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Where We Work as Digital Designers

A guide to where to start your design career

Logan DeBiase
Aug 13 · 13 min read

The original medium for this content was a zoom lecture for Flatiron School students entering the job market.

Trying to figure out where to start your UX career sucks. The landscape for UX jobs was never that clear for me until I started bucketing types of companies I encountered. Let’s clear the air, understand the landscape, talk out some job rejection therapy, and get that bread. Mileage may vary.

7 years ago, I started working as a UI Design Intern. I’ve held many titles since then, like an Associate UI Designer, UI Designer, Senior UI/UX Designer, Experience Consultant, Senior Experience Consultant, and now a Product Designer at DocuSign. All the while, cycling through different types of companies. I identify these companies as:

Agencies
Consultancies
Products
Hybrids

As you can imagine, there are things I loved and hated about each type of company. Use this as a guide to consider what your own strengths are and what you enjoy doing to help you focus your job search.

Agencies

Examples: Instrument, Ueno, Big Spaceship, Huge, Work & Co.

Interiors of Instrument’s Portland office featuring a lobby and staircase leading to floors 2 and 3
Interiors of Instrument’s Portland office featuring a lobby and staircase leading to floors 2 and 3
Instrument’s office in Portland.

Agencies are a great place to get your career started. You work on a variety of projects spanning multiple industries very quickly. They are also located in every city on earth. You don’t have to move to a big city to find a great agency.

These digital agencies should not be confused with marketing agencies like Leo Burnett, or branding agencies like Pentagram. But their model is borrowed from marketing agencies which first spun up in the 1800s.

Native App Example
Native App Example
Make this native e-commerce app as beautiful & delightful as you can.

Mobile business to consumer (B2C) is a popular thing agencies like to showcase, and a lovely thing to work on because it’s so tangible — I wish I was still designing native mobile apps, it’s very rewarding to download your own product on your phone. Many successful agencies will also supply themselves with a good amount of business to business (B2B) and business to employee (B2E) work to stay afloat.

You need to challenge the status quo. You are paid to break the rules and be provocative. This space has the least amount of constraints placed on your designs. In other lines of work, designers are often restricted by platforms and code basis that do not allow for such rich animation and novel patterns to exist.

Teamwork is peak.
🤩
You’re never alone.
These people have your back.
You will grow close and become friends.

😱
Maybe you just want to go home instead of hanging out with co-workers all the time.

Creativity is peak.
🤩
Your developers will be used to doing new things, unbound by any platform restrictions.
You are trailblazers.
It’s the closest you’ll get to art as design.

Save this debate for another time, but yeah we get it, design is not art because art is a pursuit of personal themes, while design is the pursuit of your products’ themes. If you design with personal themes, you will fail, I’m just saying, it’s so damn creative at an agency that it feels just as expressive. Try telling a tattoo artist that they aren’t artists because they please clients and that they should be called tattoo designers…

😱
Subjectivity will bleed from your clients if you are not careful. All of my color debates happened here, which is not a good place to put yourself.

Work-life balance.
🤩
Unlimited vacation is thrown around in these groups.
You will become a fast designer, you have no other choice.

😱
More work, less pay.
Quick turnarounds. (Again this can be a positive once you get used to it.)
You may not take much of that unlimited time off.

Maybe you’re an artist. Maybe you thrive in small groups. Maybe you like beer and ping-pong.

Consultancies

The big ones: McKinsey & Company, Accenture, Bain & Company
Smaller ones: Point B, Rightpoint, Slalom (smaller ones can be harder to separate from an agency, but a telltale sign you are looking at a consultancy is that they align themselves with ‘platforms.’ Meaning their designers know how to build on top of configurable software like Google, Salesforce, AWS, Microsoft, etc.)

Interiors of one of Accenture’s global offices featuring a social space
Interiors of one of Accenture’s global offices featuring a social space
Accenture office; One of many, many, many.

It’s a safe job with great benefits, free travel, free snacks, good work if you can get it. This is a highly visible job—meaning you will interface with higher-ups in your client's company. Here, you will hone in on your storytelling skills instead of production skills.

Consultancies have been around since the 1920s. Their offerings at first were things like business consulting and accounting consulting, but only post-Norman, Neilson, Cooper, Ideo, do we see UX strategy as an offering.

Here are some trade-offs compared to working at an agency.

Graph comparing agencies and consultancies
Graph comparing agencies and consultancies
Comparing agencies to consultancies.

As a UX consultant, my work-life balance was much better than at an agency. Many business consultants or partners will tell you they have a terrible work-life balance (and partners make millions per year boo-hoo), but I didn’t see it like that and most of my design peers would agree. Don’t get me wrong, there is work to be done at 3 AM on a Sunday in a dinky hotel room. But that hard work does not outweigh how my boss never knew if I was sitting on a beach or working with a client. And there are many beach days if you know how to get work done quickly.

Example of consultant work
Example of consultant work
Redefine a bank’s sales process & convince them that’s a good idea.

Instead of producing a new product, you may spend the duration of a project convincing a group of higher-ups to change their sales process. And you do this with the tools you have, workshops, presentations, user research, empathy maps, prototypes, whatever. I ended up designing more in google slides then sketch on some projects.

