In-house, Agency, Freelance design

Figuring out what kind of organisation you’d like to work in can be difficult without trying it out first. I consider myself lucky to have experienced working as a designer in four very different contexts over the past three years, so here are the top perks and challenges from each of those experiences. My biggest learning is that working in a range of teams and organisations really helps you figure out what kind of environment you thrive in, and that you’re never locked into one or another — chances are you’ll end up dabbling among them all sooner or later.

In-house (private sector)

Design intern, TradeMe

Perks:

  1. Diverse teams. Working alongside developers, testers, project managers, and marketing gurus broadens your view on what it takes to get projects into the world, and taught me about different processes (agile, scrum).
  2. Less time pressure than an agency. Time to think, and craft things.
  3. Learning the intimate ins and outs of one brand and the world around it. This depth of knowledge is often really useful for other contexts.

Challenges:

  1. Working in a large company (it grew from 200ish to 400ish in the year I was there) can make it difficult to feel like you fit in. Personally I prefer smaller teams and knowing everyone’s name.
  2. Lack of diversity in role. Because it was a large business focusing on (mainly) one product, this meant that roles were comparatively focused. This is perfect for some people but it helped me learn that I need variety to stay engaged.

In-house (public sector)

Design intern, Department of Internal Affairs

Perks:

  1. The opportunity to create positive change for a massive range of New Zealanders.
  2. Learning government processes. Although it can feel like hard work, this knowledge is incredibly valuable if you plan to live in Wellington; no matter where you work, you’ll probably end up working on some government projects. Prepare for the onslaught of acronyms.
  3. Networks. People are often well connected across government agencies, so it’s a great opportunity to meet new people and learn about other agencies and projects.

Challenges:

  1. Bureaucracy and intense hierarchies. Working in government is all about relationships and consultation, which is why everything takes so long. It’s not for those without patience, and it definitely tested mine.
  2. Design as a new process. Although design thinking is the flavour of the month, on the whole, government agencies are still relatively new to the design process. This can mean that there are fewer experienced designers to learn from and can be some lacking understanding around the design process and different types of design capability.
  3. PC’s. Because, you know, macs are expensive.

Design agency

Service and Experience designer, DNA

Perks:

  1. Diversity. I typically work across 2–6 projects at once, for different clients, in different sectors. Nothing ever feels overly repetitive.
  2. Intimate and experienced team. DNA is considered to be a larger design agency (60+ across New Zealand), but it’s still small enough to feel like an extended family which is lovely. Everyone is also crazy-good at what they do, with lots of experience to boot. It’s an amazing place to learn.
  3. Financial transparency. In an agency, time really is money. You learn a lot about the real cost of projects and how to budget/plan accordingly, which is incredibly valuable to understand.

Challenges:

  1. Agency workload is a rollercoaster. Sometimes you’re so busy that it’s hard to keep up, while other times you’re not so busy and need to occupy yourself with internal projects. It’s a weird contrast that I’m still getting used to.
  2. Less formal support structures. This is a funny one — although the comparatively flat structure of smaller businesses means you feel comfortable talking to anyone in the team, it can also mean that there are not the formal support structures or roles in place that larger businesses have (such as Human Resources). It’s a good place for those with a ‘can-do’ attitude, who will create the change they want to happen.

On-the-side Freelance

Range of projects including Shift, NZ Data Commons

Perks:

  1. Responsibility. You learn a lot very quickly, because you’re expected to have the answers.
  2. Freedom to choose. Because I’ve not relied on freelancing as a main source of income, I’ve had the luxury of choosing to work on projects that have really interested me, alongside some amazing people.

Challenges:

  1. Getting stuck. Because you’re a bit of a one-man-band, it can mean feeling a bit stuck when it comes to bouncing design ideas or concepts. In these times I’ve relied on my husband for feedback, and have been lucky enough to have amazing clients who have actually been more team members than ‘clients’ per se.
  2. Getting business savvy. Freelancing means you need to do the sometimes tedious businessy stuff like contracts, time-sheets, and invoicing.

**Amazing fruit doodle by the amazing Amy Revell.

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