Agency vs. Freelance vs. Inhouse?
February 8, 2010 1:57 PM   Subscribe

For all the seasoned graphic designers out there, where have you found the best working environment when it comes to agency vs. freelance vs. inhouse design for a company?

In March I will be joining the creative workforce as a new graduate and have no idea where I should work. I've been freelancing but wonder if I'm missing out on the experience that working a more "stable" position would offer (like working with other designers). I've thought about trying to get in with an agency, but I've heard horror stories from some of my web designer friends (like working 60 hour weeks, low morale, crazy bosses who know nothing about the design, ect.) So that makes me wonder if I would be better off trying to work inhouse somewhere, or a smaller agency. I want to be challenged but I also don't want to have my stress level go through the roof. So I guess I would like to know is it true what I've heard about ad agencies? Would the working environment be better at a smaller company?
posted by RubyDoom to Work & Money (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Hell, I've been working in various degrees of all of these things for ten years and I still haven't figured out what works for me. Like any job, it's so dependent on the type of work they usually do, the culture/office dynamics and how well everyone communicates. I've been moving around jobs every two to three years trying to figure out what environment I thrive best in. While some people could see this instability as a challenge (and it definitely isn't for people who are stuck in one location or a very specific niche), I think it's really broadened my awareness as a designer and allows me to take things I enjoy from each experience (be it agency, government work, freelancing). It will be aggravating (take a look at my first AskMe for an example) but in the end, you will hopefully wind up at your dream location with your creative dream team. Here's hoping you find it sooner than later.
posted by june made him a gemini at 2:08 PM on February 8, 2010

as a new graduate, pretty much your only sensible option is to work in an agency. Smaller, larger, high or low end, depends on your skills. A relaxed, intelligent workplace or a sweatshop, depends on your luck and your intuition.

Other avenues, such as starting freelancing from the get go, or working as an inhouse designer are possible, but not advisable at the starting point of your career.
posted by _dario at 2:13 PM on February 8, 2010

The most worst is usually in-house designer; you will be stamping out cookie-cutter crap for the same lame product ad infinitum, or at least ad bored-to-death. There are probably some exceptions to that, but I'd recommend honing your chops at an agency for a few years before trying to work freelance, because (almost) no one will hire you freelance until you've built up a reputation and body of professional work. Working at an agency will also put you in touch with a lot of other creative professionals, and should help you understand more about client service, which will be invaluable when/if you decide to strike out on your own.
posted by Mister_A at 2:13 PM on February 8, 2010

I would avoid agenices that do work for small companies or freelancing when you start out -- it is helpful to get big names on your resume so you have credibility and experience when you go out on your own.
posted by lsemel at 2:19 PM on February 8, 2010

There's almost a matrix for this, I think. With my broadest possible brush, I paint it thus:

Agencies are high pressure, hard work, high paying*, interesting.
In-house is low pressure, low work, medium-paying, less interesting.*
Freelance is low pressure, hard work, low paying*, interesting.

* Eventually
** Your own choice. Work harder, make more money.

posted by rokusan at 2:29 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Er, I meant is a challenge for those who are for one reason or another stuck in their current location/job title and/or rely on a certain amount of income.
posted by june made him a gemini at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: I've worked in freelance, agency and in-house positions. By far the most stressful was me was doing freelance. You may be enticed by the flexible schedule and working from home, but your job invades every part of your life and I found it to be horribly stressful. The expenses/finances were a pain and clients felt like they could treat me however they wanted, which was usually like dirt. I didn't have a boss/manager/company to defend me or back me up. It still tempts me, but I have to admit that saying NO to taking on clients is the best thing I've done for my life.

The agency position was the second most stressful. I found it to be pretty much as you described (60 hour weeks, low morale, crazy bosses who know nothing about the design, etc.). The agency was just a giant meat grinder - designers got churned through like crazy. Some left because they couldn't stand it and others got fired because they were getting to the point where they'd be earning too much money and the company wouldn't be able to afford them. We were all treated horribly and with very little respect. I have heard good agency stories, but they are few and far between. Most people I've known that worked at other agencies had experiences just like mine.

I am and always will be happiest working in-house. I am usually my own unique snowflake and can take ownership of my role. I get to work with a brand and help build it without having to hand it off to someone else. I believe in my company and work with people who have skills that mesh well with mine. I find that working in-house provides me with an infinite variety of things and I'm always very busy. Maybe I've been lucky in my positions, but I have certainly never been bored. I do believe that this is partially to the fact that I also do web design and a big part of my positions have been going back and forth between print and web. I also appreciate the structure - I don't mind being managed and someday I hope to work my way up to managing my own team.

As for company size, I think it depends on what you're comfortable with. A smaller company or agency will have a smaller staff, thus fewer people with specialized jobs. You may be asked to be a print designer/ web designer/ photographer/ proof reader/ copy writer/ receptionist and so forth. I've never regretted jumping into extra roles - the experience has been good for me.

The best advice is probably to just interview like crazy wherever you can and feel out what will be the best fit for you. The people/working environment may be all the difference.
posted by bristolcat at 2:36 PM on February 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

Bristolcat's point is good: freelancing is attractive because you can set your own workload, more or less (don't need much money? work less).... but don't ever think you'll be working without "an annoying boss".

