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Working For A Web Design Agency

Business, Web Design | Sep 2, 2010

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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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  • Purab

    Really nice infromation you give for web designers who are new in field and what needs to be plan for future….I liked this article so much. Yes you are right professional enviourment really makes difference

  • http://applenyt.dk/ Tommy

    This is a great article! I can relate directly to it, since I’m in that exact situation :)

  • http://www.mysweetdesign.com Mike

    Nice article.

    I personally love the studio feel. Being around other creatives, discussing/arguing techniques and new issues, bouncing creative ideas off each other is something i could never do at home.

    Some people can’t work with others but if you can then don’t rule out agency working as it really can keep you ahead of the curve (has to be the right agency however).

  • http://www.addictivefonts.com Taimur Asghar

    really co0l and informative post
    thanks

  • http://erichessdesign.com Eric Hess

    Thank you so much for this article! I actually just had an interview with an agency yesterday which went VERY well and I have since been looking up and reading articles about the Freelance –> Agency switch. Having multiple viewpoints makes this one of the best!

    So sincerely, thank you!

  • http://hypertransitory.com John G

    It would be great working for an agency with talented, creative professionals who knew what they were doing. Many times this is not the case however. Plus the inter-departmental bureaucracy crap can weigh you down and dampen your creative spirit after awhile.

    There are those places where you can really be happy working, but they seem to be few and far between. Starting out, you may need to take a junior position just to see how things are done, or at least find out how NOT to do things when you are the one calling the shots.

    Best of luck everyone!

  • http://www.davejanes.com Davinder376

    After freelancing for two years I started working for an interactive design agency about 5 months ago. If you don’t mind giving up some control and can learn to focus your abilities in a more specific area, then working in an agency setting can be very rewarding. You get to work with like-minded individuals with different skill sets and create something together that is bigger than what you can create by yourself. When it all comes together and the client loves it there is no better feeling. If you are a good freelancer and you are tired of worrying where your next paycheck might come from and you want to expand your skills, working at an agency is a great option. If you can’t work with people, or have little tolerance for criticism then get some thicker skin or keep freelancing.

  • http://www.chrismauck.com Chris Mauck

    Great article! While I enjoy working for myself I have considered agency life a few times over. Greatly appreciated another point of view.

  • http://www.amiciziaeamore.it Gianni

    It ‘s a really interesting article, I want to become web desiner and this will definitely help me

  • http://www.perfilgeek.com Edwin Sandoval

    Great post, personally I think that is very important to gain work experiences related with large enterprises because this give you access to information that you could not to became to have working as Freelance at the beginning of your career.

  • http://gauravmishra.com Gaurav Mishra

    Hummmpphh!!

  • http://www.katieful.com Katie

    Another nice thing about agencies is that you don’t have to spend time marketing yourself as much and scrambling to get clients and work.

  • David K

    I’ve been a web designer for 15 years and I’ll never work for a “creative”-style agency again. There is nothing more irritating than a group of hipsters reminding themselves daily that their collective s*** doesn’t stink. Also, most boutique agencies (which accounts for about 99% of agencies) tend to have one or two big clients that they brown-nose and any threat to that relationship sends the owners/management into a frenzy. Definitely not good for morale.

    I much prefer corporate or in-house design departments. Being a big fish in an even bigger pond is very humbling and that’s one thing most agencies – most, not all – fail to learn.

    Never again.

  • http://www.apcooper.co.uk Andrew Cooper

    Brilliant article, something I’m interested in doing and I’d be very keen to work at one of those small Web agencys that only employ up to 10 people. A nice, small, tight-knit group of designers, developers, and project managers. All working together in harmony (most of the time) in a smart, clean, modern office space.

    Andy Budd or Paul Boag – If either of you are reading this then please take me on! :D

  • http://www.webdesignnet.co.uk/index.php/blog blogorio

    it is a very hard time for web agencies…. most of them ;)

    the best way is to be recomended by someone who personaly knows the next boss.. if they invite you for a cup of tea – they are considering (already) to hire you..

    after that – SELL yourself ;)

  • pesho

    awesome

  • http://www.alejandroperazzo.com Punta del Este Real Estate

    In my I started as a freelancer. I never went to design school or anything. My brother had Flash 5 classes years ago, and looking at what he did I learned basic Flash design, my brother did not go any far because he is color blind (confuses some colors).

