In our newest design debate, Gordon Reid, Melissa Deckert, and Mike Kruzeniski weigh in on the pros and cons of designing in-house versus as a freelancer. Ready, set, debate.
I love being my own boss at the studio I run, Middle Boop. I still have bosses, but they are clients. What I don’t have is that extra level of massive red tape that you get if you’re working in an agency or in-house.
As my own boss, whether an idea manifests into something or stays in the back of my head is all up to me. Coming from a long advertising background, one of my main frustrations was that I wasn’t being allowed enough creative input into ideas. At Middle Boop, it is just me and the clients. We’ll come up with a strategy ourselves, and we’ll collaborate. I always feel like I’ve made a difference to a client’s business at the end of a project. When you’re not your own boss, there are many layers of people to try to convince before anything takes off. Great ideas get lost. Probably 70 to 80 percent of the work I’ve done at agencies never saw the light of day.
While working in an agency context, I would often look at the work and think, No one is going to know that I had any involvement. Except for maybe me pointing to a bus poster while I’m with a friend saying, “Oh, I did some of that.” At the end of the day, freelancing is worth the hassle, struggles, and worries because I get to properly put my own stamp on my work.
This summer, I took two months off to do a self-initiated projected called Weird World Cup. My friend Callum and I commissioned 20 illustrators and designers to create beer mats based around the artists’ favorite weird or humorous moment from a World Cup—then all the money went to charity and we got global press. You can’t do this kind of thing when you’re in a full-time job.
I occasionally take time to freelance as a consultant in agencies or in-house. Right now, I’m in-house at a large tech company, and it’s definitely a breath of fresh air. There are many perks—free food, free gym. The other day, my partner asked me, if the company offered me a full-time job, whether I would take it. I said no. The lifestyle of running your own business is just too good. I couldn’t work for someone else’s vision for a long time. I would get bored and feel like my time was being wasted.
I started working at Etsy almost right out of college. During my time there, the company grew considerably. As the brand grew so did our team—my experience scaled from small internal projects to large international campaigns. I became comfortable pitching and presenting work in front of a lot of people. I was able to travel extensively, not necessarily something I would have been able to do at that age. Working in-house was an important part of my growth as a designer and a huge learning experience. Ironically, it fueled my confidence in starting my own studio.
After some time at Etsy, it seemed the only way to grow at the company was by taking on a role in management, which I wasn’t interested in. I wanted to expand my practical skills, as well as experiment with my own style, which was at odds with in-house work.
Eventually, I decided to go freelance, which opened up a whole new world of adjustments. When you’re working independently, your livelihood is deeply tied to what you produce, which places a heavier association between your work and your self worth. There is also the constant fear of never getting another job. At the start of my freelance career, I worked from home which lent me certain freedoms, but ultimately felt isolating and devoid of community. I quickly realized that I thrived from having other people to bounce ideas off and craved creative kinship.
I began collaborating with my friend Nicole Licht, who had hired me at Etsy. She started freelancing around the same time as me, and, while I was leaning towards traditional design with an interest in things like lettering, Nicole was leaning towards illustration and paper craft.
After two years of regular collaborations we decided to form Party of One. By combining our skills, we now have the opportunity to do many kinds of work with a wider variety of clients. Together, we also keep one another from spiraling into thoughts of “I’m never going to get work again” and “I don’t know how much to price for this.” It was valuable to work in a big team in-house—to garner skills and learn what we liked—but, on our own, it is hugely satisfying to have our name behind what we create.
The entirety of my career has been in-house, except for a short time freelancing. From that brief experience, I found I got to work on a lot of projects, but it never felt like I could get into them in a deep way. I was attracted to the idea of getting very close to products and the companies that make them.
For a handful of years, I was a Principal Design Lead at Microsoft. Since 2012, I’ve been at Twitter, growing with the company over the last six and a half years. To do big, ambitious work takes time. By being in-house, you can get all the foundational information of what a company is trying to achieve and build on that in a multi-year way. You’re directly connected to the people that are building the products with you. If there is something I need to achieve, I can talk directly to our data scientists or to the marketing or engineering teams. I can work with them on projects over long periods of time. This is more difficult to do as a consultant.
In-house, you learn skills from other people in other departments, too. A lot of time over your career, the things that you learn aren’t always just specific to your discipline. You learn leadership and communication skills, organizational management—skills that you might not learn if you’re only working with other designers. You can learn a broader set of skills by working with a more diverse group of people and disciplines.
One of the myths around in-house work is that there is no variety. In reality though, variety appears in different ways. Quite literally while at Microsoft, I would go from product to product. At Twitter, we also have a range of different products that people work on. We’ll have designers that will spend time on one of those, and then jump to another. Within the product itself, we put so much intense focus into all the different features that people will can move from designing video experiences, to conversations, to profiles, and those will feel like very different projects. Then of course we have products like Periscope and our advertiser products. So there are a lot of different areas to put your energy into.
As well as the product variety, there is also a variety in terms of roles. People will try on different types of roles during an in-house career. We’ve had designers pick up project management skills and then even gravitate over to the product management team. Similarly, we’ve had engineers that join the design team. There is not just a skills exchange, but also a sense of career fluidity. At Twitter, a designer might also help the company design a long-term strategy in a way that’s not typically considered design work—there’s no mock-ups for example. There is a role shift that can happen here, which is very interesting for a long-term career.
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.