Freelancing just means instead of one annoying boss, you have many, many annoying bosses: each client has their own little thumb on your pressure scale.
posted by rokusan at 2:55 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you sign up with a temp agency like Aquent or something and tell them you only want short term assignments, you'll be able to experience a good variety of work environments in rapid sucession. Eventually one of them will feel right to you.
posted by spilon at 3:02 PM on February 8, 2010

It's a tough call. Inhouse is secure; agency stuff is high-pressure; freelance is relatively low-key (can't hate working at home in your underwear). It really depends on the client. Some are just out-and-out assholes; some are dolls. Mix and match, client and situation.

I don't care for agency work myself, but that's just me.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:20 PM on February 8, 2010

Or, what rokusan said.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:21 PM on February 8, 2010

Speaking from a web design perspective, niche web shops can be awesome, mind-blowing places to work for designers, but you have to choose the right ones. The three designers at my company (sorry we aren't hiring) basically have the coolest deal ever. Here's a recent ticket. And there are companies which are fed up with the fact that their freelance / external design team is not integrated with the coders, so there's an inevitable back-and-forth, which sucks, and they're looking to hire designers. Really for these kind of jobs you'll need to know how to write good HTML/CSS (and can be perfectly ignorant of everything else tech-wise). You might want to give echoditto a ring? And Four Kitchens is in Texas...

Note that these are startup-style companies. That means the in-house low-workload claim will be entirely false.
posted by tmcw at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2010

Hopefully if you're a new grad, you're looking at your next job as a learning experience. Look for a job where you can work closely with people who know what they're doing. If it's an agency and you have to work 80 hours a week, or an inhouse position where you're designing junk mail, there is something you can learn. I would think a smaller firm would be a better place to grow for a newbie, because you'll have more direction and opportunities to experiment. Small firm doesn't necessarily mean small clients, either.

I'm a freelancer, and I make good money and love it. My previous jobs were at small shops with great people.

You don't sound like you plan to, but FWIW I absolutely do not recommend starting out as a freelancer. You'll spend years figuring out stuff you could learn in a month at even a crappy shop.
posted by shopefowler at 8:07 PM on February 8, 2010

Sure, I did the high pressure 60 (sometimes 70) hour week agency job but I got some awesome experience. I'm working for myself now and would never have gotten the skills, confidence, experience or contacts to do the work I do now without working for an agency first. I suggest doing your stint at an agency for experience, then move on to an in-house place for the stability and healthcare or start freelancing on the side and see if you can get enough work to quit your normal job. Good luck!
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:17 PM on February 8, 2010

I've been a graphic designer for years, and whereas my local experience may not be directly relevant to yours, I would advise you to continue to go to school and upgrade your skills, because the rates for what we do have fallen off a lot in the last few years. I see Craigslist ads offering a princely $10/hour for quite high levels of graphic design skill, all too often.

Don't embark on freelancing first unless you've got a significant other or a parent helping pay the bills. If there are agencies hiring near you, it wouldn't hurt to get a couple of years of that kind of thing under your belt.

In-house varies so much. I walked away from one in-house after four days. When you're embedded in that way, you get treated like the rest of whatever industry it is, and that can mean working under fluorescent tubes in a dark shop with no windows, and taking lunch when a whistle blows.

My best in-house experience was working for an arts festival - crazy pressure but fun and a fast-learning vibe.

I'd advise steering clear of the fashion industry unless it really appeals to you personally.
posted by zadcat at 9:40 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: I've worked in small to medium-ized design studios, spent 2 years working freelance and have worked in ad agencies. I could probably devote an entire blog to this topic but I'll keep it brief . . .

- Find a place that cares about design. This will be easy to tell from their work. Even if the upper echelons don't "get" design they should at least be respectful of it and understand it's a vital component of the success of their business.
- When you're starting out you can afford to experiment in different environments. Make mistakes. Celebrate successes. If you hit a ceiling in a job then don't be afraid to move on and move on quickly.
- If you can get into a position where there is someone who can mentor you through the first year or two and offer you some real insights into process then take it. Good mentors in this field are actually quite rare. If you can find one then jump on it. You can take a good process with you to any future job.
- Specify that you want to be working on at least one high-profile and/or fulfilling project at any given time. The work you do today influences the work you will do tomorrow. Expect bread & butter work, but always make at least incremental progress toward better projects.
- Be respectful and professional with your colleagues. You never know what kind of access or opportunities they can grant you later in your career.
- If you're really concerned about the grind and working late hours then request a Monday evening interview. If there's a lot of asses in chairs at 7PM then you know what you're getting into.
- Make sure the typography in your portfolio is rock solid. This is what I always looked for in new grads. If they didn't have attention to detail I wouldn't even consider them for a position.

There's more, so much more, but every work environment has it's own culture. Do your research. Trust your instincts. Take your work seriously but don't take yourself as seriously. Get out there and start shaking hands. You'll be fine.
posted by quadog at 1:30 PM on February 9, 2010

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