This is a really good question—without any right answers! It depends on what you want right now in your career. Ask yourself:
- What kind of impact do you want to have, be it on products or people?
- Would you prefer to gain deep expertise in one area, or broad expertise in multiple areas?
- How much autonomy and mentorship do you want and need?
Your answers to those questions will help you figure out which professional setting is right! Keep that in mind as we outline the differences below.
Pros: gain depth of expertise, grow with team support & mentorship
At large companies, being a designer usually means you get to become an expert on a specific part of the business. You’ll learn the ins and outs of a product area, spend time on understanding problems to solve deeply, and build long-term relationships with a team. There is also comfort in knowing that if you get bored or grow beyond your current role, a large company will likely have other teams and projects you can transition to without having to quit and find a new gig. Larger companies also move a bit slower due to their size; this can mean less pressure to produce frantically and thus, better work-life balance.
Cons: lack of structure, resistance to change
But sometimes, large companies can move too slowly. You might have endless resources, but deadlines can feel like suggestions rather than hard cut-offs. If there are no consequences to pushing back a deadline, why not delay an extra week to “take a step back” and get input from others in the company? Large companies are also usually a bit more risk averse. They’re large thanks to their successes, and may be less interested in shaking things up, lest it mess with their cash flow.
Pros: gain breadth of expertise, work on a variety of projects
At an agency, you get to work on a lot of different projects, likely with clients from many different industries. Each time you sign onto a new project, you’ll need to get up to speed quickly: learn about the client’s industry, figure out their goals, and make sense of a new team. You’ll also learn how to work within multiple constraints, be it time, tech, or money. (Usually it’ll be all three!) And because agencies are typically hired as consultants, brought on to do something the company can’t or won’t do, clients will likely defer to you as the expert — just don’t let that power get to your head.
Cons: short-term projects, lack of choice
The other side of the agency coin: you’ll rarely get to dig deep on any given product area. As a roving ronin, your job is to deliver the goods and then ride off into the sunset. Will your app for this hyper-growth compostable-utensil startup increase sales? Will people actually enjoy purchasing sporks through it? Unknown! You’ve already moved on to your next project, researching the burgeoning activewear for the marine biologists market. Agency work also depends on whatever accounts the agency wins, so, you’ll have zero choice over what you work on and … well, agency. You may build a portfolio with a lovely and diverse set of projects, but you might also get stuck working on three banking company intranets in a row.
Pros: make a big impact, grow quickly, take big risks
At a startup, you are in a position to pursue innovative ideas and learn—a lot. You might be a design team of one, expected to pitch in on every aspect of design (marketing, comms, swag, holiday cards, social, etc.) in addition to product design. Your opinions and ideas might even be the catalyst for the next pivot or new product. It’ll be fast-paced and exciting, and you’ll likely grow in unexpected ways. If it succeeds, there could be big financial windfalls and professional acceleration. If you’re intrigued by the opportunity to take on a large amount of ownership, autonomy, and leadership, working at a startup might be for you.
Cons: lots of uncertainty, poor work-life balance
The upsides and unfettered optimism of startups often mask the reality: 90% fail within 5 years. Startups often move too fast. You’ll rarely have enough time to fix bugs and refine ideas before launch, and user research may be low on your long list of priorities. You might design a string of MVPs (minimum viable products), each one not quite living up to your original vision. While optimistic and inspiring, leaders may not actually be strong or experienced—sometimes they lead by the cult of personality or sell Kool-aid to justify unsustainable work practices. “High risk, high reward” is an inherently irrational idea, and it often comes at considerable personal cost. Working at a startup, you might come out of it disillusioned with the tech industry, or worse, burned out.
What works for another person may not work for you. Similarly, what works for you now may not work for you in five years.
The twists and turns in your career path are up to you
Regardless, we want to reassure you, dear New Designer, that your career path is not set in stone. What works for another person may not work for you. Similarly, what works for you now may not work for you in five years. The choice will always come down to how well you understand your abilities, as well as what you’re interested in exploring and the future you want to build for yourself. You’ll always learn something at every job—even if the thing you learn is that you never want a job like that again.
TJ & Jen