It’s your job to convince people to change. Presentation skills and being able to stand your ground will come in handy. Companies hire you for your expert opinion and to be a trusted advisor — butting heads with people is almost a requirement, but if people are really nice, a bit of inception does the trick. I found a good mark of success on a project is when people around you start repeating the philosophies you told them to other people and passing them off as their own.

Hub and spoke style diagram of home base
Hub and spoke style diagram of home base
Home base diagram

Recently someone asked me to come up with a name for what we were making. It was a system where users started their day and surfaced data, but wasn’t where you could enact each process to change things, i.e. do the work. So we needed a name for this hub and spoke model (you know like a bicycle) that implied there were other spokes.

I kept calling in ‘home base’ which implies there are other bases. Another employee came up to me a month later and said,

“See Logan, I don’t know if anyone has explained this to you yet, but we’re calling this home base because blah blah blah…”

Me: “Oh that’s cool :)”

Fake it till’ you make it. If you’re a new designer, you may feel out of your league trying to convince people who have been in sales for 30 years that their process is broken. But remember, you are a UX expert compared to them. It’s pretty easy to spot an enterprise usability issue. Large companies have insane processes that still use mail and fax machines. The bar is low.

Travel is peak.
🤩
You get to see the world for free.
You get platinum status quickly.
Your partner can come with when projects are over a certain period of time. My wife joined me on a few occasions, including that time we lived in Melbourne, Australia for 4 months for free.

😱
You can’t choose where you’re going to be sent, like Springfield, Massachusetts (sorry, not sorry).
Maybe you have pets or kids.
Really throws off WLB. In 2018, I was not home for 6 months. So that’s 50% of the actual year, not the work year.
Sunday’s were often travel days.

Independence is peak.
🤩
When you’re a senior, you get to do whatever you think is best. No time wasted convincing coworkers.
No blockers, but yourself.

😱
Revolving teams is dramatic.
Lonely.
You are accountable for everything. (Business analysis, strategy, project management, research, UX, UI)

Research is peak.
🤩
Great if you like research.
You will meet a lot of people.
Their problems aren’t that hard to solve. Meaning enterprise software lags so far behind consumer goods.

😱
You’re responsible for a lot more than research. I interviewed 400 people in 1.5 years face to face around the world. A bit excessive I think, if you’ve taken any statistics classes, around 50 people randomly sampled is accurate enough to create solid findings.

You need to be billable.
Consultancies are paid for your time with a client. But it is often the case that your year is not filled with wall to wall client time. This affects how profitable the consultancy sees you.

🤩
You’re getting a bonus at least.
If your year was very busy you may be making more than you expected.

😱
You don’t have control over how billable you are.
You probably won’t hit your target.

Work-life balance.
🤩
Arguably more pay for less work.
On average I was not working 40 hours a week.
I wasn’t going into the office when I didn’t want to.

😱
Late nights cramming.
Traveling cuts deep.

Maybe you have a background in business. Maybe you enjoy service design. Maybe you’re a lone wolf. Maybe you like to interview a lot of people. Maybe you enjoy workshopping more than seeing a final product.

Product

Enterprise Examples: DocuSign, Salesforce, Workday
Consumer Examples: Lyft, TikTok, Netflix

Interiors of an Airbnb office featuring their co-working spaces and themed meeting rooms
Interiors of an Airbnb office featuring their co-working spaces and themed meeting rooms
Airbnb office.

Product companies can cater to businesses and employees, or end consumers, and in many cases both audiences. In this space, you are referred to as a product designer, where the lines of UI and UX roles are blurred into one role.

When was the first product invented? No idea. But if we think about a product being sold or traded by an entity, we can look to records in Japan, where actual companies were selling goods like paper and services like construction and hotels around 500AD — 800AD. Imagine the first time this Japanese paper company got feedback about their paper and how it didn’t work properly with popular writing utensils that most of their customers had. So the paper company modified the paper formula and got better feedback on the writing, but then there was an ink drying problem, so the paper company went back to study and fix that issue. This is the birth of the first research and development lab. These R&D labs are the original model we can look at to see how digital product designers came to be. Before there were digital things, physical engineers and artists would work together on the form and function of their current and future products — cheaper, faster, stronger, material science, stress tests, clay models, color theory, focus groups, and unfortunately planned and perceived obsolescence were tinkered with here.

Here are some trade-offs compared to working at an agency or consultancy.

Chart comparing all three types of companies
Chart comparing all three types of companies
Comparing agencies, consultancies, and product companies.

I believe this is the best work-life balance I’ve had so far. Clients drained my energy overall and since I am now an internal resource driving features on one product, I don’t have clients! I focus on one thing for a few years at a time, instead of constantly jumping around across different verticles and time zones.

Example product work
Example product work
UX and UI the 💩 out of this one ambiguous problem. Prove you did it right.

I think the most solid case studies come from designers at product companies. Product designers can pinpoint what they did to make the product better, and they have access to metrics to make sure they made their product better. This case is much harder to prove at an agency or consultancy.

