Startup Design Talent…Hire in-house or Outsource it?

This is a common question entrepreneurs, product managers, marketers, and other decision makers ask. As someone who has been on both sides— previously the sole designer at two startups, and now running a small team that designs for startups—I have some insight.

If you have the time and budget, hire at least one full-time designer

Designers add a lot more value than just the work they produce. They can influence design thinking across the entire company, which is a benefit that‘s immeasurable.

Your first designer will likely have several responsibilities. But the best design hires are also brand stewards for your entire organization. That is, they ensure the brand experience is cohesive and professionally designed across all your customer touch-points. It’s a big responsibility, but a strong visual brand builds trust, and trust means more business.

As with all employees, bringing a designer on full-time can be a lengthly process, and may require a larger overall financial commitment compared to working with a freelancer or agency. But keep in mind as your business scales, your design needs will increase. Having full-time designers that can support the various functions of your company is cheaper in the long-run than outsourcing the work every time.

Bottom line is, if you do not yet have at least one in-house designer but can afford to hire somebody, do it!

If you’re budget sensitive and do not have a lot of design needs, outsource it.

Although studios and freelancers may charge more on a project or time-basis than a full-time designer, these engagements are typically shorter and therefore less of a total financial commitment for your business. If you only have a few design projects in your pipeline (ex. design your logo and optimize your onboarding flow), consider outsourcing the work.

Outsource work that supplements skills your team lacks

Not every in-house design team has the full-service capabilities or experience to solve every design challenge, and that’s okay. For example, maybe your design team is user interface and user experience focused and you’re looking to rebrand your company. In this scenario, it may be better to reach out to professionals with branding experience. You can still engage your designers in giving feedback for these external projects.

If your team lacks designers altogether, and the projects are of bigger scale, definitely hire a studio or agency. Startups do this all the time — just look at how Slack collaborated with Metalabs to launch their brand, mobile and web apps, and website.

Outsource one-off projects that your design team does not have bandwidth to complete

A lot of the time, designers are spread thin across several projects. If you have an upcoming one-off initiative that requires design, consider the following — is it worth diverting your designer’s focus from working on your core product to deliver this other project? Sometimes (and hopefully for your designers’ sake), the answer is no. I’ve personally been involved in helping a few startups with strategic design and marketing initiatives while their core team stays focused on iterating the product.

Even Google, while not a startup, outsources projects such as their annual Santa Tracker to agencies like Ueno. It’s all about allocating your resources efficiently, which sometimes means seeking external help.

So hire in-house or outsource it? The answer is unfortunately, it depends. But I hope this post provided some concrete considerations to help guide your decision. If you have the resources, having a designer or multiple designers in-house is what you want to aim for. But if you lack the resources or need additional help, outsourcing is your friend.

TomYum is a Toronto-based Digital Product Design and Branding Studio. Get in touch with us to discuss your next project. Follow our work on Dribbble.