Dealing with Cultural Barriers as a Freelance Designer

International Design Awards


Explore tips and advice for overcoming cultural barriers when working with international design clients.

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by Fabio Muniz

Before working as a product designer, I worked as a freelance tech journalist. At the time I was living in a city about an hour away from São Paulo (Brazil), where there were literally no major publications—only a few regional newspapers, and they didn’t have anything like a tech column. As a result, I was working mostly for agencies in São Paulo.

Commuting was a problem: An hour could easily become two thanks to traffic—so I slowly started to do more and more remote work.

I would be remotely pitching, discussing ideas and iterating on articles. I didn’t know back then, but I was developing an immensely valuable skillset: Remote collaboration.

When I made the leap from journalist to product designer, I was still living in that same city. If working there as a tech journalist was a problem, working as a digital designer instead of doing print work was even harder, but now there was an additional problem: São Paulo’s tech scene still had to catch up with prevalent UX and product design principles.

Now, I had to think internationally, not just nationally. Since I was already used to remote pitching, networking and collaboration, it was the natural next move to go after international clients to work with. There were new challenges of course—especially the language factor—but the process was definitely worth it.

Having now worked internationally for years, I’ve gathered several unique insights on the challenges of dealing with international cultural barriers as a freelancer. I’ve done design work for organizations in multiple industries of all sizes and even though I’ve stopped being a journalist, I have never stopped writing as a freelancer.

Last year I helped a Kuwaiti startup build food delivery apps, and right now I’m working on a project for NBCU (US/LA). There is also Testlodge—a UK company—who sponsor me to keep writing and producing content.

Creating work across cultural barriers can be a challenge—but it doesn't have to be.

Designing the restaurant-side apps of a food delivery startup in Kuwait

In this post, I want to share some of my insights with you as well as tackle a few subjects that commonly pop up when we are talking about international freelancing.

How to overcome the challenges of reporting to a country that speaks a different language

The first topic I want to dive into is the challenge that come from collaborating with a team from a country that speaks another language.

Unless we are referring to cases where two countries’ official languages are the same, such as with the UK and US or Portugal and Brazil, where each pair speak the same language with relatively minor differences, the common standard is that both parties will conduct their communications in English. The application of this presents two different scenarios that usually serve the majority of relationships:

English (Native) <—> English (Non-Native)

English (Non-Native) <—> English (Non-Native)

The first example is definitely the least complicated because with one of the parties being a native or a bilingual and fluent English speaker, even if the other doesn’t fully dominate the language, it is possible to infer certain meaning and guide the other party.

When both parties are non-native speakers, this usually brings up some issues. Because both are used to languages that have their own specificities, a range of meanings can be lost but there are ways to overcome this. Here are a few tips:

1. Research the client’s linguistic and cultural background.

There can be particular specificities that will affect communication and will most likely affect yours too so research how this might happen. For example, in some cultures, directly contradicting or disagreeing with a statement is considered rude or is simply not practiced, so this can be detrimental to your discussions.

2. Make sure you ask plenty of of questions.

Since there is a language barrier and a lot of meaning can be lost during conversations, you will need to ask as many questions as possible to try to cover all aspects of the discussion. Motivate the client to ask questions too.

3. Prioritize Email over Voice or Video communication.

This is not just because people who are non-native speakers are usually more comfortable taking their own time to write and express what they want to express, but also because it allows you to go back to specific parts of the discussion for future referencing.

4. As usual, pay attention to defining and aligning expectations and make sure your work agreement is properly written, stating clearly what both parties have agreed.

There are also challenges when you work in different legal jurisdictions. Because you’ll both be located in different countries, make sure to have a lawyer go through your agreement and inform you about best practices.

Further reading: Learn how to keep a design contract simple with these key clauses and tips.

