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Freelancing abroad as a designer

Posted on Monday March 29, 2010

Dusseldorf International Airport on a cold January morning

Dusseldorf International Airport on a cold and snowy January morning, the day after my flight was grounded. Photo by Albert Lo


I have always flirted with the idea of working abroad, wondering what it would be like as a freelancer. Is it as glamorous as it makes out to be?

When you think about freelancing abroad you’re probably thinking of sitting somewhere that overlooks a beautiful picturesque view, favourite tipple in one hand and a laptop in the other. As freelancers we have the freedom of working anywhere in the world, our office is really just a laptop and Internet connection.

As some of you may know, I was recently given an opportunity to contract abroad, Dusseldorf in Germany to be exact. Granted, not as glamorous location as it could be, nor is it the first place you think for a holiday or city break. I worked for Sapient contracted on-site at Vodafone on the Vodafone 360 project. You may have seen the above-the-line adverts in the UK promoting the Vodafone 360 handsets and services.

What have I learnt from the experience?

Working abroad forces you to evaluate and realise how well you can communicate with others where English is their second language. Design, for most part, is a visual language but you still need to communicate with others in the team about your thoughts and ideas. Just showing colleagues and management a wireframe or mock-up just doesn’t cut it without any explanations. There needs to be clear rationale and thinking behind a design, so communication is definitely the key.

Different countries have different processes, both agency and client side and Germany is no different. Learning about different processes is mind opening. It allows you to experience what feels right and what doesn’t This can then be incorporated into your own processes in your future by taking the best processes you have encountered. It can also just confirm the processes you have in place are best practices for your set up.

A different country, a different culture allows you to explore more about who you are.
You’re stepping into the unknown at every turn. It’s making the right impression and taking a professional approach in a new environment. Do that and I’m sure you will enjoy your time out there. Remember to unwind, make friends and network at every opportunity.

What would I do differently?

The only thing I would do differently is to research where I was staying and the country. My mistake was being naive and only focusing on the job description. To be fair, it did happen so quickly. In the space of 3 or 4 days, from interview to booking tickets, and sorting out paperwork, I was flying out ASAP to start on the project.

Final thoughts

Job opportunities will come and go, and when one arises for a unique opportunity to contract abroad it’s there for you to grab. Don’t dismiss the idea without a thought if a call comes in or you get an email. As freelancers/contractors we enter the unknown and take a challenge each time we take a job, that’s all part of the attraction of contracting. Working abroad opens up your trade to a wider audience and that can only be a good thing. Look past the hassle and “I cant be bothered”, and think of the experience you will gain. As my favorite Zombieland quote Tallahassee said “Time to Nut up or Shut up!”. I agree that everyone’s personal situation is different so I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong for you but do consider it seriously.

The hardest part was signing a contract and then thinking whether it’s worth it, thinking what if… and also considering the emotional upheaval for yourself and for family relationships. This can be the biggest strain. If you have a supportive family then its all good, less worrying.

If you think about it, you already do what you love…I hope!!. You contract for numerous reasons be it for money, freedom, a challenge etc. I think contracting abroad is something you should do at least once, it’s the ultimate complement. That someone is willing to take you on and put all the effort in securing your services abroad.

I think it shows you are good at what you do, how many freelancers and contractors out there? narrow that down, how many freelancers and contractors in the country. Narrow that down further how any freelancers and contractors are there locally. So many!

If anything, contracting abroad will look good on your CV/resume and proves that you can work outside your comfort zone, be able to absorb a new environment, new culture and at the same time hit the ground running with the projects you have been given. Throw all these ingredients together and it’s not an easy task, especially in a totally different country.

If you can negotiate being able to fly home back often, it’s a great option to work abroad. Loyalty to an airline gives you points being a frequent flyer. For longer term contracts abroad I would definitely consider buying a Sling Box as a home comfort, great if you love watching live sport and don’t want to miss that all important program and if you don’t understand the language on TV.

What do you think?

I hope this article has been useful. Have you freelanced abroad? Please share your experiences in the comments below…

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