Agency vs startup: how to choose your next design job

You’ve just finished a 6-week project with a big client. It took a lot of 9pm finishes, but you’re proud of the result. A month later you see they’ve started using your work, but they’ve changed the typeface to Arial and thrown away all the interesting parts of the design. 6 weeks of hard work gone to waste. Rinse and repeat.

Working at an agency can feel like a double edged sword.

  • You work with tons of different clients, but often get stuck with briefs you don’t like.
  • 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.

Some people feel very at home with the structure and routine of Agency Land. But if you’re like many designers and feel the urge to own your work, dabble in different areas of design, and work on meaningful projects that align with your passions — a startup could be what you’re looking for. Here’s a quick guide to all the major benefits and risks.

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.

Any good company is driven by a sense of purpose — they’re trying to a tackle a big problem and they’re devoting their lives to make it happen. If you find a company that has a strong sense of purpose that you align with, jump on board.

Agencies and startups can both have this extra factor — it’s just much easier to find it in a startup.

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.

At a startup, you can’t help but be involved in the entire design process from start to finish, and get a huge say in how the final product will look and work. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a massive learning opportunity, and it makes your work a lot more fulfilling.

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.

If you’re more of a Swiss-army knife than a hardcore specialist, this can be frustrating. In a startup by contrast, you end up doing anything and everything. Not just product, visual, UX, etc., but even things that aren’t design-related at all. It keeps things interesting, and it’s a great way keep your skillset relevant and broad.

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).

While some startups like to hand out grandiose titles like ‘Chief Design Officer’ and still have a medieval hierarchy, the good ones will dispose of titles altogether. You’ll just be a “designer” whose main aim is to impress your customers, not your boss. Less certainty, but less politics as well.

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.

It’s important to ask at interviews how well funded the startup is. If the answer is “not very” but you think it’s a great company, take the leap. But make sure you ask for a bigger stake in the business to compensate you for that risk.

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.

Not all designers are the same, and not all designers would survive in a startup. But the agency life is not the only road — if you’re looking for something more, a startup can be a launching pad to learn a ton, build products people use every day and become a better designer.

We happen to be hiring for a designer. Read more about what you should be looking for in a place to work here or learn more about the job here.