Reader Question: Get a Design Job? Or Start my Own Company?

posted by Manda 15 Comments

Here is Debbie’s question:

Hi, I’m a design student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and I would like to know about the pros and cons of the different options a design graduate has.

These options being…
1. Get a job with an established firm of experienced designers.
2. Go out and start up your own company/be a free lance designer.
3. Form a co-operative design company with a partner.

Obviously there are pros and cons to each of these options and therefore they will suit different people depending on their personality and situations, but I am unsure about what they are and what is right for me.

Look forward to hearing your reply!

Hi Debbie,

I’m so glad that you are putting so much thought into this, and are taking the time to weigh your options. You’re absolutely right, there are pros and cons to each of these alternatives. But, I feel very strongly that only one of these options is right for you as a new graduate (even though I expect to hear some disagreement in the comments). Later in life, after you have some experience under your belt, I think that you can be successful as a full-time employee, an owner, a partner, or a freelancer. And, that path will probably seem obvious to you once you know what parts of design you like best, and where your strengths are as a designer. But at this point in your career, when you have just graduated from design school, I highly recommend that you get a job with an established firm of experienced designers. Here is why:

1. Real-life Design Skills

I say real-life design skills because there are tons of real-life problems that just don’t come up in a classroom. Setting up a 5-color job for press, coding a website that will actually behave in IE6, and color correcting a photo to look a certain way on a specific color of paper are things that will most likely be expected of you as a designer, but that you probably didn’t cover in class. I could create an extremely long list of things that I learned in my first five years as a design employee that I never learned in school. It’s so much easier to learn these things from experienced co-workers and directors than to figure them out through trial and error on your own.

2. Inspiration and Motivation

Any freelance designer will tell you that one of the hardest parts of working on your own is lack of inspiration and motivation. There is nothing like the collaborative team environment of a design firm. As a beginning designer, it will be even more difficult to summon up the discipline necessary to stay on task each day, constantly creating new and inspiring designs. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn to work within a team, to experience idea-building exercises, and to be inspired by the other creative people around you.

When you are young, it should be your daily privilege to be inspired by your co-workers, learn from your superiors, and take in as much knowledge as possible. This will only make you a stronger designer later if or when you decide to venture out on your own.

3. Customer Service

Customer service is top priority for any successful design firm (well, any successful firm, period). It’s one of the most important elements of being a designer, and it’s completely overlooked in school. This is, most likely, because the only way to really learn about customer service is to experience it first-hand.

As students, most of us design for us. Sometimes for our teachers, but mostly for ourselves. We make what we like. When you venture into the business world, though, you will be designing for another person. A person with different taste, different likes and dislikes, and their own set of visions and goals. Making that person happy is your job. It’s not an easy balance — creating something you can be proud of because it is a visual masterpiece and creating something that pleases your client.

You will learn a great deal in a design firm, watching how other designers and your directors deal with clients. It’s much easier to learn about customer service from experienced professionals on the job, than by losing your freelance clients when you can’t get it right on your own.

4. Sales, Accounting. etc.

There is more to running a successful design firm than being a good designer. Without sales, there are no clients, and there is no work. Without billing, there are no paychecks. Basics like these may be covered in business school, but are usually not part of design school. By working for a successful design company, you can pay attention to the other departments. You will learn how to land new clients. You will find out how designers track their time, how projects are billed, and how everything is filed for easy recall later. You’ll know what to do if a client disappears or tries to skip out on the bill.

It’s going to be very hard to run your own well-oiled design-business machine if you’ve never experienced how the other successful design businesses work.

5. Networking

Most design firms rely on outside businesses in their day-to-day operations. They work with printers, illustrators, photographers, video editors, copywriters, etc. Just out of school, you probably don’t know too many of these people. You probably also do not know how to find these people — short of typing “Photographer” into the Google search box. After you’ve gained experience working for a successful firm, you will form relationships with all of these people. You’ll know who is the best, who is the cheapest, and who is going to be the perfect fit for any job.

