How to hit the road as a UI/UX digital nomad

Valerie Veteto

Does your soul die a little each time you climb the subway steps of your morning commute? Do you dream of endless beaches, poolside conference calls, and waking up in a new city whenever the mood strikes? Lucky for you, the lifestyle of the digital nomad is on the rise.

Remote work is having its moment thanks to cheap airfare deals, plentiful WiFi and data options, and a grossly overpriced housing market. So, we spoke with three traveling designers to learn how they mastered the globe-trotting hustle. Read on to learn about budgeting for the unpredictable, finding new clients while on the road, and keeping a client’s trust despite major time zone differences.

Step one: Prepare, prepare, prepare

Photo by Javier Cuello

Find clients before fleeing town

Each panelist forged their own nomadic path, but all three agreed it’s best to secure clients or an employer before starting out. Don’t book that one way ticket without at least a smidgen of financial security. Plus, it will be easier convincing people to hire you when you’re still in their time zone, and when you’re not stressed about a dwindling savings. If possible, meet them in person several times so you have a better understanding of their communication styles and business needs. This will lessen the likelihood of future mishaps.

Not sure where to find those clients? Here are a few ways to bulk up your professional network in advance of leaving:

  1. Attend design meetups and tech gatherings. Introduce yourself as a design freelancer and hand out your card with your portfolio link on it.
  2. Post your services on Craigslist. May seem old school, but this is a quick way to rack up new clients.
  3. Avoid immediately telling prospective clients you’re going abroad. Finish a solid project or two for them first to build up trust, before asking if they want to work with you while you travel.
  4. Tap your professional network to let them know you’re taking on new clients. Don’t be afraid to routinely reach out with these reminders as time goes on.

Get the pieces in place to run a business

What do you need to run a freelance business? Miguel Oliva Márquez advises figuring this out before you head out of town. Once you’re on-the-go, it’s extremely difficult to do basic tasks, like registering a business name in your home country. You don’t want to spend your first few days of freedom faxing documents from Thailand to London.

A few things to consider:

  1. Create an LLC so you can take business-related deductions on your tax bill
  2. Set up a separate business checking account to track freelance income
  3. Make a website with your portfolio and contact information
  4. Create promotional items like business cards so you can easily connect with prospective clients you meet abroad
  5. Work with an accountant so you’re prepared to manage your freelance finances (and not get hit with an insane tax bill you weren’t ready for)
  6. Register your business’ name

Make sure there’s solid WiFi wherever you’re headed

Digital nomads need to access the Internet for conference calls, emails, and — if you’re a Figma user — design.

Every nomad we talked to handles this differently. Javier Cuello values good WiFi so much that he avoids traveling the countryside, where connection is spotty. Miguel, on the other hand, keeps a backup sim card so he can hotwire his phone on the go.

Do your research. Check if your Airbnb will have an Internet connection and scour the reviews for complaints. You can even ask the Airbnb host to take a speed connection test and send you a screenshot of the results. If you’re not positive what the WiFi connection will be like, make sure to warn clients you could be out of reach. Setting expectations will go a long way for maintaining your reputation.

Yes, we’re a little biased, but we recommend using Figma if you’re going to work abroad. It will be far easier to share files with clients with our URLs — no need to export and email the latest version. They can check in on your progress without needing to bother you, and leave comments in the design itself.

Pro tip: You can work on a Figma file without WiFi, if you remember to open it (and leave it open) before you lose your Internet connection.

Step two: Hit the road

Now that you’ve spent a few months preparing, it’s time to hit the road. You’ll need to adapt to each place you stay, figuring out creative ways to find new clients or tap into the local design community. Here’s a few things to consider.

Finding your digital tribe

It can get lonely hoofing it around the world, so designer Allison Shiman recommends hitting up Facebook groups for digital nomads as soon as you arrive in a new city. She recommends joining Digital Nomads Around the World and introducing yourself once you reach a new home. She also recommended a few female-specific ones, such as Female Digital Nomads and Digital Nomad Girls.

If you want to stay in a city with a strong traveler community, Allison says to check out Hanoi in Vietnam, Chiang Mai in Thailand, and Ubud in Bali. All three have solid WiFi, a high quality of living, and an abundance of coworking spaces and coffee shops. For a more regimented experience, you could always try out Roam or Remote Year, both similar to studying abroad programs but for professionals.

Handling clients old and new

When you’re halfway across the world from your pre-existing clients, you must work to maintain the trust and transparency between you. Miguel Oliva Márquez sends a daily email updating each client on what he did that day and schedules calls with them every two days. It might seem like overkill, but these updates give the clients an opportunity to get their questions answered and reminds them he’s a valuable member of the team. Despite the regular check-ins, he reminds us that “it’s good to remember why you’re doing this. If you work too much, then you miss out on enjoying living in another country.”

If you’re looking to score new gigs once abroad, get creative. Allison has done everything from cold-emailing companies to scouring local entrepreneurship or tech Facebook groups. At one point she joined the Bitcoin Chiang Mai Facebook group to ask if anyone needed a UI/UX designer for their crypto app.

Budget for the unpredictable

Just because you’re traveling the world doesn’t mean you should chuck your personal finance goals. Keep building your nest egg by putting away savings and contributing to your retirement savings — you never know when you’ll come down with dengue fever and won’t be able to work for awhile.

How to do this?

  1. Bounce between expensive and cheaper countries. Miguel said he’d balance out a month-long stay in Australia with a few weeks in a tiny Japanese village. He’s actually saving more money as a designer abroad and constantly on the move than as a designer paying $1,300 pound per month for a flat in London.
  2. Check out apartments in the less trafficked or touristy neighborhoods of a city. Allison found more culturally vibrant streets — and affordable rooms — on the outskirts of town. It’s OK if Lonely Planet has yet to write about the nearest coffee shop.

Step three: Adapting back to home sweet home

Life on the road for an extended period of time is wearisome even for the most nimble nomad. Eventually, most crave setting down roots again. The wonderful thing about working while traveling is you’ll have a roster of clients to help land you on your feet wherever you drop anchor.

After four years of hopping from city to city, Javier dreams of living in a van retrofitted with a kitchen, bathroom, and personal workspace, while Miguel believes he has about two or so years of nomadism left in him.

Allison, three months in and at the beginning of her journey, says, “It can be challenging and it can be lonely, but I love the freedom of traveling. Don’t lose sight of what you’re passionate about and what drove you to go on this journey in the first place.”

Thanks so much to Javier Cuello, Allison Shiman, and Miguel Oliva Márquez for their time and knowledge.

Photo by Allison Shiman