Remote Product Development: How Designers Can Foster Creativity at Home

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Jar full of multicolored pencils

This article is part of a multi-part series on remote digital product development. As a fully-distributed organization since 2016, DockYard’s experienced teams of project managers, designers, and engineers have learned a lot about how to seamlessly collaborate across disciplines and time zones.

Over the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to work in product design from the comfort of my own home. I’ve learned a lot from my experience and wanted to offer tips for other designers to help you stay creative, balanced, and effective while working at home.

1. Setup a creative environment

The great thing about working from home is you can live anywhere! Maybe you live in New York and have roommates or maybe you live alone, but your desk only fits in your bedroom. I happen to live in the Midwest which provides me with the luxury of a bit more space to have a dedicated workspace. Whatever your setup may be, make sure your space triggers creativity. For me that looks like this.

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Here are my office specs: 8-foot long, butcher-block desk with two legs on the left, a filing cabinet on the right, and modular shelves above, all complements of IKEA. I cut the legs of the shelving unit to be flush with the top of the desk.

  • The desk is also outfitted with some key gadgets, including a Samsung 27” 4K Display Monitor to ensure I can design more efficiently, Amazon Alexa for music to help get me in the design zone, and a Pixar lamp to keep my workspace bright later in the day (also courtesy of IKEA). Pro tip: When I need/want to stand and work, I carry my laptop stand, mouse, and keyboard downstairs to my island. If you don’t have the perfect height, get creative and stack some books!
  • Never underestimate the importance of a comfy chair when working from home. You’ll be spending up-to 40-hours a week in it, after all! I’m not sure where my exact chair is from, but it is one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received. If you can, invest in a good office chair, ball, or standing desk. You won’t regret it, and neither will your back. Pro tip: I keep a tennis ball under my desk and roll my feet out for some myofascial release throughout the day.
  • My shelves include some creative inspiration, including incredible Pop-Up Books by Robert Sabuda — I encourage you to get one (pictured on the left middle shelf). In addition to my favorite creative books, my shelves also house pencils, micron pens, prismacolors, and notebooks, so I can quickly reach for them and sketch out ideas.
  • And if it serves you, be sure to cut down on the visual clutter. I’m not a huge fan of cords everywhere, so I cut a hole in the back of the desk to run all of my cords through and screwed the power strip to the underside of my desk so it doesn’t lay on the floor. It helps keep things a little cleaner.

The specs of the room you choose to work in are also important. While you can’t see it in the picture, I have tri-ceiling light above me and two canned lights to my left, as well as an entire wall of windows to my right and a small window to my left. I need to work with a lot of natural light, open, and clean space. And, don’t forget to consider what’s behind you. It’s likely that you’ll be on a lot of video calls, so just be mindful of the background ;). Pro tip: backlight is not your friend in this scenario!

An expressive workspace is really important for designers to find inspiration all around them. Here are a few articles with more helpful tips for designing a creative workspace:

An expressive workspace is really important for designers to find inspriation all around them.

2. Create your “quiet time” schedule

As a creative, it’s important to have uninterrupted time to work through problems or to be “in the zone.” In an office you can usually get away with this by putting your headphones in and blocking out distractions, but at home it’s a little different.

Everyday I have a recurring busy block around lunch time. I use this time to actually go out to eat lunch, get headsdown, eat lunch and work, or sometimes — if needed — do a quick workout. I have my Google Calendar integrated with Slack, so it automatically updates my Slack status to “in a meeting.”

I also set my work hours in my Google Calendar and in Slack. This helps me to keep consistency in my routine and be more productive. Some days, the only meeting times that may work for the rest of my team take place during my “quiet time,” which is totally okay. To let my colleagues know, I make my calendar public and include a description for my “quiet time” time blocks — noting it is flexible, but not preferred if other times are available.