You need to be a generalist. There is no differentiation between UI and UX here. You need to do both as a product designer.

This isn’t always the case. I think I put product designers on a pedestal for a while because I’ve usually worked in a paired design setting. You can be a product designer who leans more visual than UX, or vice-versa, depending on how they stack the team, you don’t have to be a pro at both. Be honest about where you would like to grow with your hiring manager. They will often say in the job description if they want you to lean visual. Picture them stacking a football team—there are different roles to play.

Focus is peak.
🤩
You get to design a piece of a product for a long enough time to see your baby grow and teach it new things.

😱
Your experience is not being varied, industry-wise.

Ownership is peak.
🤩
You get to concretely say how you have changed the product for the better.
The best case studies come from here.

😱
You are accountable for failure.
I currently own an experience responsible for 16% of our entire revenue. Failure here would dip the company stock.

Work-life balance.
🤩
Arguably more pay for less work.
No clients.
Long roadmaps, which means normally, deadlines shouldn’t be as tight as in other types of companies.

😱
Pressure from conference timelines.

Maybe you enjoy visual and UX thinking at the same time. Maybe you like to focus immensely on one piece of the puzzle instead of hopping around.

Hybrids

Examples: Salesforce (product) has a consultancy, Mckinsey & Company (consultancy) makes products, Accenture (consultancy) owns agencies, others are hard to pinpoint like Ideo (consults and delivers) and R/GA (marketing and digital agency).

A group of people attending a presentation at Fjord’s office in Sweden
A group of people attending a presentation at Fjord’s office in Sweden
Fjord office, Sweden.

Hybrids can be very unique and you can play with the type of environment you’d like to work in. Maybe you’re really creative, so you like the idea of an agency, but you also want job stability which is harder to come by in a small studio. Places like Fjord make a lot of sense to that type of designer because they are free to do progressive things and are backed by Accenture.

There’s our landscape, hopefully this clears things up. Are there other places to work? Kind of, like a bank or a school. Capital One bought Adaptive Path and Monsoon awhile ago, they are supposed to have a solid design culture (their medium account). But aren’t banks and schools selling products and services?

Agencies: Fast, Friendly, Ubiquitous, Creative
Consultancies: Travel and perks, Workshops, Inception
Products: WLB, Focus, Parenting Pride
Hybrids: Mixed Bag…

To be clear, this is my personal experience. Many agencies have a great WLB, many product companies have a terrible WLB. You can be severely underpaid at a consultancy. Every experience will be unique to you.

Also, work-life balance is what you make of it in many ways. You can devote yourself to your company even when they are not asking you to. I could have worked harder as a consultant, many people do. And I have worked hard as a consultant—hard enough to get accolades and promotions. Hard enough to not sleep and grind my teeth subconsciously all day. But at some point, after refining your craft and finding confidence in being yourself, you can release that burden you put on yourself. At some point, you can walk into a room and say I’ve done this before, it’s not a big deal. It’s important in this sense, to not take yourself too seriously. If you take yourself too seriously, you will think everything is intimidating. You will not react well to good feedback. If you think you’re more important than you are, you will overwork yourself. It’s your responsibility to be in control of your work-life balance.

Getting that bread

As you noodle on what type of company you’d like to work at, remember, any of these experiences will help you grow as a designer. There is no right or wrong way to navigate these waters. When you’re starting out, you need to grab anything you can. After a few years, you can be more selective, and choose where you want to work by focusing your search based on work-life balance, type of work, potential growth, ethics, etc. A big ethical reason I recently joined DocuSign is because of their commitment to eliminate paper processes.

But I didn’t snap my fingers and get a new job. Interviewing is a lesson in humility. This isn’t the first time I tried to leave my previous company either. In past rounds, I was passively looking or gave up and focused on building my skill set until I was ready to interview again.

Animated image of a funnel diagram featuring stats from author’s interview experience with a description
Animated image of a funnel diagram featuring stats from author’s interview experience with a description
Some of my personal statistics on finding a new job.

My last stint of interviewing took 6 months as I applied to 36 companies around the world and got 2 offers at the end of the day.

This should not be disheartening! If you go out there and expect a job right away, you will be let down. This is a tough task for you and the hiring manager. There may be five perfect candidates they whittle down to and they have to pick one, not five. There is no silver medal. Prepare for the long haul and for every time you were rejected know that that is a shared experience among all of us—you’re not alone. This acknowledgment frees you to get better at telling your story and persist without self-doubt because the rejection is not you, it’s the process.

Thanks for watching, visit me elsewhere!

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DocuSign Design

We’re designing and writing for a more agreeable world…

Thanks to Jake Mitchell

Logan DeBiase

Written by

Product Designer at DocuSign · http://logandebiase.webflow.io/

DocuSign Design

We’re designing and writing for a more agreeable world every day. This collection gives a peek into how we work and the things we are building.

Logan DeBiase

Written by

Product Designer at DocuSign · http://logandebiase.webflow.io/

DocuSign Design

We’re designing and writing for a more agreeable world every day. This collection gives a peek into how we work and the things we are building.

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