Although the following goes a little beyond the basics of how to communicate better, these extra tips are really important when working with clients from different countries:

5. Pay attention to payments.

If you are receiving money from an international source, you might have to re-think how you usually do your taxes. In most cases, it isn’t too much of an extra headache, but you’ll have to make sure to properly save and keep track of all the documents and contracts involved. As usual, have your accountant and tax lawyer with you to clarify how you should proceed.

International wire transfers require banks to deal with currency exchange, and some banks will require that you go through a bureaucratic process before allowing you to receive capital from international sources. However, there are tools such as Transferwise and Payoneer that make it easier to receive payment from foreign countries, so do your research there too. Also, make sure to reach out to your bank and learn more about what they’ll require.

Finding corporate clients in a different country: Is it possible and is it worth your time?

Let’s talk now about finding clients—corporate ones, to be more specific—in other countries. Is it possible, and more importantly, is it worth your time?

Addressing the first question, absolutely yes. Depending on the context and the organization’s needs, it can be extremely hard to find local talent so searching beyond cultural barriers makes perfect sense. And when those organizations are looking for international help, one thing matters a lot: How your online presence looks.

  • Are you a reference in your own field? You most likely write a lot—but are you writing for the top publications in your industry?
  • Are you speaking about subjects you really understand, and are people talking about those subjects?
  • Do people reach you out for interviews?
  • When you Google your own name (or even, “experts in X”) in anonymous mode, what do you see?

You must be an expert in your field, and a quick Google search should support that. A medium-ish presence, weak social profiles and lack of references will bring up questions and as a result, you probably won’t be a potential client’s first choice.

Being an expert is probably already bringing a lot of leads your way, but if you want to actively go out there and pitch corporate clients in different countries, you need to pay attention to a few key things.


Looking to boost revenue from your solopreneur or small business venture? David Sherwin shares 9 Ways to Increase Profits for Your Creative Business.


For starters, focus on companies that have an international background. If you know they have worked with international freelancers before, that’s a plus. If they have an English website and publish English content, that’s another plus. How comfortable are their team members with using English in their own social profiles? Do a complete search and target the right ones—otherwise you’ll mostly be wasting your time.

And talking about wasting your time, is it even worth going after those clients in the first place?

Once again, absolutely yes. Having international clients not only diversifies your portfolio but can broaden your network in unique ways. It adds credibility to your expertise and allows you to speak to a different audience.

And, in most cases, it makes a lot of financial sense to take offers from international corporate clients.

Which cities are exploding with new opportunities for writers?

One of the best parts of being an international freelancer working remotely is that you are open to opportunities independent of their locations. If you are specialized in a particular type of writing—which you probably are—you can help organizations that need your talent, wherever they might be.

Let’s assume, for example, you focus on copywriting. Thanks mostly to tech and a greater shift towards content marketing and inbound marketing, many U.S companies have started investing aggressively in hiring talent. Here’s a list of the Top 8 cities in the U.S for Copywriters.

If you have a different specialism, just do a quick search and you’ll find something similar or perhaps tailor your search to whatever country you are interested in.

Outro

Working with international clients was life-changing for me. It allowed me to work with different cultures and strengthen my skills as a result. It helped me build a stronger portfolio.

Also, because most of my collaborations have been done remotely, it has allowed me to have a nomadic lifestyle, traveling most of my time and getting work done from wherever I want—a coffee shop in New York or a beach in Rio.

There are challenges as you would expect, especially in terms of communication, taxes and getting paid, but it’s definitely worth it. If you are still not working as a freelancer for international clients, you should at least give it a try.

Fabio Muniz is a Product Designer who contracts for TestLodge, an online test case management tool that allows QA teams to manage their software testing efforts with ease. You can contact Fabio and learn more about his work at fabio.design.


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2 thoughts on “Dealing with Cultural Barriers as a Freelance Designer

  1. Allie Mesh

    This article was really helpful for me. I have had many struggles with language (I am a Native English speaker), and this gave me some helpful insights to consider next time I am in this situation. Thank you for posting!

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