Freelance vs In-house

Design is hard. Deciding who to work for is harder.


I’ve done both working freelance full time, and worked in-house for both a corporate work environment and a design agency. This is really for the designer who has just graduated (or in my case, left) design school—and pondering either working for themselves full time, or working in-house for a design agency.

Going Rogue

After the second night of being up until around 3am, I’m now seeing a dim gleam of light, glowing in between the window shades of my office.

I did it again. I had stayed up all night, the entire night, coding a project.

After the realization kicks in, I am now aware of the empty cans of energy drinks (including a giant can of Four Loko, regrettably). Also, scattered throughout my desk were wrappers of granola bars, m&ms, & crumbs from whatever food I hastily ate while coding one of the four contracts I agreed to take on as a freelance designer & developer. My neck is starting to feel the strain of holding up my giant head (By the way, I’m not touting about the size of my brain. I’m being literal — I wear size XL hats.), and my hands were still working off the buzz / energy fix I had whipped up for myself while writing lines and lines of code throughout the night.

Through the weird decision to drink a questionable energy & alcoholic concoction, and coding through a haze of energy, fatigue, stress and a drunken appreciation for all things metal & angry music on my playlist, I had submitted the final loop of php that would finish the website, thus, completing the contract. Although, this being one of the biggest projects of my freelance career at the time, I was not prepared for the fight that would ensue through the court systems, and an eventual settlement, just so that I could simply get paid for the work I slaved over for the last 3 months.

Rent was due. Car loan was due. A dose of sanity was due.

I was probably out of, fucking, dog food.

Since I took this contract as a priority — also thinking this would increase my status as a web designer, I neglected the other small time contracts I had also committed to that month. Now that I knew I wasn’t getting paid anytime soon for “The Big One,” I had to make frantic phone calls and emails throughout the week to either extend deadlines, or get on my hands and knees so-to-speak for an advance for the other projects I took on. This, in turn, lead to more hazy morning glow through the window shades, and other questionable witch brews of diabolical energy drinks & alcohol.

The middle of 2010 was not a great year for me.

ANYWAY. Being a freelance designer or developer can be amazing. But a lot of the times, it is hard work just to simply get paid.

I’m not kidding. If you’re a soft spoken designer, and the idea of having a go-to lawyer and having funds set aside for things like court fees and emergency, “oh shit” money scary, than being a freelance designer probably isn’t for you. If you’re scared of confronting people over the phone, or even showing up at their place of business with an unpaid invoice, being a freelance designer probably isn’t for you. If you have social anxiety disorder, and you find the idea of meeting up with a lot of strangers at a design meet up to promote yourself, dreading the idea of interacting with strange humans that stir up conversations starting with, “It’s like Facebook, but…” Being a freelance designer probably isn’t for you.

Working 100% freelance means you can work as hard as you want, so you can have free time for as long as you wish. What people who work freelance sometimes won’t tell you is that you’re never not working. What I mean by this is, say you’ve wrapped up your latest project in a pretty bow. If you don’t have a solid structure in which you get paid (either half up front, or hourly wage that comes in weekly,) there is no guarantee that your contactee will actually make an effort to pay you. You could be working, sweat blood and tears to make their product picture perfect, and if your payment structure hasn’t already contractually has been set in stone, you could be looking at potential courtime down the road.

I realize this is a subjective experience, and for you, being a freelance designer was all candy and unicorns, good for you. But, for a lot of designers, being a freelance has dramatic ups and downs.

Some months were fantastic. I would get contracts that would actually pay me up front. Some projects came in small and one at a time, either from churches or schools that needed custom Wordpress sites. I even got a project from a driving school that needed me to program an entire course / test system that the student would be able to do at least 80% of their class online. Some projects I would be able to complete near the beginning of the week, and spend the remainder of the week doing whatever I liked. I got to rub elbows online with designer hot shots, meet interesting and engaging people at design meetups to promote myself and get new contracts, and generally get to tell “The Man” what-for.

The good months were great, and the bad months were shitty and terrifying.

Agencies, & Other Doomed Platoons

Being a freelance designer was something I had no control over. At the time I was working for a design agency that the majority of income that came in were projects for the current governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. We also got work for different political propositions at the time. Our primary contractees were the republican party, so a lot of the color red was required for our designs and print work. It was a great gig for me at the time. I had just come from working at a local t.v station, doing satisfying, yet, to me, underpaid work. This opportunity came in the form as a referral, and it was something I couldn’t pass up.

