Rob Young
Rob Young
Jan 8, 2018 · 4 min read

Hiring the right design firm or freelance designer can be daunting. There is a wide range of quality, price, and cultural fit to consider when making a decision. Should you hire a big agency, a small studio, or a freelance?

“It’s not as straightforward as you might think,” says Catherine Winfield, director of experience design at Foundation Medicine and formerly at MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab. “Not all agencies are the same. Knowing who to hire is no different than knowing if you need a flathead or phillips screwdriver.”

Here are some things to consider when deciding what kind of design firm to hire.

Hiring a big agency

Big agencies serve big companies with big budgets and long timelines. They excel at managing complex projects with many deliverables.

“I recommend big agencies if the capabilities and services needed are broad with an unclear or expanding scope,” says Mike Buzzard, founder of Cuban Council, a design agency acquired by Google. At Google, Buzzard advises teams that need to hire design agencies. “I also recommend big agencies if a senior project or account manager are needed to help with strategy and execution.”

Big agencies employ top designers, and it shows in the work they deliver. “Big agencies attract world class talent and have access to best in class tools,” says Winfield. “However, if you are a small company, going with a large company can backfire. Big agencies have big client lists. If you are on the smaller side, there is a good chance you won’t get the attention you are hoping for.”

Big agencies assign dedicated teams to an account. This means you’ll get a full-service design offering. You’ll also get as many designers, writers, and any other experts your project requires. This comes with a lot of overhead. But the fit and finish can justify the fees the best agencies command.

Big Agencies are best for

  • Project Scope large
  • Timeline medium or long
  • Budget large

Hiring a small studio

Small studios are nimble. They are able to take on projects for companies of varying sizes. Some studios specialize in one product or service category, while others have broader offerings. Like big agencies, the best small studios are capable of delivering world class design, often with less overhead.

“A small studio is a good idea when the specific details of craft and execution are well aligned with the portfolio and skills of the studio, “ says Buzzard. “Small studios are also good when you want to partner closely on the details and incremental decisions of a project.”

Small studios are set up to operate with less people on each project, so process and decision-making are streamlined. “Smaller agencies often provide higher touch service, because their client list is smaller. As an independent office they truly care about your business,” Winfield explains.

However, Winfield cautions, “Smaller and local agencies sometimes don’t have all the skills needed to complete your project and you want to be careful about hiring a small studio who would then need to hire to meet your demand. Just as with larger companies, you want to make sure you know who will be on your actual account.”

Small studios are best for

  • Project Scope medium to large
  • Timeline medium to long
  • Budget medium to large

Hiring a freelancer

Whether you’re a small business in need of a logo or a large company looking to augment an in-house team, freelancers are a great option to consider. Freelancers offer low overhead and lots of flexibility.

The best freelancers often have experience at agencies or large companies. This can afford access to world class design thinking for projects that have smaller budgets. Ryan LeCluyse worked at Pentagram and Google before deciding to go out on his own as a freelancer. “My main offering is the ability to be a piece to any puzzle. I can scale my involvement and help at any stage of a project timeline,” says LeCluyse.

Mike Buzzard has hired freelancers as a studio head and in his current role at Google. “Freelancers are a good option when you’re certain about deliverables but you’re uncertain about the duration and scope of the work,” says Buzzard. “For example, if you know you need to evolve branding and marketing collateral, but you assume that the project is short-term and doesn’t warrant a full-time hire.”

However, the flexibility and lower fees of working with freelancers do come with a cost. Working with a freelancer will require clear direction and project management from you. The more prepared you are up front, and the more willing you are to provide ongoing oversight and project management, the better the outcome will be.

Freelancers are best for:

  • Project scope small to medium
  • Timeline short, medium, or long
  • Budget small

So, who should you hire?

Deciding between a big agency, a small studio, or a freelancer is about picking the right tool for the job . Look closely at the scope, complexity, timeline, and budget of your project. And be sure to consider the type of working relationship you want.

Whether you bring in a freelancer to execute on a defined plan, a small studio to partner closely with your team, or a big agency to take charge of a large project, the type of partner you hire will shape the development of your project and your experience along the way. The time you take up-front to clarify your project needs and goals will be invaluable to whatever project team you assemble.

Please share this article with anyone you think might find it useful. And if you’re interested in working with a small studio, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Good luck!

O/M Studio

Stories from O/M Studio

Rob Young

Written by

Rob Young

Founder of O/M, a product design studio in San Francisco; Previously designer Google and Apple and many places in between.

O/M Studio

Stories from O/M Studio

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