Role Models: Diana Lopez, Digital Designer at Pixelswithin

Today’s Role Model is Diana Lopez. Diana is a self-taught freelance digital designer and developer. She specializes in web design, including marketing and UI/UX design, and web development. Throughout her career, including before and during full-time jobs, she freelanced because she eventually wanted to go down an entrepreneurial path. Diana spends her free time improving herself and her skills (largely through reading business, self-development, and technical books), traveling (last two trips were Japan and Hawaii), and side projects like Kawaii Tarot, a deck of cards and a mobile app she designed and developed.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’m a freelancer so I don’t have an official title. I change it depending on what the client would prefer to call me. For example, I’m Software Developer to some clients while Web Designer to others. For what I call myself as head of my company, Pixelswithin, I switch from being Director to Principal to Consultant.

What attracted you to this role?

I like being a freelancer/consultant/entrepreneur because there’s no boundaries and really no one telling you what to do. If I want to solve a problem, there’s a variety of tools I can use, whether from a business, design, or whatever perspective. I have a lot of faith in myself as a figure-outter, so I like this role because there’s not a ceiling on what I can impact or earn. In the full-time roles I’ve had in the past, there was definitely a limit to how much I could impact (as a designer I couldn’t touch production code, things like that) as well as a salary limit.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

First I wake up at around 7AM. I go through my morning routine of getting ready, then a bit later, I do my bird’s morning routine. I take her out of her cage, feed her, all that. I make some coffee and, most of the time if I’m being honest, I browse Twitter or check my email while I finish that off. On some mornings I will write with an app called Cold Turkey Writer that locks you out of the rest of your computer until you hit your writing goal, in minutes or words. I write because knowing how to communicate your thoughts is key when you’re remote. Plus I’m a Virgo moon, so I’m obligated to write.

At this point, I check my calendar to see what tasks I have blocked off. I love calendar blocking! It takes so much off my mind. I do it often as “pre-work” so I don’t have to think about it. For projects, I’ll create a new calendar at the beginning and map out the project milestones and tasks to the deadline. For personal or miscellaneous events, I’ll do the calendar blocking thing the night before and a week out. For meetings, I’ll link people to my Calendly so they can find themselves a slot that works for both of us. Meetings are usually with stakeholders to discuss the beginnings of a milestone. (The rest of the process is over email.)

In a day, I’ll have client-side design tasks, such as user interviews or designing a few screens, and client-side development tasks like building out components. I’ll also have business development tasks like blogging or smoothing out processes, plus side project design or development tasks.

Lunch is around 1, or the time when I start getting unfocused and realize humans need food. I work about 6 hours a day, sometimes up to 9 if there’s a lot to do. At the end of the day, I’ll wind down with a book or something, but I’ll occasionally grab my laptop and touch some things up, especially on the business development side which really excites me when I have something good going.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Knowing how to learn and how to Google are probably the most important skills for me. I will sometimes get asked how I know so much about a topic, when the answer is I read a single book dedicated to it or just found one great overview article. Curiosity over a range of topics helps too because then I can connect dots across disciplines.

Dubsado is my project manager, CRM, and more that keeps me organized. I have a lot of little tools that help me in significant ways as well, such as TermHere (right-click to open a terminal in the current folder), Jumpcut (clipboard history—amazing while coding), Cloud (automatically uploads screenshots to cloud), and Sip (global eyedropper tool). For clients, RecordIt helps with easy-to-share screen recordings. I also like WriteMapper, a mind-mapping tool for creating documents—awesome for strategy thinking. I love single-focus tools like this for efficiency. I find these design and development tools largely through aggregators like Sidebar.io, Panda, ProductHunt, and Twitter. Twitter is indispensable for keeping up with design and tech news and people.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Most of my job is super fun and creative for me because that’s how I set it up! Design & development is 8 out of 10 on that scale. Once the initial strategy (thinking and writing) is in place, the actual creative work is more about putting the pieces in the right place than being something like an artist. I do like putting care into the details, but you can’t get too “out there” when it comes to somebody else’s business.

Client relations and business development is a 9 out of 10 on the fun & creativity scale. Reading or otherwise getting more information on how to keep growing is super fun. As for creativity, I’m continuously tweaking my portfolio and onboarding & diagnosis processes so clients and prospects get the most value possible out of our interactions.

10 out of 10 would be those once in a blue moon rushes of inspiration to get a side project done and out into the world. Kawaii Tarot was one of those for example.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Getting into situations where I myself am the bottleneck is a downer. Like when I want to write a blog post for my business but I have client work that is more urgent. I hear that delegating is the answer to this, but therein lie more challenges: finding people who are a good fit to help me plus working on being a good manager.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

I sometimes work with development teams as a contractor. The last time was at a tax software company, working on switching their main product from a Flash interface to React. It was an amazing experience because I got to work with people who were better than me at their particular thing. I learned so much. There’s also nothing like a team effort to make real big strides. And the Slack channel was fun!

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I am currently focusing on getting better at the branding & product thinking that comes before graphic or UI design. I looked over my portfolio and found that for clients, what I did for their product design was the game changer—not development and not making things pretty. So I am phasing development out of my offerings and going all-in on design thinking, even though I think I’ve gotten farther with development skills.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Being able to bounce back from failures. Not being afraid to put yourself out there.

I think there’s a tendency to only try at things we know we’ll get a good result from, but with freelancing, anything worth doing is probably uncharted territory (if it weren’t, everyone would be doing it and then it would be “old news” or devoid of value) so you have to risk something… a lot of the time though, “risky” doesn’t mean risky like trying to do something illegal or dangerous. That’s different risk. Risky here probably means risk of losing face, being embarrassed, or looking like a failure. I think that’s what stops most people from pursuing a freelance lifestyle, not lack of time or anything.

That’s not to say lack of time is not a real problem you can have, but most of us, in this area of work at least, have a spare hour or two a day to watch Netflix or whatever, so we can theoretically use that time to build our own reputation or business. Not that there’s ANYTHING wrong with wanting to watch Netflix in your downtime (hey, you earned that!) but yeah, I would say freelancing takes a lot of confronting one’s own fear-based decision-making.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

My business skills. When I first started freelancing, I didn’t get the value of my work. I thought, well, I would probably be doing this anyway for fun so it’s not fair to charge more than what I need. Now I can see the bigger picture of where my services fit and can negotiate, price, and work accordingly. To be honest, my design and development skills fare better in a team environment. If there were a chart of when my skills have improved, there’d be clear spikes every time I got a full-time job. Getting better in that aspect is something I’ve sacrificed by being on my own. My master plan is to become a more valuable person overall though, not just as a pixel pusher, so that works for me!

In your role, what metrics define success?

The number of leads coming in through my portfolio OR word-of-mouth, the number of proposals accepted, and the profit I make on each project.

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