Over my career, I’ve bounced from in-house designer to hired gun a number of times. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I’d suggest that every designer should try both sides of the fence before settling where they’re most fulfilled because each field forces you to focus on different, but no less essential, abilities.
So, for the benefit of anyone just beginning their career or vets who’ve never seen how the other half lives, here’s my breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of each:
Pros: work-life, stability, relationships, more time honing craft
I find working in-house for a product-focused company the best place to focus on the nitty-gritty of product design and research. The finest points of design can only happen after a product has been released and you get an opportunity to see where it succeeds and fails in the real world. In addition to creating new features or products, you’re also working on mature offerings and adding flourishes that consultants don’t often have time for.
In-house you’ll be working alongside people who care, first and foremost, about the thing you’re building.
Pros: salary, variety, sense of doneness
Working as a consultant requires you to flex muscles that you don’t always get to use when you work in-house. Selling your design, convincing people of your value and the value of your approach is vital to success. In fact, you quickly find that this nearly as important as the quality of work you do. These soft skills don’t always get the credit the deserve in the design field, but they are invaluable in furthering your career and life.
You’ll learn to manage time effectively, work under tight deadlines, and get to work on a wide variety of projects with a wide variety of clients. You’ll have the terrifying thrill of starting a project blank, and the comforting knowledge that you’ll be completely done (and on to the next thing) on a set date.
Obviously, these are not absolutes—and I’m not implying that in-house designers can’t defend their ideas or that consultants can’t design. However, in every job, it’s important to look at what the metrics for success are. When you’re working on a product team, you’re measured by the success of your product. When you’re consulting, you’re measured by your ability to convince clients to hire you. As such, you’d be foolish if you didn’t alter your approach to best position yourself for success.
So which one is for you? Before you decide, it’s probably worthwhile spending time in each. Neither is perfect, but by doing both, you become a more complete designer and professional with the tools needed to succeed no matter where you ultimately find you fit best.