Ever wonder which is better, agency life, the freedom of freelance or the stability of in-house? Maybe a better question is which is better for your design career?
This week, we continue with 5-Rounds, where three experts go toe-to-toe with 5 rounds of questions covering everything you need to help decide the winning approach for your career.
If you missed Round 1 you can read it here.
Just as a reminder, our experts are:
DD: Most of my clients are local, but my out-of-state clients are usually a result of referrals.
JM: My employer is global so I provide art for local, domestic and international clients.
CH: Mainly local and regional. Cleveland is not a market that pulls clients from other markets, no matter the company. The only national and international clients would be the ones headquartered in Ohio.
DD: I foster relationships with local small businesses, often through networking on social media. I join online networking groups, and if they have monthly meetups that is even better, as when we meet in person I can make all my skills known and learn priorities of [their] businesses and where I could help. Online I am helpful with answering questions and earning trust. Occasionally I’ll get referrals from existing clients, but it’s not the bread-and-butter of my business. Most of my referrals come from other designers, which is a networking opportunity a freelancer should not neglect.
If my price doesn’t turn away work, sometimes I have to. As an individual, at times I’m approached with small jobs that aren’t worth my time and distract me from bigger projects. Sometimes I can tell the work they want won’t play to my strengths, and they need more manpower behind a project which I may not have up my sleeve. This is another area where networking with other creatives is important, to be able to pass on a name.
I never work for free. I have worked with non-profits at a discount, but I also change my process to accommodate the lower rate, so I don’t spend excessive time on a lower-paying project.
JM: Our clients are business units and/or departments of our parent company. Majority of the requests are routed to me through Marketing Managers (who act as project managers).
Yes, we get referrals from our existing clients. As an in-house designer; the majority of “referrals” are word-of-mouth between departments and subsidiaries.
Technically we don’t turn away work, however, we do reassign work to vendors and other in-house assets based on workload.
Free or pro-bono work does not apply to my position as an In-House designer.
CH: We acquire most clients by word-of-mouth and referrals. Yes (we get referrals from existing clients). We do not typically turn work away or do free/pro bono work.
DD: I create a plan for every client with milestones and deadlines we each need to hit when working together.
In the initial interview with a client about their project, I find out their deadline, then slot them in between any other concurrent projects I may have committed to in that timeframe. My personal projects often take the backseat.
Yes, it’s very necessary to keep yourself (and your client) on track! I have let milestones get away from me in the past and gotten overwhelmed in the final stages of a project when trying to launch by their date, especially if something goes wrong (a project is never smooth!).
JM: Yes. All projects are tracked, processed, and accounted for. It’s very important to have a work flow process. My work flow is very simple… 1) assess project scope 2) research 3) design 4) submit for review 5) upon approval – prep art for production 6) send final art to vendor for output 7) close and archive project. On occasion (after sending final art to vendor) I will review press proofs before approving for production.
Basically, I use a project tracker to set my work schedule. As a rule of thumb, turnaround is 2-5 business days from request date. If a project is designated as a campaign (requiring several graphic applications) the turnaround is 4 to 6 weeks (websites can be significantly longer). There are several factors involved when deciding which projects are a priority. Usually, time is the deciding factor. High priority and/or rush request are always first.
Yes. We develop a timeline with our marketing team (and the client) to ensure we met all milestones on time.
CH: Our workflow is very loosely defined and changes based on the type of project.
Project schedules are first determined based on client needs, then they’re worked into a production schedule and given to team members based on availability. Skillset and level of design aptitude are also factors that come into play when trafficking work.
Yes. We set milestones for large projects.
DD: I get a variety of work, and love to work in a variety of places at a variety of times. I find that for website design, I like to work at my desk with my extra monitors, and start early and do marathon days. With illustration/animation I’ll visit friends and draw with them or go to the art museum. With small graphic design projects I’ll sometimes work on my couch in front of the television. If I need to focus on marketing or planning, I’ll work at a coffeeshop. And all other times you can find me at my jeweler’s bench working on my jewelry line.
JM: The advantage [to working in-house] is access to stakeholders. Having a clear (and quick) line of communication can make and significant impact on turnaround time.
CH: Yes, the larger the place that you work, normally the larger the clients and budgets. You also get a larger variety of projects because of the larger budgets. It will probably be very rare to design environmental installations, signage, unique packaging structures or other high budget items as a freelancer. At an agency, you will more than likely get one or two of these within a year.
DD: Yes. And no. I started freelancing during high school which was really beneficial—I learned how to balance my skills with what a client wanted and how to communicate about a project. It made me more hireable for working in-house as I approached projects with the discipline and confidence of a freelancer (I conducted my interview like meeting with a client). While working in-house, I discovered I had more freedom to expand my skills (this is where I really flourished), and got to know the business workings intimately. Then finally when I went back to freelance, I was able to offer a wider variety of design services. I also had a better understanding of businesses and their true needs/priorities. It’s all a journey!
