When I graduated from college, I thought my ideal career track would take me to IDEO or Cooper—agencies whose work seemed to be the pinnacle of design.
At the same time, I was almost exclusively applying to in-house design jobs. You might say that I was a recent college grad and it was a recession so I was willing to go after any job I thought I could get. You would be right! However, as I searched through job description after job description, I realized that I was not excited by agency jobs, but by in-house design positions at companies doing cool stuff.
Recently, I reflected on my preference for in-house design. When researching for this piece, I found that most articles that purport to compare and contrast agency vs. in-house design regularly gloss over the parts that I think make in-house design so much more fulfilling. The perks they come up with are job security, regular hours, and benefits. Blech. These are seriously the lamest “perks” I’ve ever heard. No wonder no one thinks in-house design is cool. To do my part to make the design world a better informed (and perhaps a better overall) place, I present the real benefits to in-house design:
The In-House Designer’s Manifesto
You Choose What you Work on
One of the biggest misconceptions about working at an agency or as a freelancer over in-house is that you get more freedom to choose the projects you work on. This is bullshit. I mean, yes, agencies and freelancers, assuming they’re good enough and well-known enough to have their pick of clients, do get to be choosy. But so do you. As an in-house designer, you choose where you work. No one is forcing you. You can work for a company that you’re excited about. And you get to work there all of the time! Not just adjacent for a few months. If you’re passionate about the product or service you’re working on, you’ll produce better work and you’ll be happy to do it.
Working from the inside, you are intimately familiar with your company. This sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked. You know your product or service better than an outside agency. You understand the company behind the product, where the company is, and where it’s going. You know what will and won’t fly with customers and stakeholders. You understand how what you’re designing fits into the bigger picture, the product road map, the brand as a whole. You know what’s important, so you can balance your time and effort accordingly.
Your goals and the company’s goals are aligned. I cannot stress how important this is. The goal of a project is to increase conversions, help the customer complete a task, attract enterprise customers, whatever it is. The goal is not to win design awards. While sometimes these disparate goals lead to the same result, they are often mutually exclusive. Increasing conversions often means making a “sign up” button clash with the page. Simplifying the process so customers can understand it in 10 seconds or less often means removing some pretty decoration. This type of design is necessary and really rewarding, but it’s not going to be featured in Communication Arts. When your goal is to help your company succeed, you’re more enthusiastic to make these compromises, whereas an agency has no incentive to do so.
One of the main reasons I wanted to stay away from design agencies was because I can only take so much of “creatives.” I never self-identified as an “art person,” and I often find a lot of self-proclaimed “artists” unbearable. Sorry, but it’s true (for me at least.) Being a designer at a company, you get to work with lots of different types of people: engineers, PR, human resources, illustrators, product managers, you name it. Collaborating with different groups is still one of my favorite things. You can learn a lot from people who are different from you, who think about the world differently, who go about solving problems from a different angle. These people also have inside information that you might not have. And you have access to them all the time. Just walk over to them or pick their brain over lunch. Cross-disciplinary teams are my jam.
You Have Influence
As a designer or a member of a small design team at a large company, you are the expert on design. You’re not just a cog in the giant design machine. Sure, there’s the “clients from hell” stereotype of awful higher-ups with terrible design sense who shit all over your work, but that can happen just as easily with clients at an agency. If you’re working with quality people they’ll understand that you have the expertise to make design decisions. Not everything can, or even should, be in your control, of course. Sometimes business decisions override design decisions. However, if you’re a trusted member of the company, you have more leverage to fight for what you think is truly important.
Opportunity to Iterate
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. You’re essentially never going to get everything right the first time. This happens whether you’re a design agency or in-house. Agencies come in, do a large project or overhaul, and just as quickly, they’re gone. Whether or not their design had the desired impact makes no difference. The beautiful part of working as an in-house designer is that you have the opportunity (you say obligation, I say opportunity!) to make it better, iteration by iteration. You get to see your work evolve and change with the company. You can also see how your work is directly impacting the company, which is pretty cool. Analytics are addictive.
I’ve come to realize that I’ll never work for Landor or Frog or Pentagram or Fuse Project. I respect the work they produce. Sometimes, I still daydream about IDEO and Cooper, but ultimately, I’m happier and produce better results from the inside.
A few years ago, no one at a design conference would think in-house design was cool (except when it’s for MTV, I found out, which is ironic because it’s actually not that cool on the inside.) Now, as start-ups are gaining more mainstream popularity and making design a higher priority, designing in-house for companies like Facebook or Pinterest or Square is becoming cool. I think this trend is awesome and that, ultimately, it will produce a better, more thoughtfully designed world for all of us. Cheers to all you in-house heros.
PS: If by some chance you’re Alan Cooper and you’re reading this, I’m so sorry and I love you and maybe I could reconsider and are you offering?
PS: I’m embarking on a quest to help Product Designers land their dream jobs. If you want to learn more, subscribe to my newsletter.