Outdoor pixel-pushing & code-wrangling

How and why I work outdoors. A lot.

I’ve been working remotely for a long time now. I started in 2005, with a 2-year semi-hiatus and now I’ve been back at it for almost a year again.

Since my move to Fort Collins, Colorado back in February, I’ve been finding new ways to spend time outdoors. This ain’t my first rodeo either; seven of my remote-working years were spent traversing blustery England on a bicycle, with little more than a backpack (stuffed with an office). But this is a little different; being right at the foot of The Rocky Mountains leaves little to be desired, and a lot to imagination. It’s the perfect place to work remotely outdoors.

Location, location

Locations are countless. I have a park basically in my backyard, with several others within walking distance. Horsetooth Reservoir is a stone’s throw to the West, nestled in the lowlands of The Front Range — the “front door” of The Rockies — which contains innumerable campsites, rest areas, hiking trails and their trailheads, random benches, shelters and other resources for explorers.

I start at my park. I’m from California, but lived in the UK a good while. Having also spent considerable time in the Austrian Alps, I’m no stranger to cold, but it still finds it’s way to my Californian bones. But Fort Collins is a mild climate for its location. Mostly sunny year-round, with the odd 2–3 weeks of snowing during winter. Distinct seasons are a hallmark of the local beauty.

The park next to my house is called Rolland Moore, after the Parks Superintendent who spent 37 years dedicated to the role. It contains 68 acres of maintained parklands and is bordered by two additional protected natural areas, making for a vast expanse indeed. Tennis and volleyball courts are speckled outside the central baseball arena, with the entire park dissected by many walkways and bike paths.

I choose to sit in a covered BBQ area, which has power outlets on each steel pillar that supports roughly 600 square feet per covering. No one ever comes here. I’ve half a mind to install a cabinet and fridge.

In the summer I was spending a cumulative 5–7 hours per day here. I’d break up the work by taking a walk, or reading a sign about the local flora and wildlife. I’d pack up and walk down a bike path to find a new, unoccupied bench next to a stream… it felt as is if no one else had ever thought to do this. I still have never seen anyone work here. It’s shocking to me.

Dressing for the occasion

In these recent wintry months I’ve been dressing for the occasion; thick wool socks inside thermal-lined boots, heat-retaining long underwear beneath my Levi’s, my Adidas fleece-lined beanie shielding my head from the breeze and 3 layers of shirts and jacket. After days outside in the English elements, I know how to layer by now… the only thing I have yet to figure out is how to keep my fingers warm while still being able to work. Having tried so many iterations of gloves; medium-weight with touch-sensitive fingers, mittens with flaps that fold up to reveal my 8 primary digitals, light fleece glove liners with strategically-cut finger-ends. Nothing really does the job perfectly.

Every now-and-then a jogger will jog by, or a dog-walker and their dog will wave hello. When school gets out, sometimes a few skateboarders will skate the railing that goes down to my area. These are all nice, natural events that help to break any monotony. But in this 360-degree beauty, it’s hard to get bored. It’s so peaceful. It helps me focus on the important things, and stay organized.

Weather & transportation

Speaking of organization, all this wouldn’t be possible without some planning. I’ve talked about how I stay comfortable by selecting the right clothes every day, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Each morning (especially during winter) I check the daily forecast on my iPhone. That informs how I dress for the day; the ambient temperature by-hour, the humidity and likelihood of rain. The weather also informs my transportation. I like to ride ride my bicycle, but if it’s extra warm or nice out, I’ll walk. If it’s pretty consistently cold or rainy, I’ll drive… but I prefer to walk when it snows.

A curated pack, daily

I also have to ‘curate’ my pack every morning. To do this I consider my tasks for the day and pack accordingly; graphic tablet, mouse, keyboard, power cables etc. If I’m doing an unusual amount of graphic design, I’ll bring my graphic tablet. If I’m doing a lot of Photoshop or Illustrator time, I’ll bring my mouse. If I think I’ll have some extra time then I’ll bring my wireless keyboard so I can write a bit (using my iPhone 6 Plus — I like to write on my iPhone because it creates a clear distinction between work and downtime.)

Shortly after I first started remote working back in England I realized I needed a solid plan for keeping devices charged. Back then batteries weren’t as good as they are now, so it’s been less of an issue, but here’s how I do it:

My power rule

My rule is plug in when you can. That single rule has saved my butt so many times I can’t even begin to describe it. It sounds stupid and simple, and usually the best things in life are that way. Plugging in when I can means that I maximize my opportunities to keep devices charged, and thereby minimize the possibilities of running out of power. To dig into this plan a little further, I tether my iPhone a lot for data, so that charges via USB. I have a battery-powered keyboard, headphones, headset and mouse that I have to think about on a bi-weekly basis, and I keep those charged at home. Sometimes I forget, and it sucks when I do, but it doesn’t happen often anymore.

Plugging in when you can wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be at first. I often was in cafés with a full-charge and it felt annoying to plug in. I don’t like cords cluttering up my workspace, and it’s not always easy to ask people to move their chair out of the way or feel like a simple power-thief.

Ergonomics in the wild

Another issue I came across early-on was that of ergonomics and repetitive stress injuries. Sometimes I feel like the term “remote working” doesn’t quite describe what I do. Most remote workers I know don’t do what I do — they’ve got paid spaces at co-working offices, or a home office, or they rent a desk from a local company. They have control over their chairs, desks, etc to improve their daily ergonomics and avoid RSIs.

I don’t — I’m out-and-about 95% of the time. Park benches, tree stumps and even a lot of café chairs have ergonomics that leave a lot to be desired. While I can mitigate some things myself by the strategic use of a specific keyboard, mouse or laptop stand, I can’t bring a chainsaw or Hermann-Miller around with me everywhere. So how do I cope with this?

In short, I stay conscious of it. At the park whose bench was designed for longevity and robustness rather than comfort, I make sure to sit up straight and get comfortable. I’ll often pad the seat with a jacket and prop up my laptop with my messenger bag. I use an ergonomic mouse most of the time, and I move a lot. I try not to sit for more than an hour at a time. I get up, stretch, walk around, whatever it takes to move for a bit before settling back in. Then I ‘reset’ and start over until the day is done.

A recent experimental adventure

About 4 months ago I bought a day-use pass to Horsetooth Reservoir’s campsites. It was a little drizzly that day. I backed my old Range Rover up to a park bench, opened the tailgate and upper glass window, made a comfy spot against the back seats using spare jackets and such, and I just sat there and worked for a few hours.

I took a break with my pack-lunch on the bench and did a few quick walks around the site to take in the surroundings during breaks. It was really nice, and really different. It helped open my mind to new possibilities, and think outside the box with my work that day.

Next time I go I’ll use the BBQ and cook some ‘dogs or something, and if it’s warm, maybe take a quick dip in the water or try to wrangle a fish in for lunch.

In summary

I work outdoors so much because I like the clean, crisp air, the stillness, the peacefulness. I like that I’m not in control of my surroundings — they’re wild and untameable. I like that I’m in an environment that’s bigger than myself, because remembering that makes me a better designer.

In the future I plan to expand my horizons past my local parks, and more deep into the mountains. I love off-roading and trails, and I’ve been wanting to get back into mountain biking anyway. I hope to find new places and ways to work there. Until then, I’m going to keep enjoying the outdoors, and opening up my mind so it can go to work on me.

Principal Product Designer @eHealth // Previously: @appirio @unicef @cxpartners

Principal Product Designer @eHealth // Previously: @appirio @unicef @cxpartners