This year, nearly 24,000 jobs in graphic design will open up, while thousands of new designers are expected to enter the job market for the very first time. Eager to start an exciting career by harnessing their talent and freshly honed skills, many recent graduates are already knee deep in applications. But this excitement to land a job can easily cloud one's judgment. While it's important to get your foot in the door, it's equally important to ensure it's the right door one for you.
The field of graphic design has three key paths: in-house design, agency life, and freelance work. A designer must understand the implications of each before they land their first job. These three directions offer a lot of opportunities for designers entering the field, but each delivers widely different experiences. Depending on the path (or paths) you choose, your income potential, work-life balance, creative freedom, and stress levels will vary significantly. By understanding the expectations and challenges involved in all three entry points, you can better target your job search while also customizing your cover letter and resume to excite potential employers. Here are some things to consider.
1. In-house employment offers more controllable hours, but sometimes less creative freedom.
In-house designers work on teams dedicated to the creative needs of a single brand or organization. Rather than external clients acting as their stakeholders, in-house designers serve colleagues on other teams in the business. A member of the marketing team, for example, might need a series of emails designed for an upcoming campaign. Sales teams might need pitch decks designed so they can land new customers for the business. Or maybe the executive team needs a board report designed for an upcoming investor meeting. Regardless of the scenario, an in-house designer will be expected to serve both the public-facing and internal-facing creative needs of the organization.
There are many perks to being an in-house designer. Designers who work for a single organization often must master only one set of brand guidelines, for example. They can build strong relationships with their colleague-stakeholders, making it easier to manage expectations and deliver successful outcomes. In addition, in-house designers often have less strict deadlines, making it easier to maintain a 40-hour workweek.
While the perks of in-house are great, there are a few downfalls of this career path worth noting. Many designers complain of feeling stagnant when working on a single brand for too long. If they show success in one medium of design, for example, their colleagues might not recognize other capabilities and pigeon-hole the designer as one who can deliver only on that medium. Others complain of feeling undervalued by their colleagues because the work is viewed as "free" or "already paid for" when a salaried worker, rather than an external agency, takes it on. This can greatly impede process and scope, because serving a stakeholder in the next cubicle is quite different from working with an external client on a tight budget.
If you are seeking an in-house role, be sure to show prospective employers that you are being realistic about what's expected of you. Let them know why you can rise to the challenges that often discourage other in-house designers and how you will embrace the opportunities this career path offers.
2. Working at an agency can be very exciting creatively, but be prepared to put in the hours.
Working at a creative services agency offers a clear alternative to designing for a single brand in-house. Agency designers deliver creative services for a wide array of brands and organizations. They must have the ability to become experts on a diverse set of brand guidelines to maintain consistency across projects while ensuring each client receives unique work.
Some agencies choose to work across a single industry, delivering a broad set of design services (i.e. infographics, e-books, web design, print design, product design, and more) across a narrower set of topics. Other agencies may choose to specialize in a small set of creative services (i.e., web design or product design only) across a diverse set of industries. Others still may offer to do any type of design work for any type of client--a situation that may leave some designers struggling to keep up with the constant change.
Understanding how agencies differ when it comes to their industry or design focus areas can be very important when on the job hunt. You must decide which to prioritize: embracing a single area of design, taking on myriad design challenges in a unique industry, or choosing the life of constant variety at a generalist firm.
Agencies are rich with creative challenges that you can sink your teeth into. They often offer a healthy mix of creative freedom and experimentation alongside more strictly defined project work. Designers looking for constant growth find ample opportunity to do so within agency life because their colleagues and clients will regularly defy the status quo.
But if a regular 40-hour workweek is your priority, you'll be hard pressed to find it in an agency. The agency environment is rife with tight deadlines. It's also not uncommon for client needs to shift on a whim and million-dollar ideas to be crippled by tight budgets. This can mean long hours during peak demand and frustration when weeks of hard work is rejected.
Designers must be thick-skinned to work at an agency, but the pros of agency life often outweigh the cons. Designers are energized by creative potential, and agencies offer endless amounts of it. You'll need to decide if you're up for the challenge.
3. Freelance work provides you with a great deal of freedom, mixed with some unwelcome uncertainty.
Ninety percent of graphic designers in the U.S. are full-time freelancers. This means that they work for themselves, landing clients through job boards, their portfolio, or word of mouth.
Freelance work can be extremely rewarding, but it's not for everyone. As a freelancer, you must go beyond design as a profession and take on far more roles to ensure long-term success. Consider the following responsibilities that will fall on your plate:
- Sales: All freelancers must first find potential clients and then sell their services to those clients. This requires knowing your value, and holding your client to it once you've closed the deal.
- Project Management: Unlike those with an agency or in-house, where someone else will likely work alongside you to manage due dates, stakeholder expectations, and all deliverables, as a freelancer you will be tasked with the responsibility of logistics and time management. This means remaining in constant communication with your end clients while ensuring they adhere to your design process to control scope.
- Accountant: Unless you're strictly getting clients through a third-party tool like Upwork, you will also have to act as your own bookkeeper when freelancing. This means invoicing clients and hunting down late payments.
- Legal: If your client hasn't paid or breached an agreement in some way, you will also have to bring some legal muscle to the mix if you can't afford a lawyer at your side.
While these additional roles might feel overwhelming at first, they are all quite manageable with the right tools and process in place. If you are up for the challenge, you can create a very lucrative career freelancing and be your own boss in the process. No risk, no reward.
Why Not Try All Paths?
Designers hoping to excel in their careers often spend time walking down all three paths in their first decade of work. Those who want to dip their toes into the industry might start by taking on freelance work in their spare time. Others might choose to start in-house to prioritize predictable work hours and then take on freelance work in their spare time to add some variety. Those wanting to build a diverse portfolio may jump right into agency life, understanding that freelance work might be hard to fit in while they get their bearings. Regardless of the path you choose, understanding the differences between each will help you better position yourself for long-term success.