Elizabeth Dunne
Graphic Designer and Art Director
July 01, 2019

Interview with Elizabeth, a graphic designer and art director

Elizabeth provides the ultimate list of tips for aspiring freelancers and remote workers. Check out her game-changing tools, and advice for thriving as a freelancer.

How did you get started with remote work?

I started working remotely in 2012 after being made redundant from a very comfortable corporate job in investment banking. I’d moved out of London to escape the city during my time there, but that resulted in a pretty intense daily three-hour commute.

I didn’t love it, but it was what worked for me and my family at the time.

I knew it wasn’t sustainable and it really hit home that something needed to change when I took a sick day and my then seven-year-old daughter asked me why I was there when she woke up that morning.

I didn’t have an exit strategy and was actually relieved when they provided me with one.

I took some time off, did a bit of ad hoc work here and there and was on the verge of “I’ll never get a job again” panic when an entrepreneur I’d worked with before called me, looking for remote help with a start-up he was working on. I thought, “I have a computer and a phone, it might work, so why not?” and we gave it a go.

The start-up didn’t work out BUT we knew we were on to something with the whole remote assistance thing. We quickly brought one of my investment banking colleagues on board, and the business took off and eventually grew to include a handful of dedicated employees who further proved that remote work was not only viable but rather exciting.

We accidentally created one of the first companies in the UK to provide virtual ‘office in a box’ services in the UK by simply filling a need we had ourselves. I’m very proud of that.

I exited that business and have since started another business, this time calling on my creative background and strengths. I now work as a freelance graphic designer and art director with a specialism in cohesive small business branding.

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What are you working on?

At the moment, I’m working on a few really interesting business design projects for clients, including some high-level global decks and whitepapers in the impact investing space.

I also have some screamingly creative pitch books on the go. I have one project in the pipeline for a new brand that’s going to be mind-stretching fun later this year.

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What's your typical work routine?

During the week, I start at 7:45 am to catch the end of the day in Singapore and Hong Kong, where some of my clients are based. I spend the first hour of my day working on written projects—mainly articles and newsletters for clients.

My day starts to get noisy around 9 am, and I spend the rest of my morning either on calls or working through client edits. I try to save the afternoons for deeper, more creative work, so I do most of my pixel-pushing from 4 pm until around 7 pm.

I work long hours as my client base spans from Hong Kong to New York, so time zones are always on my mind!

I have workaholic tendencies that I’m not always proud of, but I usually take Saturdays off and work to some extent on Sundays.

My Sunday ‘surgery’ sessions allow me to course-correct my work delivery schedule and catch up where I need to so that I am well-prepared the start of a new week.

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How has your routine changed over time?

My routine hasn’t really changed but my hours have. As my clients are global, I’ve had to get smarter about how I work and when. I adjust my schedule pretty much daily to allow for meetings and calls in other time zones.

I have to remind myself that every ‘yes’ is a ‘no’ to something else.

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Do you have a dedicated space to work?

This is one area where I’ve gone a bit overboard, I’m afraid. I have an AWESOME dedicated workspace!

Photo of Elizabeth's desk and work area.

Photo of Elizabeth's desk and work area.

My business and life partner and I both work from home and made the decision to dedicate the largest room in the house to the success of our business. We have a large studio space with two workstations that are set up for our various needs.

His is based around music production and mine design—there are a lot of screens!

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How do you stay on task?

The last thing I do before I give up for the day is to organise myself for the next day. I think about what projects moved to final during the day, what needs immediate attention and then portion out the rest of the coming day.

Sometimes my next-day list is a bit aspirational, but it’s a good starting point for the next morning. I keep this list in my notebook on my desk and always within my line of sight.

But, that’s where the analogue fun ends. I’ve recently - shall we say - “enhanced” my desk set-up and have cranked the nerd-factor up to 11. My desk features my main computer, and I have two ‘arms’ that bring my laptop and tablet within easy reach independently.

To be honest, it’s not the most social set-up, as there are four screens surrounding my head, so it’s like working in an operating theatre at times!

But, it means I can turn off notifications on my main computer and sidecar those to my tablet to keep my focus where it needs to be. I also keep communication tools on my laptop, so Slack and WhatsApp messages aren’t in my line of sight when I’m brain-deep in a project.

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What do you like about remote work?

If I had to pick one thing - it would be that working remotely allows me to do my best work.

Because I don’t have to endure a commute, I can arrange my day around my needs and the needs of my clients. If I need to join an 8 pm conference call, it’s easy to do that.

My creativity isn’t an ‘always on’ thing - and being able to work when ideas come to me, no matter where I am, is a game-changer.

