Deciding Between In-House, Agency and Freelance Design

Almost as challenging as crafting the perfect design solution, deciding on where and how to work will shape your career in graphic design. Some designers work in the marketing departments of Fortune 500 companies. Others express their creativity for a variety of clients by working in advertising agencies. Then there are those who work from home in their pajamas.

Only you can choose what type of environment will suit your personality best. What works for you may not work for another designer. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each distinct direction and why all graphic design is not created equal.



In-House Graphic Design Office

Target. American Greetings. Bank of America. Every major company has an advertising/marketing department, and most have graphic designers on staff. These designers are responsible for the company’s marketing and promotional materials, website updates and presentation graphics.

Pros: The greatest asset to working in-house is the stability that it brings both to the company and to the designer (which certainly can’t be understated in the current economic market.) Companies appreciate the assurance of having an “on-call” design department on the cheap, where graphic designers value predictable working hours, assured payment for work, no contracts, and benefits packages such as paid time off and a 401k.

Cons: More often than not, once you go corporate you never go back. It is very easy to pigeonhole your portfolio by working on a single brand for an extended period of time. This risk is even greater for those recent graduates just entering the industry. The workplace can leave you wanting, especially those who thrive in team-oriented environments. In addition, companies expect their designers to adhere to strict branding guidelines with little room for “fresh” design experimentation. After time, many designers’ creative juices dry up and they are left with a portfolio filled with vacuum cleaner ads.



Advertising Agency Office

Advertising agencies offer planning, strategy and creative problem solving to a plethora of clients. Designers are members of a team that develop unforgettable ad campaigns, catchy tag lines and eye-popping graphics. Some agencies specialize in areas such as interactive design, while others may be broader in scope.

Pros: Perhaps the largest advantage to working in an advertising agency is the variety of clients and projects; everything from branding, to print brochures, to website design, to interactive applications, to commercial spots, and so on. You will never be bored and neither will your portfolio. Employees work in a fast-paced environment built around teams striving for top-notch awards and recognition from the advertising community. Agencies are known for inspiring, open work spaces void of cubicles and ripe for creative interaction between employees. If you thrive on collaboration and relationship-building, agency life could be for you. Last, most agencies offer competitive salaries with opportunities for promotion to leadership positions such as Art Director and Creative Director.

Cons: Long hours, creative burn-out and job insecurity are a few of the negatives to working in an advertising agency. When deadlines are set, deadlines must be met, and finishing a project late into the night is common. Because working at such high intensity can lead to creative block and burn-out, it’s important to find balance between work and home to re-energize. Profits are built around client revenue, so when a major account is lost, so could your job. This is an important consideration if you have a family and children who rely on you for support.



Freelance Office

As the name implies, these designers are their own bosses. With great freedom comes great responsibility and the freelance graphic designer will be the first to tell you that developing and maintaining an established clientele is no easy task. These designers have the flexibility to customize schedules around their personal lives and families, as well as budget the amount of projects they take on.

Pros: Becoming a freelance designer or consultant will provide you with the ultimate flexibility and creative freedom. Freelancers have the option to choose what type of projects to work on, and who to work for. As you build a reputation and a clientele, these choices become even more apparent. These designers get to set their own pay rate and in many cases are among the highest earners. Because your schedule is ultimately up to you, balancing work habits with family and outside commitments is easier than in agency or in-house design.

Cons: High Risk. High Reward. As a freelance designer, it’s an “eat what you kill” business model and the absence of a steady paycheck can stressful. This is especially true for recent graduates just entering the industry who do not have the experience or reputation to bring in work. You will be working alone, which can have an adverse effect on the creative process. Freelancers must be organized in order to manage client contracts and billing, legal considerations, as well as business marketing.

What advice can you give readers about where you worked as a graphic designer? Do you prefer one work environment over another?

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3 thoughts on “Deciding Between In-House, Agency and Freelance Design

  1. adamn3l says:

    A really interesting post here. I haven’t a clue which path to take in my life, hopefully I’ll know soon 🙂

  2. stefaniemoore says:

    Many of my designer friends work in-house but then do freelance on the side. That might sound a little stressful, but if you can make it work, you have the best of both worlds. And who knows, maybe after you’ve established yourself as a freelancer, that can be the more permanent gig.

    Solid post, Phil.

  3. Phil H says:

    I’m not sure I would ever make freelance design a permanent career. I personally enjoy the structure of a 9-5 job while being surrounded by other creatives. I do think having a repertoire of outside clients to bring in extra income can never hurt though!

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