6. Peace of Mind

As designers, many of us make quite a few career moves in our lifetime. It’s fairly normal for designers to have been employees in design firms, directors in design firms, freelancers, owners, partners, and everything in between. There is a lot of growth, and when you first graduate, there is a lot of time. You may not know exactly what you want to do right now, but I know that I would feel regret if I didn’t at least try all of it. If I had just jumped into my own business right out of school, I would have always wondered what it would have been like to work in a creative collaborative professional environment.

If you feel the same way — if you want to experience it all — start by working for someone else. It’s much easier to move from working for a creative firm into owning your own business than it is to do it the other way around. Once you build your resume in one direction, it’s hard to jump into another field of design. Once you’ve started your own business, it’s hard to convince another business owner that you really want to give that up to work for only him, by his rules, with his clients. It’s hard to work backwards.

At this time in your life, the world of design is completely open to you. You can probably get an entry-level job with almost any design firm you choose. It’s up to you: web design, print design, motion design, advertising design, promotional design…anything you want! You won’t ever have that opportunity again.

My advice for you is that you take this time in your life to continue your education by learning from the professionals at a successful design firm. Where could you go from there? Anywhere.

Thanks so much for taking the time to write, Debbie. I wish you the best of luck in your career!

Alright, Creative Opera readers, you’ve heard what I have to say. What do you think? Please leave Debbie your advice in the comments below — I know that we all have different life and career experiences, and I’m sure it would be extremely helpful for her to hear as many points of view as possible.

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Mark McCorkell October 4, 2009 at 4:51 am

You are absolutely right, Manda! I was in her position not so many moons ago, so I had similar things to think about. I’d say look for a full-time job with an agency and learn as much as you can for now.

There are so many things you can’t learn in the classroom that you need to be in an agency to learn. Dealing with clients is probably the biggest one – designing for yourself or your teacher is a lot easier and doesn’t have half the complications clients often do!

You will learn a lot from watching the way the sales and business people do their jobs and manage the clients.
.-= Mark McCorkell´s last blog ..New Banksy Art, Home and Abroad =-.

Catherine Azzarello October 4, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Manda–wonderful advice! The only thing I can think to add is that Debbie is always free to take on freelance projects while she’s learning the ropes working for others.

Volunteer some time to an organization you support. Trade services. Collect contacts and recommendations. Leave a wake of good impressions behind you. In a few years, you’ll have experience, contacts and even more options to consider!

Reader Question: Get a Design Job? Or Start my Own Company? | Design Newz October 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm

[…] Reader Question: Get a Design Job? Or Start my Own Company? […]

David October 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Debbie –

I 100% think you should work with SOME type of design agency before doing your own thing. Manda gave you just about every reason for that, and I couldn’t agree more. I quit a sales job after 15 years to do freelance graphic and web design, based on the 7 or 8 successful projects I had done up to that point.

Very foolish decision on my part – I way underestimated my project time when bidding jobs, felt stressed out ALL the time, didn’t have any time to network because I was constantly trying to get work (stupid me.) worked late pretty much every night…ugh.

Since then I’ve worked for several small agencies and I’ve learned SOOOO much more from workting with them – if I left now, I feel confident in knowing how much I’m worth, how to scope out a project, where to outsource work if I need to, and on and on. But honestly, I know I’m more productive where I’m at – it takes a certain personality to run a company, and I’d rather just take my sidejobs here and there and not worry about all the drama of late bills, quarterly IRS payments, cold calling, etc…

Best of luck to you – rule #1. NEVER give up – success is right around the corner.

Andy Fox October 9, 2009 at 1:53 pm

When I graduated 6 years ago I faced the same problem but as I’d had a year out freelancing I’d had a taste for the freedom. I had plenty of motivation to work on my own and get projects done but I severely lacked experience. I too drastically underestimated costs and time it would take. Even one of those alone will ruin your freelance business but a combination of both is disastrous – time is money! If you’re constantly running over on a project (which is very likely when you’re learning) you wont earn enough and likewise if you’re not quoting right either. Most people don’t realise when you freelance, about a quarter of it is account management, a quarter project management and the rest design and when your forced to answer another clients emails when your trying to get your head down and be creative it’s never easy.

