A topic common in the design world is the nature of work that happens in a consultancy vs. in-house . Designers I’ve talked to typically prefer to work in one of these settings or who have transitioned from one to another. At school, it was recommended that designers start in a consulting to develop design strategy and more technical skills which can encourage more ownership and tactical thinking for designing in an organization. Other designers who have started working in a big company switched to consulting because the work was more fast paced and they missed the flexibility of working on different things.
Regardless of which path you take, there is no right or wrong choice. Choosing an corporation over an agency won’t dictate your success over others and vice versa. It all comes down to the kind of experience you want and what you want to get out of the work you do.
Here are the differences I have seen working in both a consulting and in-house environment. My experience might seem biased towards in-house, so if you have any suggestions to revise the consulting paragraphs, feel free to shoot me a comment in the comments section.
Relationship vs Quality of product
In a consulting environment, the work you receive comes from a client. A client you have a good relationship with will trust you and be open to understanding design, being more involved in the process, in comparison to not fostering that connection. It can get very un-motivating to work with clients who don’t care about design or who don’t collaborate with you in the process. When I was working in a design consultancy over the summer, I noticed the amount of effort my advisors put in maintaining their client relationship. This would be through communicating over the phone a few times a week or traveling to meet them (and vice versa with the client). This was to ensure the client was happy and we were presenting things in an efficient manner with their timeline. By keeping a good relationship and quality of work, that ensures they will still be a client even after the project is over.
Regardless of whether or not they care about the design, the emphasis is on the relationship you have with your client.
In a company that has design working alongside product and engineering, the focus is (ideally) on the product. There might be a case where you have to educate your organization, creating a design culture from the ground up, but more established companies have realized or are starting to realize the importance of design. They may have more established design principles or values which allows you to focus on designing, because you know you are well supported and have access to resources. Other orgs may be less informed, but they all know the importance of user experience and will hopefully work in conjunction with you to create a product which has that baked in.
Questionable impact vs Known impact
In a consultancy, what typically happens is that once you are done with a project, you pass it to the client based on deadlines or the end of your contract. After this, you have little to no follow up on what they will do with the design. They could have shipped the whole thing, shipped a part of it, changed everything, or not have used what you made at all. You wouldn’t know if what you made shipped because you aren’t working with the client anymore. It can be very discouraging to see all the hard work not be put to use due to external decisions that might not have had nothing to do with the design itself.
In a corporate company, you have more transparency on the impact you make. As an in-house designer, you are more aligned with other teammates on user goals and business goals. You talk to stakeholders and work with other people within product to make sure what you are delivering design impacts users by meeting their needs and driving business revenue by meeting business objectives. From work experience, I believe the impact I make is more clear because designers are kept in the loop of business, and would gain clarity as to what to fix in order to ship/make impact from their manager or higher ups.
In a consultancy, I felt like there was always the pressure to deliver which meant we had to work all the time. This wasn’t always bad because delivering faster meant working on different things, but with the project I worked on, we had tight deadlines and a set schedule of milestones to achieve in the short time of our project. Lunch was sometimes skipped and hours were long.
I’m the kind of person who works the best in the morning so when I left a little after work hours when everyone else was working, I felt guilty that I wasn’t working more when all my peers were. I didn’t like self imposing that feeling but when you are in an environment with others, we subconsciously perpetuate a sense of culture.
From my experience working at corporate companies, the value of balancing work and life was emphasized and encouraged. I don’t feel guilty taking off of work a little early if I don’t feel good. If I want to go and take a walk, no one will care if I’m out of the office unless I have a meeting. I like being able to have time to recharge and not think about work. There will always be work.
Explore lots of different things vs Focusing on one thing
In a consultancy, the type of work you receive can vary from client to client. You could be working on designs of different solutions to crafting a design strategy. The chances of shipping an end to end product with all of your design considerations in mind are slim, but you have the opportunity to get exposed to different kinds of problems and industries. You have the chance to utilize and learn different design skills based on the kind of work you do. Working in a consultancy environment has exposed me using to a wide range of skills I might not have gotten a chance to do in school, and has encouraged me to stand up for my work.
If you want more breadth, consider consulting. If you want more depth, consider a company.
In a corporate company, you are typically assigned to a team that owns one specific product or feature within that product. Depending on how big the company is, there is an opportunity to work on a different product by internally switching teams. Focusing on one thing allows you to be an expert in it but it doesn’t offer too much opportunity to work on other projects. At Google, I work on designing messaging experiences, but that doesn’t stop me from getting to work on other projects as long as time allows me. You might not get the chance to explore products if you are a smaller company but that shouldn’t stop you from exploring different product teams and what they may be up to. You just might not have the chance to work on vastly different products.
Less ownership vs Ownership
During my consultancy experience, my team created an end to end product experience with potential ideas our client could use, but there were a lot of questions which weren’t answered to ensure what we were making was something that would be feasible later on. Though this didn’t matter because the project requirements were to create something more speculative, it’s a little disheartening to know that there is a chance your work won’t be used to its full extent, and you wouldn’t know the reason why, let alone be able to address it.
In a company, you own what you build. this could part of a product where you design a specific feature or the whole end-to-end product experience. I personally like having ownership over what I build because it allows me to establish a strong point of view when getting buy-in for my design or gathering support from peers. You have more agency over the process of ideation to releasing it and you are more informed of how your project impacts others.
Fast vs Slow paced
In a consultancy, work moves fast. You can get a lot of done, but a tradeoff with getting a lot of work done is that work can change very quickly and you have to accommodate for any changes that happen. When I was working on my project, my team and I were given a brief to design around. after facilitating a workshop where we thought we were aligned with our client, the client changed the brief and we weren’t prepared as our designs mainly addressed the old brief. This sudden change held us back but instead of starting from scratch, we used the insights gathered from understanding the old brief to inform us when designing around the new one and we took ideas most similar to the new brief and improved on them.
In a company, work can move fast or slow depending on the team. There could be a lot of blockers whether it’s from other teams or executives which would cause you to push back or create a workaround. At Google, everyone wants to work fast but we aren’t always prepared to do certain tasks based on the lack of infrastructure or processes established. Despite this, this provides the opportunity to explore what has been done and seek out existing projects that have tackled a problem someone needs help on.