Pros and cons of being a designer at an agency vs. in-house

Insights of what it feels like working in-house vs at an agency. The article also brings light to the concept of 'utilisation'.

Being a designer at an agency

Pros

- Starting out at an agency or consultancy is super valuable because you can experience many different types of products, industries, and services

- You can really get your hands dirty early on in your career, and acquire a lot of experience

- If the project is long enough, you have the chance to dive into the details of the product you’ve never been exposed to before

- From project to project, you are always able to start fresh

- Great place to do networking through many different colleagues and clients. You can establish your professional connections for life

Cons

- You might not see the project through, because you hand it over to a client, or a development agency. You might only see a certain part of the project

- You can only own your work until the agency has the contract for the project

- Your workload is inconsistent. As the agency wins more client work, your workload goes higher…so they sign a contract, and they resource you on a project. You might need to work for clients and projects you’re not interested in, or don’t align with your values

- You most likely have multiple projects at the same time. You need to do context switching regularly

Utilisation

Utilisation is a concept that only exists in the agency and consultancy land, as far as I know. Utilisation is defined as the amount of billable time can you pull out of the total available time of an employee. Essentially, it’s your time and project tracking on daily basis.

What it means in practice: depending on your seniority level, agencies might require you to be utilised, in other word, do billable client work for x percent of the time. For example, if you’re a junior designer, you possibly look at 85% billable work, and then 15% of your time is administrative work, client management. If you’re at a manager level, your utilisation might be about 60% because you need to spend 40% on some other activities: admin, coaching more junior colleagues, doing business development (mean sales) activities.

Being an in-house designer

If you are really longing to own your work, and make adjustments regularly to a product, then this path might be more for you.

Pros

- Your workload is consistent and more predictable

- You’re not dealing with clients

- It’s usually a slower paced environment compared to an agency

- You can get familiar with the domain you work in, as well as the brand, your design files

- You can have the design patterns figured out (e.g. a lightweight design system) that can speed up your design process dramatically

- Get free mentorship from my colleagues, and learn design and the process through collaborating and watching senior designers doing their design process

Cons

- If you work at a small company like a startup, you might need to wear multiple hats because you most likely are the only designer there (you might need to create brand guidelines, write copy, do quality assurance, and tackle some social media tasks that your initial job description didn’t even mention)

- Working on the same product can be monotonous (some might say boring, but if you’ve read any of my articles or watched my videos, you know I don’t believe in boring jobs)

- If you work as a solo designer, you need to make design decision on your own, without having someone to bounce ideas off

- If you are part of a larger organisation with an established design team, don’t take being mentored by seniors as a face-value. Some senior designer are amazing at their job, but aren’t good at passing knowledge on…or they simple don’t enjoy coaching others. I’d encourage you to ask them first and don’t get offended if they say no — in that way, you both can set proper expectations

One last note…

Remember, I am just one individual. I talk about my experience and what I think about the design industry. However, everybody’s story is different. You need to go find out all of these things for yourself. You gotta experience what it feels like to work in house, and what it feels like to work in consultancy and for an agency. I guarantee, your story will be different from mine.

I’d encourage you to be a critical thinker, and don’t let one article determine which path you choose for your career.

Remember, you can always move…even if you start working for an agency, you can switch to be an in-house designer in your next role.

I also talk about the topic in this video, if you prefer consuming content that way, check it out: