I have worked for three different design agencies, and even co-founded my own, which I helped run for almost 10 years. I loved working agency-side. I loved the challenge of new puzzles to solve, new clients, wrapping my mind around new, exotic business types — be it fashion brands, TV shows or tattooed pin-up communities.
I loved the ego boost of winning new work and adding more and more glamorous client names to my portfolio.
But now I work product-side and I love it even more. And I want the world to know why.
There was a time when in-house design teams in startups were frowned upon. Who would want to spend their entire career slaving away for one company when you could work for hundreds? Solving a design problem was a science that agencies specialised in — and the thought of inexperienced in-house teams clowning through this delicate process was laughable.
The teams you’d collaborate with on client-side were traditionally seen as benchwarmers — the designers that were not good enough to get jobs in cool agencies like yours ended up rotting away inside sad, corporate cubicles using IBMs and Blackberries.
Now the tables have turned dramatically. Money is pouring into tech like almost* never before. With money comes the ability to lure talent, and with talent comes even more talent. And with even more talent comes fierce competition for said talent, which amps up creative salaries on product-side.
Experienced ex-agency project managers and producers can build effective teams and take the best practices from their agency experience. Talented designers then take their ex-agency network buddies and hire them into their new product/startup crew.
The brain drain from creative agencies is out of control these days. Meanwhile, as in-house teams become more and more capable, they require less help from outside specialist shops. Even illustrators, animators, video crews, and 3D artists get cherry picked into larger and larger in-house startup teams.
But it is not just the money that is causing this stampede. More and more designers are disillusioned by the lack of ownership they have in agency projects — how they make 10–20 babies a year and give them all away, never to see them again. Their involvement is often limited to the first, most error-prone and fragile part of a project. And most likely, they will have no clue as to how their work is performing in the real world. This is especially true for smaller agencies, who are not set up to “sell those extra services,” — e.g., quantifying a project’s success, deeply engaged in performance statistics, and ROI calculations. (In other words, bullshit.)
Furthermore, the fabled and magical “Phase Two” rarely materialises, so they often miss the chance to learn from their mistakes by re-iterating, tweaking, and fixing. They make their living churning out half-baked goods. Over and over again.
The short-cycle nature of agency work used to be what I loved the most. I never knew what was waiting down the road. A celebrity micro-site, perchance? A Twitter-killing micro-brew social community platform? A weather app with no meaningful functionality? The suspense was real, so I cranked away to close that account so I could start over again, diving into the new magical world of wine making or fund raising, cancer researching, or nipple piercing.
But slowly these short cycles grind you down. You wrap one project up to get thrown headfirst into the next one. You break yourself trying to kiss a client’s ass during a pitch meeting on a private plane. Over and over.
On the product side the cycles are short as well, but they all wind up in that big ole megacycle of testing, evaluating, and fixing. Long term memory is built — and your team gains knowlege of the product that no outside shop could ever gain. Folklore and myths are fashioned, epic battles are won.
Obviously product side work has drawbacks too. You might end up using your mad skills designing company newsletters for the rest of your life or frantically trying to navigate some dodgy internal politics. Or end up in a startup that doesn’t value or even understand design. But the rewards are manifold.
Most excitingly, we are just getting started. Shaping the way things are built in the creative product community reminds me of the early days of web design. Knowledge and experience are shared freely, and best practices are slowly building across tech companies of all shapes and sizes, as more and more companies realise the importance of investing in their own creative teams.
Did I mention we are hiring at Zendesk?
Toke Nygaard is the Chief Creative Officer at Zendesk with 20 years of experience working for companies such as Araneum, Oven Digital and Wink Media. Before switching product-side he co-founded Cuban Council, a succesful design company based in New York and San Francisco.
Photo credit: http://madmen.wikia.com/
Congratulations. You made it to the end. Check out design.zendesk.com for more thought leadership, design process, and other creative musings.