I lasted a year and then got a job in a small agency. I don’t regret freelancing for my first year as I met a lot of people and learnt a lot about business – including getting ripped off a couple of times by clients disappearing despite having a contract in place. Working in a small agency can be similar workwise. Mine had 4 people and I was still crossing over a lot in what I was doing, doing a lot of PMing and day to day running of the company. I recently started with a much bigger agency and I’d wished I’d done that sooner as in a bigger company you are more focused. 6 years after I graduated and I’m just learning some of the things I should have known about 5 years ago. I’m a pure designer now in a team and don’t have to worry too much about project managing, account handling or billing – or buying tea and coffee or looking after the office goldfish!

Good luck whichever direction you take!

Andy, London
.-= Andy Fox´s last blog ..andrewdavidfox: "Rosy" the live translator for #googlewave looks awesome! =-.

Web Design Singapore October 23, 2009 at 9:27 am

Quite honestly, i personally feel one should work in a company first, understand the various functions like accounting, marketing, sales, project management, customer servicing before going on your own. This will give you a lot of experience and help moderate your expectations before you strike it out on your own. it can get quite overwhelming at times.

my 2 cents

Jack Courtney November 30, 2009 at 7:01 am

If you’re not confident enough to start your own business. You can get work first to get experience to know more about the flow of work based on your profession. Proper training would be a good start to open your very own design business.

However, if you choose to start your own business right away that would be fine. You can outsource everything you need like the accounting side. Just make sure that you at least know the basics of accounting. Read books or take a basic accounting unit/subject.

Cindy December 2, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I agree with you 100%. My question is where is a good place to find these jobs? It seems like the only ones I can find are for more experienced designers. What is a good way to “get your foot in the door”?


Web Design from Lyons Solutions December 12, 2009 at 11:21 am

It’s not about what skills, it’s about patience as well.

It’s all about working long hours, not getting paid in time, social life etc.

There is a lot of great designers, but not all of them decides to go to business because of these reasons.

naveed December 21, 2009 at 3:48 am

thank you so much for this great article so much informative and really well written

it has helped me alot too for finding my own ways 🙂

thanks once again
.-= naveed´s last blog ..Lemonade Movie =-.

Mark January 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm

You can easily learn things when you are working with people that have lots of experiences on that specific field. Everybody here are right, it’s the best way to get experience too. Personally, I’m doing the same thing. As much as possible, I stay with these people even if I can work alone now and earn my own money.
.-= Mark´s last blog ..School Grants For Studying Abroad =-.

Gen January 17, 2010 at 9:02 pm

I agree with Manda – I graduated in 2008 with very strong ideas of freelancing straight off the bat. I was so eager to get out of retail sales that I quit my day job the week that I graduated. I was sustaining myself with the occasional show as a professional musician, and had two design clients at the time that came from networking in music, but I found it very tricky once those client’s works were completed to find new clients. My design skills were largely unproven and I was quickly beginning to find working alone very isolating. It wasn’t long before I started sending out resumes and folio work to places, and after a 5 month contract position which ended with me being ripped off and almost completely broke, I left and now work as a finishing artist in the graphics department for a large company, alongside a senior designer with over 20 years experience, and a photographer whom I am also learning product photography from on the job. I have learnt more about being a designer in 6 months than I did in a whole year, increased my skill base immensely, and now have a small group of clients that I also do freelance work for on the side.

Manda February 23, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I don’t want to taint any of your advice by adding reply comments to them, but I did want to send out a big thank you to all of you who took the time to comment on this post and help Debbie with her decision. It is clear that you put real thought behind your comments, and I’m sure that Debbie appreciates your professional advice.

There isn’t a better teacher than experience, but sometimes you can learn from somebody else’s experiences and save yourself from a lot of pain and trouble 🙂

Thank you all!!

Happy Blogging: Suggestions for Your Design Blogroll | PixieGirl Blog March 18, 2010 at 5:03 pm

[…] Reader Question: Get a Design Job? Or Start my Own Company? […]

Tara January 30, 2012 at 1:58 am

I agree with Mark. It’s best to look for a full-time job with an agency- gain experience, polish your skills and build relationships.


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