Career Planning…Agency vs. In-House vs. Freelance vs. Academia

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Career planning is important in any field, but as an emerging designer or developer, there are some unique challenges and realities that you should be aware of.

I am hoping that you are a young designer or developer either currently in college or a recent graduate. I’d like to talk about the four different career paths you can take: Agencies, In-House, Freelance, and Academia. These four encompass 99% of the design and development careers I have seen.

I am going to tell you what I wish I knew as a 22-year-old just entering the workforce. Aside from a “professional practices” class design students may or may not have…nobody is going to talk to you about this. It’s a shame too. Most programs are so busy trying to teach you the fundamentals that they completely neglect a lot of practical, real-world knowledge.

But first, a few ground rules:

  • I’m going to tell you what each of these are, including the good, bad, and ugly. I will also touch briefly on trends I see for each going into the future.
  • I’m going to speak to each of these paths in a role-agnostic fashion. No matter what you are: a designer, a developer, a marketer…the general environment and type of clients you will deal with will probably be similar.
  • Nothing that I mention is a 100% certainty. There are always exceptions. I am simply giving you my own personal perspective.

So…lets dive in.


The Agency

What is it?

The first path we will discuss is the agency. Ah, the agency. They have many titles: “digital agency”, “marketing agency”, advertising agency”, etc. These are businesses that offer their services to other businesses (or as it’s often called on paper: “B2B” or “business to business”).

For example, advertising agency XYZ will develop ad campaigns for their customer’s products or services. Another digital agency may design and develop a website or digital products for their customer. The point: agencies are hired to do specialized work that their customers can’t, or won’t hire employees to do. If you’re a law firm with 20 employees, why hire an entire design team, pay their salaries, benefits, workers comp, etc. when you can you can just hire out?

The Good

  • Diverse work: As an employee of an agency you will likely have a large amount of diverse work to fill your days and your portfolio.
  • Culture: There’s a good chance you will be surrounded by many like-minded, creative folks.

The Bad

  • Work-life balance:  Many of my colleagues have reported fair to less than ideal work-life balances as they put in long days for demanding customers. That may or may not be good depending on if you need flexibility or a stable schedule.
  • Pay: A crapshoot, at best. Some of my colleagues in other areas of the country have had no complaints. From my own experiences in Upstate New York (this is an economically depressed region), I have never received a job offer from an agency that wasn’t at least a 20% salary haircut from my previous in-house job. More on in-house jobs to come.

The Ugly

Non-competes: Some agencies will make you sign non-compete agreements, limiting your ability to freelance while you work for them. Agencies want you all to themselves. They fear that working for yourself in any capacity may mean competition for them, divided attention, or worse: poaching their customers. Some agreements may even stipulate not operating in a certain geographic area after you leave the agency. Those agreements are sometimes legally gray, and may not be enforceable depending on the state you’re in. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for advice from one before signing anything.

Trends

  • Distributed networks: Networks of freelancers in different geographic locations will eventually become more commonplace and challenge the traditional agency model.
  • Agencies being swallowed up: One trend we’ve seen over the past few years has been the idea of large corporations swallowing up design firms to create in-house departments. A few years ago, Wired talked about this trend which has continued, unabated. It seems like only yesterday that the founders of Teehan+Lax closed shop to join Facebook.
  • Race to the bottom: Everything is a race to the bottom. Whether it’s using prefabricated templates for websites or hiring contractors instead of full-time employees, everything is designed to cut costs…even at the expense of quality or someone’s livelihood. This trend is as old as time.

In-House

What is it?

As an in-house employee, you’d be working for a company to develop their own products internally. For example: large companies like Amazon and Microsoft employ in-house developers, designers, etc. to create their products or manage their brands and internal brand assets.

The Good

  • Consistency and stability: One great thing about in-house is the consistency. You have a steady paycheck, benefits, and likely a consistent schedule. There are the late nights that come with every job, however, it will be far less common than in an agency or freelance setting.

The Bad

  • Work diversity: There is no diversity in your job. You’re on an internal team, that’s it. If you work in-house for a company that bottles olive oil…then your body of work is going to reflect that.
  • Culture mismatch: There’s a good chance your company won’t know, or even have any concept of what you do. If you’re a UX/UI designer in a computer science-heavy engineering firm, your coworkers may see you simply as the guy/gal who “makes things pretty” and have no idea that your process/user testing/validation is important to their software development cycle.  Conversely, if you’re the lone developer in a company that doesn’t design software, you’re going to be asked to set up a lot of printers by your coworkers…

The Ugly

  • Isolation: Some companies may have large and diverse in-house teams, however, that’s not guaranteed. I worked for a long time as the lone designer and developer in-house. It gets lonely when there are no other creatives around you.

Trends

  • Companies finally taking design seriously: Many larger companies are beginning to take design seriously. A decade ago, if you told me that one day IBM would take design seriously and have a crack in-house design team, I would have laughed in your face. They did though, as did Microsoft, Google, and many others. Other, smaller companies founded by software engineers may or may not, but oh well. It’s nice to at least see the Fortune 500 wake up.
  • Design systems: Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about design systems. Design systems go beyond simple style guides in the fact that they also define principles and product practices (common interface and system elements) that help standardize products and scale across enterprises.

Freelance/Your Own Studio

What is it?

You’re in business for yourself. Do you want to take the day off? Fantastic, do it! Do you want to eat ice cream and work in your PJs? Have at it! You’re your own boss. You work on projects when you want and charge what you want. This sounds fantastic, but there is an added amount of responsibility that comes with being your own boss. It requires a lot of extra work when someone is not managing your benefits, accounting, or writing your paychecks. You need to be a self-starter with a lot of discipline.