JM: It is important. By working as a full-time employee, you learn the basic work habits you can carry over to freelancing. However, when freelance presents itself, always pursue the opportunity… regardless of your experience or employment status.
CH: Important, yes. Necessary, no. In general, I think it gives you an extreme upper hand and understanding of how to interact with clients, estimate time/budget, articulate your reasoning and numerous other facets of business that you cannot possibly learn from 4 years of school. I do a large amount of freelance outside of my agency hours, and my experience at the agency has been immensely valuable towards my personal work.
DD: It’s everything. Networking is how I get clients, and when I meet someone new I find people often like to brainstorm how they can work with me or if they know someone who needs my services (I also think this is something unique and awesome about Cleveland!). I’ve also made some mistakes with clients and they continue to want to work with me, simply because they like me.
If your natural spirit is to be very outgoing, it may be difficult to work independently and be alone for so much of your time. However, you must be personable to get new clients and foster relationships with existing clients. My nature is to be introverted, but I am genuinely interested in others and their businesses, and allow that excitement to shine through when interacting with them. My introversion is sometimes a negative, when I don’t reach out and communicate often enough with clients during a project.
JM: I think it’s for sure a difference maker. Employers want employees who can interact with their fellow co-workers and fit into their culture. Teamwork is also HUGE in the graphic arts, so the ability to “play with others” is a must. Lastly, outgoing types are easier to approach and project a level of comfort to fellow employees. I personally like to inject some humor into my professional interactions; always makes people feel at ease!
CH: I think personality shines through in the creative work and can also have a huge impact on the work environment.
In business, in general, I believe it helps to be as extroverted as possible. That doesn’t mean you cannot succeed otherwise. Communication, whether internally or client-facing, is a huge part of what we do.
DD: I believe I have my own style, but let’s say in different genres. I’ve worked with a variety of businesses, so my portfolio is definitely varied, but they each have my mark. While some clients want to see more examples of work I’ve done which is “within their genre,” most view my varied work as a sign that they will get something custom and unique just for them.
JM: My style is clean, modern and thoughtful. I like to use modern, but simple design techniques to provide art that’s visually appealing and easy for the end user to understand (what’s being visually communicated). It helps by establishing a base to work from. Always important to follow the same style, it saves you time, the client money and makes you look good!
CH: I don’t have an obvious style, but I might have small elements that I lean on for my designs. In an agency setting, in-house and general freelance, not having a style is a huge help. The one area where having a style is very important is when you want to make a name for yourself because of a style.
DD: Very loose. I am personally not a fan of routine or structure, and as long as I have milestone dates and deadlines, I can balance my responsibilities to complete good projects on my own watch.
I currently spend about 15 hours a week on client work, and about 30 on my own jewelry line, but this can easily flip-flop depending on the season and my clients’ needs. I also consider weekends a part of my week.
I’ve come to lose the concept of weeks vs. weekends—they blend together for me. If I don’t feel well during a weekday or if I want to play hooky, I’ll make up for it on a weekend, but it doesn’t feel like I’m “stuck working,” it’s just what I’m doing then. And I often work in the evenings because I enjoy it, or I’ll work a few marathon days and then take a few days off to visit family—whatever!
And I can always work from home.
JM: I follow the same routine each day. I start my day by checking email, followed by putting together a task list. I usually work in blocks – I group the small 5-minute projects together; then work on the big projects. I make sure to take breaks and always a lunch – it’s important to reset/refresh yourself. I periodically check my email, to ensure I am not missing something that’s important to my work load. Lastly, I always leave around the same time.
40 hours. Sometimes 45-50.
Once in a great while [I’ll have to work evenings or weekends]. I take pride in managing my work load (so I don’t have to work extra time). My motto is “Work Smarter; Not Harder”.
Yes [I can work from home], but only with permission from my supervisor. In my opinion, working from home is the ideal working situation. The benefits are felt by both employer and employees. From an employee’s perspective, I am more productive and focused (little to no distractions). Also the added benefits of saving on transportation (cost of gas, parking fees, car maintenance. etc.) and lunch are a plus.
CH: [My work schedule] was heavier when I first started straight out of school and was trying to prove my weight. I would work longer hours to make sure the work was the best it could be. As you mature in your career and role, I think the pressure is relieved on your work schedule.
40-50 [hours] now. When I first started out, it was more like 60.
I think it’s safe to say multiple times a week we work 8-12 hour days. We typically don’t work weekends.
No, I cannot work from home.