time you’re forced to think through your design more at each stage of development.
When I had my own 3D printer to hand, it was very easy to skip the hand-made prototype stage and just send half-baked ideas straight to print. It was also easy to forget that the resin used on these prints is more expensive per millilitre than a fine whiskey!
However, when you’re forced to further refine your idea before requesting a prototype — knowing that it’ll likely co cost more and take longer to arrive — you tend to iron out more of the issues in your head, on paper and with hand-made prototypes instead. It’s surprising what you can make from $10 of hardware store supplies when push comes to shove.
I think this restriction has arguably led to me adopting a more cost-effective approach to prototyping since I’ve been abroad.
2) Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
Designing, testing and rendering parts in CAD requires a lot of computing power. But you’re not going to be able to drag a desktop computer around with you on your travels. So what do you do?
I use Autodesk’s Fusion 360 CAD software. This cloud-based software allows me to offload processing-intensive requests like computer simulation and hi-resolution rendering to the cloud. This means I can still do fairly involved design work from my laptop.
Affordable, cloud-based sharing of these files also makes international collaboration much easier. Your colleagues back home could be tweaking a file, with changes made whilst you sleep!
As well as using cloud-based CAD software, I also chose to get a laptop with a separate graphics card installed. This makes manipulating and altering designs much faster. I’d highly recommend this for a few hundred bucks extra if you’re looking to do CAD work away from a desktop (you can also get external plug-in graphics cards).
Working remotely can make collaboration tricky, but it doesn’t have to. Being abroad brings two main challenges with collaboration: time difference, and distance. Here’s how I’ve learned to address each.
I shifted my workday by a few hours. For where I’m based right now, this means a longer lie-in in the morning (nice!) and a later finish to the day. I still work similar hours, just shifted slightly.
This new schedule allows for an overlap of 3–4 hours with European colleagues during the evening. Our days only partly overlapping has a hidden benefit too, you can spend the first half of your workday completely focussed, with no meetings or other everyday office interactions to distract you.
This one was admittedly harder to overcome. I don’t think anything truly beats being in the same room as a colleague working through a problem. However, tools such as cloud storage for file sharing, Skype and Slack for discussion and visual sharing, and the aforementioned cloud-based CAD software do make things a damn sight easier!
So there you have it, three challenges of working abroad as an industrial designer and how they can be overcome.
Admittedly, my situation might be a little different from most, as I’m the sole industrial designer in my company, so most collaboration is around marketing, communication and graphic design. If your situation is different I’d welcome your input.
Have you worked remotely as an industrial designer before? Is it something you inspire to do? Whatever your situation I’d love to know, please share your thoughts in the comments below.