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What do you not like about remote work?

Remote work can be lonely. Whilst I’m lucky to share an office with another cool human, it’s not a constant party.

It’s easy to put on my headphones and fall down a rabbit hole of a new project or idea without realising the time.

Hours can pass without speaking to another person and man, that is GREAT for productivity and focus, but it can be hard to pull myself out and remember that there are other people in the house who’d probably like to have some of my attention.

You know, my children, our two ridiculous dogs, the Waitrose delivery people…

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What tools do you use to stay productive?

I’m pretty nerdy and never complete anything without thinking through the tools available to me. I am not an analogue person, so when it comes to tools, I definitely have favourites.

The most life-changing tool I’ve discovered in the last year is Superhuman for email. My clients kindly “gift” me email addresses when I work with them, so I have 11 inboxes to monitor.

Superhuman makes handling that insanity almost a pleasure. It’s invite-only at the moment, but if you want a referral, drop me a line!

As I work within various teams, I couldn’t function without Slack, Google Docs and AirTable.

Working remotely means I hold most meetings by video conference. I use Gather for these as it integrates with Slack and takes meeting notes for me that are searchable. I find I focus a lot more on what’s being said on calls when I’m not constantly scribbling notes.

I stay on track overall with Notion, a note-taking and collaboration app that also integrates tasks, wikis, and databases. So much of what I do means keeping an eye and ear on the internet, so I use it to collect links and ideas in addition to tracking client projects and timelines.

Speaking of keeping an ear on the internet, I use Brand24 to do that as it also integrates with Slack and helps me keep my clients top of mind. The number of times I’ve beaten a PR company to a new article or mention alone makes it a very worthy spend.

For design stuff, I love Canva for a quick social tile or a zillion and, of course, couldn’t function in my role without Adobe Creative Cloud, especially Illustrator and XD.

Props to Unsplash for quick image pulls and inspiration.

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Do you have any advice for remote workers?

I truly believe that remote work is the future of work in general. I’ve developed some really bad habits over the last six years - be ye not so stupid.

Take the time to enjoy the benefits of remote work like setting your own office hours, but do remember to set them, and establish a few boundaries for yourself along the way.

I also recommend using tools that make you happy - even if you have to spend a bit of money on them. I walk into the studio every single day and smile at my ultra-nerdy set-up.

I look forward to working from my various computers and devices, using software and tools that are appropriate for the task at hand. Don’t be tempted to try and run a business using free or limited versions of the apps you need to deliver excellent work.

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How do you decide priorities?

Some of my client work is consistent, so I know what to expect there and am able to portion my plate accordingly. I then layer other projects in the gaps, so to speak.

Those always have deadlines, so I work backwards on those to set milestones and deliverables. Almost every conversation I have ends with, “and when do you need this by?”

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How do you know when to push yourself vs rest?

This is something I’m working on - I’m currently stuck in constant push mode. But not because I’m behind or have to push myself to keep up, but because I have so many fascinating conversations where really cool ideas are hatched that I can’t wait to bring to life.

If I see an opportunity to do or make something interesting, I’ll usually jump at the chance.

I’m currently a week away from a two-week digital detox holiday on a remote island and, don’t get me wrong, I’m rather excited but scared at the same time. Two weeks without constant data input is going to be interesting. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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What contributes to being a successful freelancer?

The single thing I see in myself and other freelancers in my tribe is a lack of fear around taking opportunities as they arise, even when outside our comfort zones.

A ‘can-do’ attitude (even if followed by a hasty Google) is an asset.

The ability to take challenges as they come and overcome them logically and without interruption to the client is also a big one.

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How do you decide which clients to take?

Ah - this is a big one for me. I am not a shy and retiring person. I have a vibrant personality that I had to hide a bit when I worked in investment banking.

With our current business, we only work with clients with whom we can be ourselves.

I talk a lot about the power of personality in my freelance work and how I’ve found being myself with clients to be a real asset to productivity and output.

Saying that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, so I take great care to check chemistry before undertaking work with a new client. At the moment, we work by referral when we have availability.

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How does working on your own projects help your freelance work?

Working on my own projects allows me to generate ideas without fear of overstepping a client brief by wanting to create what I want rather than what they need.

It gives me an outlet to try my hand with new trends in design and gives my brain an avenue for fun when I’m working with complex corporate documents where creativity is limited.

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Elizabeth Dunne

Elizabeth Dunne is a freelance Graphic Designer and Art Director living in rural England. Thanks to a strong work ethic, a good sense of humour, an amazing network and incredibly fast broadband, she works with teams and organisations around the world to help them deliver distinctive and actionable brand goals.

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