Agency vs startup: how to choose your next design job

Nathan Tesler
Aug 16, 2018 · 4 min read
  • You can hone your skills in your agency’s niche, but miss out on exploring other design disciplines.
  • You get a clear career path with other designers to learn from, but have to earn your boss’ approval to move up the ladder.

Purpose is easier to find

Having great coworkers, a great office and doing great work are all important. But what’s missing at a lot of companies is a sense of purpose — the feeling that what you do matters, and makes you look forward to coming to work every Monday morning.

Much more ownership

One of the main complaints I hear from designers is how it feels like you have no ownership of your work. It’s not just creative directors getting all the credit. It’s the fact you often parachute in, do a bunch of work, hand it over and never get to see it to completion.

A different kind of variety

Agencies give you a chance to work on many projects, but they tend to get pigeon-holed as specialists in areas like branding, web, or product. This means you become very good at your agency’s niche, but never get a chance to branch out and explore different areas of design.

No more design ladder

Agencies vary in terms of culture, but most adhere to the traditional designer career ladder. This means you’ve got a lot of certainty about how your career will go (junior, mid, senior, art director, creative director), but the ladder can be very rigid. People are often above you for no good reason, and of course it tends to heavily favour men over women (there’s a glass ceiling in design, just as with every other industry).

Less stability

Depending on the company, getting a startup job can be risky. If the startup you’re working for is bootstrapped or self-funded, they can be a few months away from going broke or shutting up shop.

Get treated like an adult

Some agencies bill themselves as “progressive” because they let you start work at 9:30am. A good startup is actually progressive, which means you have the freedom to decide how, when and where you work. This is great if you like morning yoga, or a lunchtime workout or simply find you’re most productive at 9pm.


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Thanks to Stacy Goh.

Nathan Tesler

Written by

Founder of Wildcard and Werdsmith.

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