We had a great seven or eight months of consistent work. Everyone from Arny, Sharon Stone, and a variety of political hot-shots had design and development work that came through our doors. It was the first time that I could ever say that, I, created a landing page for something like a Sharon Stone charity fund. Prior to this, the biggest thing I could claim doing was figuring out how to design a mining pick axe to a show’s logo, and somehow manage not to melt my eyes while developing their dot-net-nuke website. I still get cold sweats at night from making a dot-net-nuke template.

The design agency was a very fast paced work environment. Emphasis on the fast.

It was so fast paced, that we had designers, developers, and even project managers, coming in and out of the office building, being laid off or quitting for not being able to keep up with the pace.

It was like a designer’s gauntlet.

Nay, It was the fucking hunger games of design agencies.

I am still great friends with my old boss, but man, that job was fun, but the deadlines were absolutely brutal. I have to admit that I learned a shit-ton of skills from that design agency. Because of the fact that our deadlines were so crazy fast (I think I can even recall a couple of same-day complete Wordpress development projects,) that I learned how not to make any mistakes to my Wordpress themes, and utilizing the best & easiest sure-fire way to write my CSS so it would be IE6 compatible. A lot of the work I designed was quick, but I managed to learn 3 years worth of coding experience in less than a year.

Think of working for a design agency as like, going to bootcamp. It really sucks at the time, but once you’re out, you feel like you’re ready for anything.

If you are up for crazy deadlines and production-line centric design, maybe design agencies are your thing. Once again, this is subjective. Hopefully your design agency does all the right things, and somehow found a magical way to convince your clients that they can afford to wait for the best product. Sadly, the reality is, a lot of design agencies are just looking to keep their heads above the water. So dance code monkey. Dance!

Requirements, Neck Ties & Thanks!

Working as an in-house designer can sometimes be monotonous, but you get to trade process type work for security and, like, real paper money. My first real in-house design gig where I didn’t have to work for a design agency, was a government access & security company. During my interview, I noticed a general quietness in the work area — I could hear the buzz of everyone’s computers, there were no pictures or “flare” on the top of cubicles and it seamed as though the place was half empty. The job was labled in the craigslist ad as a “UI Designer.” To which I submitted and thought, great! I could do user interfaces! — In the Hunger Games, I designed several iphone & ipad apps, alongside a cornucopia of websites. This should be cake! During the interview, as she was describing the job description, I later realized that “UI” to them meant “user information,” which implied a lot more information archtecture work than visual design.

Well, besides the nomenclature mix-up, I was hired and actually had a great time there. Since I was more inclined to visual design as opposed to information architecture, I got to apply the skills I gained along with learning some new skills that went along with actual information architeture for large systems. Through the two years I spent with that company, we redesigned the entire website which retained a little less than a million visits a year, I got to have complete say over the company’s user experience and flow for their apps and web-based programs, and got to learn a lot about corporate politics.

Working in-house has a bunch of great perks, especially for designers who want / need the job security. Yes, there can be corporate politics involved, but as long as you retain all project agreements in written format like email, and know how to act during meetings & take notes, you’ll be fine. Granted, your priorities won’t be for making yourself rich necessarily, you’ll be working to make your company look and function better. But, in return for working for “The Man”, (I hate that term, by the way. Who is “The Man,” anyway? Most of my managers have been women.) give you security, room for growth, and leeway so you can do something else besides work on your free time.

Also, working in a corporate work environment also means not just designing great things for the company, but also getting your seat at the table with the big wigs. Pushing great design also means pushing the way the work culture traditionally works. In order to get your say on how the design should be, you need to convince the company you’re working for to invest in real user research and interviews, participation in development, whether it be literal prototypes or requirement paired flat design, and backing your views up with analytics and research. To design corporate also means to learn how to properly communicate your designs. There are a ton of theories and talks on how all this works, the point is it isn’t just about pushing pixels anymore when it comes to in-house corporate design.

Now I’m working as a full-time contractor, and I have to say, I love it. Besides having the opportunity to work from home full time (if you want to see what that’s like, read my last article.)

It really all depends on how you want your work, life and security balance to be like. I know, for myself personally, I enjoy being able to hit the surf on weekends rather than hunting for my latest invoice as a freelancer, or suffering from early onset carpal tunnel from designing at an agency. I do suggest, however, do not try going freelance right out of school, unless A: You’ve already got a design network set up, and already have work on your plate. Or B: you’re a wunderkind who can just magically summon money without so much as lifting a pinky.


You can follow Casey on twitter @caseyhald. Casey enjoys riding his motorcycle and hitting the surf. You can view some of Casey’s art on dribbble if you want. Casey loves a good pale ale. Casey occasionally speaks about himself in the third person.