Five years into my career, I’ve had experiences working in-house at small and large companies (Kickstarter & Amazon), at a mid-size agency (Beyond), and even an incubation firm (BCG Digital Ventures). Take a look at some of the benefits of each, and my advice for making a decision.
- Build your portfolio quickly. In just under two years at an agency, some brands and organizations I got under my belt included: Google, Paypal, Wall Street Journal, and Gap. Agencies work with lots of clients, often in short 3 month to year long engagements.
- Gain a variety of experience. At an agency you will work on different sizes and types of projects. One month you might be working on re-organizing the information architecture of site, another you may be helping create a design system, or even pitching an entirely new product. If you don't know what you're looking for, trying a bunch of things is helpful to get a better sense of what you like.
- Learn how to pitch. A core way agencies get work is through pitches, and being able to quickly ideate, mockup, and present ideas through stories, prototypes, and verbal communication are invaluable skills for a designer. This has helped me become more confident and exponentially better in interviews. These skills are especially revelant for anyone interested in starting their own company or inventing a product.
- Solve complex problems. In-house design work often requires months or even years spent in a single problem area. While agencies tend to focus on more rapid and light-weight solutions, being in-house will challenge you to develop in-depth, long-term solutions for your organization.
- Move as a unit. While in-house, everyone you work with is working on different parts of the same whole. Given there is strong communication in the company, there is inspiration to be found in being surrounded by people who are passionate about the same thing as you.
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance. While this is not always true as some in-house roles do require long hours, in my experience in-house roles are much more flexible and accommodating, especially towards those who have families. Agencies often earn money on hourly rates, and they need employees billing hours in order to charge their clients.
- Earn a higher salary. Most in-house roles offer higher salaries than agency roles, especially for design.
Which should you choose?
Here’s my take: work at an agency if 1) you’re interested in shorter, quicker projects, 2) you’re looking to work with a variety of different companies and problems, or 3) the agency you’re considering specializes in a particular skill you are passionate about focusing on (i.e. user research or augmented reality).
While getting diverse experience at an agency might be a great way to grow your portfolio, the trade offs tend to be salary and work-life balance. You also may be juggling multiple clients and projects at a time, which some people love, and some don’t. It comes down to your personal preference!
If you’d rather 1) own a specific problem area, 2) work with your peers towards a common goal, and 3) move at a steadier pace, then you may be more suited for in-house work. I personally found the slower pace challenging when I transitioned from an agency to an in-house role, but the key for me has been to identify other new opportunities in my organization.
I hope this is helpful for anyone to decide. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions!