Where designers work varies as much as the designers themselves. Some work in the corner of their studio in their pj’s while sipping their Starbucks coffee. Others work in the marketing department of a Fortune 500 company. Then there are those who design an array of work for diverse clients in an ad agency.

Being a designer who has worked in all three arenas, I thought I would provide some insight and go over some pros and cons for each. Every creative has his or her own unique preferences and needs. What may work for you, may not work for the next designer. However, rest assured that YOU do have a place in this crazy industry called design.

Solo (Freelance) Designer

Pros: A great majority of designers are their own boss. One reason for that is the freedom that comes from waking up when you want to and scheduling your work as it best suits you. Also you have the privilege to accept as many or as few projects as you want. Another great benefit is that you get to exhibit your true creative potential, which is something very important to keep the excitement of design alive. Usually this will increase as you begin building your reputation and can select the projects you want. Want to go on vacation – just ask yourself when and where and you’re off! Oh, and let’s not forget – set your own rate. Several designers have higher salaries as a freelancer than in-house because they can set the price they feel their services are worth.

Cons: Starting out, you may be overwhelmed. This can be especially difficult for designers who are just beginning their design career. It’s strongly recommended that you work for a company awhile before venturing out on your own. One common issue to deal with as a freelance designer is the absence of a steady paycheck. Your paycheck is really the sum of your projects, how you bill them, and how soon your client will pay you. If you’re not an organizer and saver by heart, this route will teach you by force. Another con is that no one will go and get the clients for you. This may be a positive challenge some look forward to, while for others it will make them cringe. Either way, you are solely responsible for attaining and retaining your clients, so be creative in your marketing.

In-House Designer

Pros: With the recent economy shift, many companies, both large and small have decided to keep their work in-house. The company itself benefits greatly in this arrangement; and so do the designers. One of the largest benefits is the stability. Since these companies want the assurance of having an “on-call” design department, you can be sure designers will be there for a number of years. Another positive is since you are an employee you have the same great benefits as the rest of your co-workers in other departments. They can include health insurance, paid time off including holidays and vacation, disability, 401k, and sometimes even tuition assistance. If you’re concerned about working long hours, then you’ve come to the right place. In-house departments typically have the same 8 hr shift as the rest of the company. So you will be home before it’s dark – lucky you.

Cons: Once you step foot in an in-house design department, remember there are rules to abide by that were put in place long before you came; unless you were one of the pioneers in starting the department. Branding guidelines are very strict and must be adhered to in every executed project. As a result, after time you may feel you’re designing the same old piece. You can attempt to do something fresh and innovative, but don’t take offense if it’s not received positively. Another con may be the manner in which you’re perceived within the company. Many non-designers think you press a magic button and their 20 page brochure will be done within the hour. One way to counteract this is through communication. Educate your manager and co-workers as to why it takes a certain amount of time, so they may be able to forward that key information to other departments and clients. After all, designers are not magicians – ok, maybe a little.

Ad Agency / Design Firm Designer

Pros: Can anyone say CREATE! One major pull ad agencies have over other creative environments is the plethora of great creative. Usually there is more time to focus on one or two campaigns at a time and so you get quite a bit of time to brainstorm and collaborate with your peers. If you’re lucky some of the campaigns you worked on that were executed can add sparkle to your portfolio. This is usually the case since the clients’ budgets are bigger and allow for custom photography, higher-end print finishes, illustration, etc. Another advantage is the people that surround you. In an ad agency, you get to hang out with your “creative peeps.” These may include, but are not limited to other designers, photographers, copywriters and creative directors. Since you feel comfortable collaborating and brainstorming in such a setting, it results in a more uplifting and inspiring attitude. Which leads me to another positive – the space. Ad agency higher-ups know that creatives need a fun place to work to get their juices flowing so many have eliminated the greige cubicles and replaced them with funky open areas so all can interact informally without restrictions because you never know when the greatest idea will arise.

Cons: When you work in-house your employer is your client, so they’re unlikely to go anywhere. However, clients in an ad agency can come and go. If a huge account is lost, you may lose your job along with it, which may explain why you see designers jumping from agency to agency through no fault of their own. If you have children and other commitments outside of work, you may want to think carefully if this is the place for you, as long hours extending into the late nights are the norm. Every account is considered important and every deadline is set, so multiply that by three and you could easily be working 50-70 hrs a week. Of course this leads to another disadvantage; burnout. Working those long hours churning out great work can leave you “juiceless” after a couple of years, remember to set your priorities accordingly and give yourself time to relax and re-energize.

Links and Resources

For Solo (Freelance) Designers:

For In-House Designers:

For Ad Agency / Design Firm Designers:

For All Designers:

So now that you’ve seen a small glimpse into the good and bad of these three creative environments, which one best fits you? Tell us your experiences – we’d love to hear from you.

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