The Good

  • Rewarding: It’s trite, but true: nothing is more rewarding than pursuing your passion and saying “I built this.”
  • Flexibility: You can work when you want, where you want. As long as the work gets done and you communicate regularly with your customers, everything is fine.
  • Limitless potential: You don’t have a salary per say. The more work you find, the more you can make. Assuming you can scale your business up, your potential growth is unlimited.

The Bad

  • Certainty: There is no steady paycheck. While you can make as much as you want assuming that you can find customers…if you face a dry spell, you’re on your own.
  • Normalcy: If you run a home studio, or have space near your home, it’s very tempting to let work creep into your home life. Maybe it’s an e-mail you just got from a customer…it will take only 10 minutes to look into right? That’s the sort of thing that will make you burn out over time. In a small studio doing freelance, it’s really tempting to stay plugged in. Resist that urge.
  • Isolation: Despite the fact that you will interact with customers and contractors, most of your work is done alone. It’s a lonely job. As a solo developer, I am in my office 70% of the week, by myself, alone, banging on a keyboard.

The Ugly

  • Everything is on you: Besides the occasional referral, no one is going to go out and find your customers but you.  You will have to go out and pound the pavement yourself. Bookkeeping? You’re going to either have to do that yourself or pay somebody. Benefits? What benefits? You’re going to have buy health insurance yourself…which would probably cost anywhere from 400-1200 a month, depending on if you have a spouse or children. Are you getting the point? You’re on your own. Nobody is coming to help you.

Trends


Academia

What is it?

Teaching is a very rewarding job. You’re (hopefully) imparting your valuable knowledge to the next generation. There are generally three types of Professors:

  • Tenured/Tenure-track professors: Full-time employees of the college who are either tenured or on their way to it.  Assuming you make tenure, you have a job for life. Tenure/Tenure-track professors have added responsibilities that can include conducting research in their fields, sitting on committees, and being involved in community projects. It’s the biggest payoff, but the most responsibility. You’re also going to need a terminal degree (MFA, PHD) to qualify for these positions. Tenure-track positions are getting harder and harder to come by as schools hire more adjuncts to cut costs and competition increases.
  • Contract professors: Also full-time employees of the school, however, these professors work on a contract-to-contract basis…and technically, when your contract is over, the school could lay you off. I have known contract professors who have been teaching for decades at the same school.  Some folks love it. You will probably have fewer responsibilities than your tenured colleagues. To apply for these positions you will need a terminal degree, or a regular masters degree and a lot of experience.
  • Adjunct professors: These professors are part-time employees of the college. You won’t have an office. You won’t have benefits. You will be hired on a semester-to-semester basis and can be let go anytime between. You will also have the least amount of responsibility: no hiring committees, no community involvement, and nobody will blame you for not going to a faculty meeting you’re not getting paid for. These positions are very popular for folks who want to teach but maintain their status as working professionals. Educational requirements vary by the type of school and program level you apply to. For example, state universities may require a terminal degree to teach in post-graduate programs. Private schools may take less formal education based on your experience. Why not? They’re private institutions. They can do whatever they want as long as they stay accredited and it’s OK with their trustees.

The Good

  • Rewarding: There’s something fantastic about being around fresh young minds. You get to challenge them with new ideas and difficult work and watch them get better over time.
  • Stability (Tenure/Contract): Being a full-time professor provides a lot of stability. Tenure/Tenure tracks offer the most. I’ve also rarely heard of contract professors being let go.
  • Getting your foot in the door (Adjunct): Do you want to teach somewhere full-time? Adjuncting in the short term may be a great way to prove yourself and get on the school’s radar.

The Bad

  • Lack of jobs (Tenure): As time goes on, full-time jobs are becoming more and more hard to come by. Tenure/Tenure-track positions are essentially jobs-for-life that require a lot of time and investment from you in terms of research, activities, and community involvement. I have a colleague who sat on hiring committees for full-time community college professor slots, and he would tell me about the people who would come in from California, Montana, Texas…literally, the opposite sides of the country…for a community college job. If you want a full-time job teaching, you may have to come to grips with the idea of going where the work is.

The Ugly

  • Adjuncting for a living: Adjunct teaching can be good to get your foot in the door or earn a few extra dollars, but generally it’s a losing game for faculty if you have to depend on it for a living (yes, many people do, and most students and the general public are oblivious to this fact). There are no benefits. The pay is extremely low for the time you spend preparing materials, and if you don’t like it there are plenty of other people who will take your place. In many schools, you could teach 10 classes a semester and still make less than the school janitors and not get benefits. Yeah…good times.

Trends


So, what path is right for me?

Why the hell are you asking me that question?

In all seriousness, there is no correct answer.

Goalposts

The “right” path for you is what fits your goals and objectives. Did you just graduate college? Then maybe you’ll want to move to a big city and work for an agency. Are you getting ready to start a family?  If so, then maybe you’ll want a nice cozy in-house job. Need health insurance?  Then don’t teach adjunct for a living!  Like I said: what you do depends on what you want to accomplish in life.

Lateral Moves

Most people can switch paths at any time. I’ve worked In-house, been an adjunct faculty member at three different schools, and worked in my own studio. In all likelihood, you’re going to move around a lot in your careers, so don’t be a afraid to try something new.

…and finally…

In the words of C. Montgomery Burns: “I want you to remember some inspiring words that someone else might have told you over the course of your lives, and go out there and win!”

 

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// About the Author

Jason Occhipinti

Jason Occhipinti is a designer and developer from Upstate New York. He's an MFA graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and when he's not running Positive Space LLC, he's teaching communication and interactive design at PrattMWP and Lindsey Wilson College. He also sometimes likes to talk in the third person.