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December 2018 – Marcus Swan
From Cygnet to Swan
During my career, I’ve covered the entire gamut of work environments that a designer might find themselves in. I’ve worked in studios/agencies, headed the design of a start-up, been part of in-house creative teams, and worked freelance in other design organisations and with my own clients. All served up valuable lessons on how to become a better designer and human being.
Having found myself on the job hunt recently, I wondered whether my slightly peripatetic wandering from one type of organisation to another would help or hinder me finding a more permanent home. At the very least, I hoped that my musings would help other designers with their own search by mapping out some of the pros and cons of the territories in which they might find themselves.
A Good Time to be a Designer
At the offset there seems to be a glut of design roles opening at different levels and with different types of companies. As design has become more valued and sought after as a core competency within organisations there is great potential for designers to either migrate across disciplines, move up through the ranks of an established organisation or dive into a freshly minted design position in a new design team. Each of these types of workplaces and situations has their pros and cons, risks and rewards. However, this opening up to design as a discipline does carry with it the potential for design to just be another line-item or tick on the box for corporations.
The 5 Modes
While there will always be new modes of operation for design — typified by the ever increasing range of eXperiences such as UX, CX, EX, BX… — there are a limited number of potential organisational modes for designers to work within. They are listed here from the most seemingly prevalent on jobs boards to lesser trodden paths —
- in-house design teams (including “product” teams) within a larger organisation
- design studio or agency employee
- agency employee embedded as part of a client team
- freelance designer
- self-employed designer (sole-trader, or owner-operator of a small studio)
There are bound to be some others to add to this list, but these will serve as a better than broad outline.
Swim in Lane?
Your choice is wide, as a potential job seeker, regarding what type of organisation your skills and talent might best be suited to, but a lot of designers tend to stick within the lanes of what they know or have experience of. This is in contrast to the frequent crossing of disciplinary streams that a lot of designers have done over the years, due maybe to the ever-changing nature of the industry as trends come and go.
From talking with recently graduated designers or those who have crossed from one discipline to a UX role or career (I’m looking at you product/industrial designers) they often have their sights set on a particular company or type of role, and are not focused on the broader situation of a designer within a certain type of organisation. Choosing the right one can be the difference between jobbing as a designer for a few years or having a varied and fulfilling design career.
Let’s outline some of the different factors that might help inform a decision on what areas to look into.
1) In-house Teams
In-house designers on product teams are all the rage right now, due to the voracious appetite for digital products, apps and websites. Almost every large multinational corporation has scaled up its own design requirements and competencies with multiple teams and a variety of roles from UX to brand and visual design. The cost-to-benefit ratio of having designers on hand versus having to source and interact on a project-by-project basis means that continual, iterative processes can be applied, such as Lean or Agile methodologies.
These are usually fast-paced, well compensated positions. However, from researching the area, they tend to be a little rigid in their outlook — if you are a UX designer that is what the business is going want you to to be doing. There also seems to be a high turnover rate, which may be due the nature of the work, the organisational structure or the current openness of the market, allowing designers to move onwards and upwards as other organisations grow their teams and need new talent.
If you’re the type of person that enjoys working consistently on one aspect or part of a much larger project then this type or role is for you. If you don’t particularly like the idea of being a small cog in a big machine or the taste of Silicon Valley Kool Aid that many of these tech-led organisations offer, then maybe this isn’t for you. Even if it is a short stint working in this type of role can be lucrative and a highlight on your portfolio or CV.
2) Design Studio
Design studio/agencies offer varied and multi-faceted career opportunities, with the potential to work with a broad range of clients often requiring a multi-faceted and holistic approach to design. There has recently been a two-fold shift in the studio landscape, where:
- independent or “traditional” agencies are offering more digitally-led services that are a complement to the day-to-day business needs of clients and organisations
- design firms are being acquired by larger tech or consultancy firms to offer outside-in capabilities that can offer a different perspective and approach to design.
Working in a studio of any size will give designers much needed flexibility and there’s nothing like engaging with clients on a regular basis to take the rind off a raw designer. Simultaneously the best and worst aspect of working in a client-facing studio is that you are never quite sure what might land on your desk on any given day, especially with clients who’s view of design is maybe more service-led than strategic and conceptual.
Some people are adept at thinking and moving on their toes, while some others prefer a more steady and even keel to their work. One of the main challenges to getting a job in a studio or smaller agency is that they don’t advertise or list jobs on professional networks or job boards. It often comes down to word of mouth or industry connections to find the right role, so get out to those meetups, following studios on social media, or check out design organistations like the 100Archive.
3) Embedded Designer
Embedded designers are a mix of in-house and agency practices. It’s a new area of work as firms that offer consultancy and strategic partnerships with larger clients are leveraging their ability to add value through design, while lowering their own overheads and facilitating a closer working engagement. Instead of having a dedicated team working on a client brief in your own studio, you as the designer (or team) are embedded within the client’s business unit, for all intents and purposes being a full-time member of staff for that business.
Whether this is to supplement the existing design capabilities, or indeed to meet all the design needs for the client/host this type of role offers a long-term engagement with one design requirement (or set of requirements) while also offering the opportunity to move on to other clients or areas.
4) Freelance Designer
Freelance designers often seem to live in a boom or bust situation — either they are flat out doing work for a range of clients or it’s been quite for the last three or four weeks. In reality the flexibility and balance that being a freelance designer offers is very attractive to some people, especially if you like the freedom to work for yourself on your own terms and hours. With the rise of shared working spaces offering hot-desking with all the mod-cons (wifi, meeting rooms, free coffee, receptions and scheduling) freelancing has moved on from being the lone wolf sitting at your kitchen table.
The need for design resources that have UX experience means that the agencies offering these services, or are looking to diversify into that space, have a need for freelance designers to come in and not just service a clients production need but get to grips with tricky problems and offer insightful solutions. The barrier to entry is low, but the ability to manage your own time and be disciplined is what makes designers successful in this scenario, especially when you could just answer your emails and do invoices in bed.
One downside to freelancing is that you are seen as a specialist in one thing and therefore likely to keep getting the same kind of work to do. The work is also likely to be executional rather than strategic, where you are given more task-oriented work to do, and the confines of client budgets and timings mean that more thorough investigations and applications of design aren’t feasible. Again, whether or not you are happy in this situation all depends on where you want to go in your career.
5) Mini Studio
Self-employed designers are slightly different to freelancers in that they deal with their own direct clients instead of temporarily working through another agency or studio. They act, for all intents and purposes, like a mini-studio. This is maybe the least attractive and viable option in a functional UX context, but it’s possible to operate as a consultant leveraging your expertise in a more strategic, high-level capacity. Industry and business connections are vital in this scenario, especially in the early stages of getting your business off the ground. It does offer an almost unlimited ceiling for growth , unlike any of the other options listed previously that might rely on leadership or management tracks within and organisation.
My Latest Chapter
When faced with my own latest job search I weighed up the potential benefits and downsides of all of the above. The most crucial factor was which opportunity would afford me the best set of opportunities for my career and would also give me the balance that I need in my personal life. I’m delighted to say that I took a role as Head of Design at Isobar Ireland, a global agency that delivers digital transformation for a broad range of clients.
Mike Monteiro’s maxim that “design is a job” is now truer than ever, but when looking for a new job weigh up all the factors that could make design your vocation, instead of settling for design simply as an occupation.
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