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3. Get the right tools

An important part of my process is being able to sketch out ideas and get away from creating with my mouse and keyboard. Nothing compares to the feeling of graphite tracing over a blank sheet in my notebook, but sometimes I need sketches quicker — especially if I’m working on a flow. Here are some approaches to bringing your designs to life:

Paper to Computer: If I have enough time, I like to sketch rough ideas in my notebook, take photos, or scan them and then drop them into InVision Freehand, Figma, or any collaborative design tool.

iPad to Computer: Using an iPad or computer, I can knock out a lot of quick wireframes/sketches with more fidelity like color. It’s especially easy to copy and paste layers to quickly iterate on an original idea. I then Airdrop those designs to my laptop and get them ready for sharing. I use the latest 13” iPad pro with the Apple pencil and Procreate as my app of choice.

ReMarkable to Computer: Have you heard of the ReMarkable? If not, you should check it out. It’s e-ink, large display takes sketching to a whole new level. It’s the closest device to capture the feeling of pencil to paper that I’ve found. It comes with its own app for easy transfers and it’s super lightweight. You can have unlimited sketchbook pages. The downfall? It’s a little pricey. If you’re one to sketch a lot (especially on the go), or take notes, or markup PDFs or eBooks, then it might be a good investment. I currently have the ReMarkable 1.

Pro tip: If you don’t mind buying used, check out the options on eBay to save a little money 😉.

4. Don’t isolate, collaborate

While working from home, it can be easy to spend all day not talking to anyone if you don’t have any (or just a couple) meetings. Sometimes, I forget the power of collaboration — especially during an ideation phase. While you may not be able to meet in-person, you can still jam out together virtually. There are a number of ways to make virtual brainstorms a success, including:

State your idea or the problem you’re trying to solve
Before reaching out to collaborators, challenge yourself to clearly identify the problem before seeking solutions. Then, decide how many people you’d like to collaborate with and from what departments. In product development, you could need input from fellow designers or from engineers to chat through execution of an idea. Once you’ve determined the problem and people, find a time that works for everyone to meet virtually and collaborate.

Collaborate via video
Many of us have different workplace tools that we must work within to collaborate. My tool of choice is Slack’s video-calling feature because it offers “screen drawing” functionality. This can really help everyone to communicate design and visual concepts. Even if I have a Sketch file up, or we’re all on a Figma board while working, others are able to draw, point, and communicate with a pen (of all different colors) as we’re working together.

Overall, don’t be afraid to reach out to your colleagues outside of recurring meeting times. If you worked in an office, you would have the luxury of walking up to a colleague and asking for the same thing. Your colleagues are there to help you, even if they’re not in the same state or country :).

5. Find a task management approach that works for you

Be sure to determine the right task management approach for you. This may seem minor, but for me it took a long time to get right. At DockYard we use many great project/task management collaboration tools like Asana, Fellow, and Clubhouse. While these tools are helpful, it can also feel like a lot to keep track of everything digitally. I found that having a small daily planner and/or a whiteboard helped me feel a lot more productive. For me, there simply aren’t enough animated emojis or exploding fireworks GIFs that can compare to the sensation of crossing off a task with my own hand, pen, and paper.

I have a whiteboard that sits on my desk, to the left of my monitor, that I update with my tasks due for the day. It’s like a real-life “window” that’s constantly open and it feels good to cross them off one by one. This is great for home, but sometimes I like a change of scenery. When I venture outside my home, I use a small planner and leave it open wherever I’m working from that day. I like to use the Moleskine Classic 12 Month planner. It provides the perfect amount of room to write out my tasks due for the day. If I don’t get to one of my tasks, I highlight it and move it to the next day.

For digital task management, I’m currently trying out a product called Shift.io. I absolutely love it. It has all of your apps in a central location — no more flipping through browsers or native desktop apps. I’ve even connected it to my WhatsApp and Spotify accounts!

While designing remotely can feel unusual at first, there are many ways to make your physical workspace a source of inspiration. Wherever you are in your work-from-home journey, try to embrace the opportunity to fully inject your personality into your creative space. And don’t be afraid to try and test both old and new methods of extracting the visuals from your mind, onto the screen.

DockYard is a digital product agency offering custom software, mobile, and web application development consulting. We provide exceptional professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. With a nationwide staff, we’ve got consultants in key markets across the United States, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Austin, New York, and Boston.