The most obvious job for a web designer is working for a web design agency, but if you’ve never done that before… then how do you know what to expect? Is it even the right path for you?
Setting foot in an agency for the first time can be daunting. It’s filled with people who have probably worked in the industry longer than you and who probably know a lot more than you.
Perhaps you’ve just finished a degree and you’re looking for a first job, or maybe you’re about to go back to office life after a few years of freelancing under your belt.
Either way, today we’re going to look at the ins and outs of agency life and what you can expect from it.
We’ll also be asking other people in the industry for their experiences to get a broad overview of the entire subject.
Stepping Into an Agency Environment
Coming from any non-full-time-employed background, the prospect of being tied to a single location for seven to eight hours every single day is also fairly daunting. Then there’s the client list. If it’s a relatively high profile agency then you could be working on some really major sites… that stuff looks pretty good on the old CV.
One of the biggest benefits of working for an agency, however, is that you get to work with other people and grow based on those close relationships. Andy Budd, a partner at ClearLeft in the UK, talks about why he thinks working for an agency is an appealing option for a web designer:
“I much prefer agency life over that of a freelancer. Sure the hours tend to be a little less flexible and you can’t sod off to the beach or go skiing for a month at a moments notice. However by being part of a company you get to work on bigger projects than freelance life normally allows. This provides greater creative challenges and therefore greater job satisfaction. Working with a good team also forces you challenge your currently level of experience and up your game. There’s no room for cookie cutter solutions here. Working with experts from different fields can also enlarge your perspective and make you a much more rounded designer.
A lot of freelancers hit a creative brick wall fairly early in their careers and find it difficult to advance beyond the type of work they are used to. So if you’re a jobbing designer who is happy churning out the same level of work for a reasonable amount of money, then freelance life is probably for you. However if you really want to maximize your own potential and become the best designer that you possibly can be, there’s no substitute to working on challenging projects with people who are smarter than you.”
With ClearLeft being one of the most recognisable web design studio brands in the UK, Andy has a very good idea of how they work. Building a company is one thing, but to continue to run it successfully for so many years really proves that he knows his stuff. Not to mention that he authored the book which taught myself and many others CSS for the first time: CSS Mastery. We owe him a lot!
What to Expect
Generally speaking, as a web designer or developer in an agency you will work in small teams of three to four people overseen by a project manager.
For smaller agencies there will be fewer people who adopt multiple roles and for larger agencies their may be more roles invented with people to fill them. At a good agency your working role is well defined and you have very little to worry about in terms of problems outside the scope of your main role.
Of all the career paths, working in an agency is the most specialised type of work that you can do. You will focus first and foremost on what you were hired for, which is a fantastic way to improve very quickly.
If you work for a well known agency in the industry you may be provided with things like laptops and iPhones, Carsonified and Poke in particular have extremely appealing strategies when it comes to attracting top-class talent. It’s hard not to want to work there with descriptions of office life like those. Of course when you offer such luxuries, the competition for the few available positions is fierce. Top agencies expect top quality work from their employees.
Carl Crawley has been working for design agencies for the last thirteen years, he says “Some of the biggest benefits have to be the accreditation and sense of achievement when you have completed a project which meets or exceeds client expectation. Pushing the boundaries of technology to achieve something completely different and new for the client no matter whether its noticed/appreciated or not is something that keeps me going.”
Stu Greenham has been working for agencies for two and half years, he highlights his main benefits: “I work amongst a team of very creative individuals who all have various specialities, be it more development based or design based. Having such a good team around me allows me to develop my skills on a daily base. The company I work for, Strawberry, are keen for us all to introduce new techniques and web standards into our work were possible, the latest been HTML5 and CSS3 where possible. I have also had the opportunity to work on some big projects which may not have been possible from a freelance point of view.”
Challenges to Overcome
Of course every action has an equal and opposite counter-reaction, so as well as the positives there are also challenges to overcome when working for an agency. Sticking to someone else’s schedule is always annoying and having to slog through work even when you have absolutely no motivation is never any fun.
Other challenges can include bosses with unrealistic expectations or a very poor management style, which can ruin a job quicker than almost anything else.
Agencies tend to have very clear personalities: corporate, or creative. You should be able to tell which one of these an agency is as soon as you’ve walked through the door, so try not to end up at one which doesn’t match your personality. Corporate agencies will tend to be quiet and solemn places where work is done rigorously from nine to five. Creative agencies tend to be innovative, fun, and the people within them have good personal relationships as well as working relationships.
Keith Cirkel closed down his own web design business to work for an agency six months ago. While there are many highlights, he also highlights some important challenges: “Bureaucracy & Politics, lack of freedom to make your own decisions. You’re not your own boss, which can mean more inflexible deadlines, procedures & perhaps decisions you don’t always agree with, but have to put up with. You can lose your job a lot easier (than running your own business). Regular income – you get what you get with few surprises. Always a lot harder to get bonuses.”
Kat Durrant has a wealth of web design agency experience with over ten years in the business, she too highlights some important considerations: “Personally I have found many pitfalls over the years. One of the pitfalls I have come across most often is Chinese Whispers between the client, the sales person and the designer, 9 times out of 10 I end up hearing what the client wants from a sales guy who doesn’t ask the right questions and it wastes everyone’s time.”
Future Career Moves
Where can working at an agency take your career? Well as Andy said right at the start, it can most certainly take your skills to new heights if you work at the right place. In addition if you work for a company like Carsonified, ClearLeft or Codeworks then your job can also lead right into slots on the web design speaking circuit. This is how people like Elliot Jay Stocks and Mike Kus got started.
Working for a well known agency can also lead to a lot of exposure for your personal brand. There are a multitude of successful designers out there who have first built a successful reputation by working at an agency and then later struck out on their own and formed their own companies.
Above all things, an agency can be a great place to start and build up a level of experience that you can’t get anywhere else before going on to pursue your hopes and dreams.
This post was authored exclusively for WDD by John O’Nolan, a core member of the WordPress UI Team, writer and entrepreneur based in Surrey in the United Kingdom. John loves to talk to people, so why not follow @JohnONolan on twitter too?
What do you think? Have you worked in an agency environment before? What advise would you offer to someone who is about to do the same? Let us know in the comments!