    I spent some years learning flash on my own, consulting flash help (F1) I learned a lot, gain a lot of knowledge of ActionScript and animation.

    I made some small works as a freelancer until I design a website for a computers company. After that the company offered me a job as a designer there that I accepted, but I was alone in the design sector. There I learned to make newsletters and continued making websites but all for my own, google is a great teacher!!.

    After 1 year I got a new job proposal, in a Real Estate company, they offered double pay and I accepted.

    Since then I have been working there, 3 years have passed and I have learned a lot since. I left the Flash dependence and learn CSS, improve the newsletters knowledge and also learned ASP and some PHP.

    Now I work with databases, I made a news site and other projects.

    Well in my experience I have never worked in a design agency, therefore I have not had the chance to learn from teammates, I had learned for my own but well, learned at last.

    My advice to someone new is that if there are chances, get a job in a design agency, to get a clear panorama of what design really is. For example I spent too much time to realize that Flash is a tool, but not the entire panorama.

    regards

  • http://www.orangegrovedesigns.co.uk Louisa

    I balance my freelance career working direct with clients and also with creative / marketing agencies. You are right that working direct with clients provides more geographic freedom, however as you said, it’s great to also get the balance from working with other creatives and learning from them. The other advantage in my experience of working with agencies is quicker payment. So as much as I want more geographic freedom, I’m unlikely to stop working for agencies for some time yet.

  • http://www.nakulanand.com/ Freelancer web designer

    This is a wonderful article…

  • http://www.holistic-designs.co.uk/ Matt Peacock

    Great read, thank you!

    I am in the position of wanting to go to work at a creative agency so the information that you shared was very beneficial!

    I think for me working with a small team is ideal as working for myself can make me a bit introspective. Having someone to bounce ideas off is so important!!

  • http://www.furtuna.ro ADrian

    I work for such a small design agency in a junior position, since I only have about 1 year of design experience.

    I’m the only in-house designer and work alongside with a freelancer that also does work for this agency. Like most of you, I didn’t had any proper training and I learned from tutorial and web design sites. To be frank those tutorials and internet info got me this job.

    It’s great to have a steady income. One more thing you can do is to have a part-time position in an agency and use the rest of the time for freelancing. That part-time brings you steady income and work for your portfolio.

  • john

    same here, i dont have a proper training also, i just learn designing and css/html by reading and watching tutorials on youtube, :D im a freelance designer also for 2 years and have a job as a web and graphic designer also, i love to be a freelance coz you manage your own schedule and you may rest for many hours and back to work once your feeling well, the problem is i dont have fix or stable income, so i decided to find a job but im still accepting projects as a freelancer at the same time, my job is with a web dev company (outsource) and im the only designer on the group the 2 was a developer and a programmer, but i also have a problem with my job its because of my boss he’s a asp.net programmer he just keep on telling me to do or to design a web or a flyers, bcard, banners etc. with insufficient info. he just telling me ok do that and do this, its like going to a store that he dont even tell ne what to buy, and even im not done yet with what im doing he will give me another one and i must finish it all that day, and there’s one time that he told me to make a 10 webdesign per day lols imagine that gosh, right now im thinking to just finish my contract and never continue, coz im always got an headache on my job, my boss dont know how to deal with our clients dont know what to ask like client must give us all info that we need for their site. 25 more days togo and im out of here.. ^^

  • http://www.olc.com.tr Yurtdışı Eğitim

    It seems like a very good web site but my English is not good. It would be great if it might be availible in other languages too. But, I like this web site very much, thank you very much share for this information.

  • http://bggopal.blogspot.com aka Balu

    Its really helpful.. Well executed.

  • http://digitalreaction.net rob torres

    I spent many years in corporate, learned a ton and had an absolute blast back in the “dot-com” hey days… However, nothing compares to freelance design or if you are really fortunate running your own design biz…

    My advice to anyone on the fence:

    Give the steady paying gig a shot and learn all you can about the “business” of web design, because like most creatives the designing is easy because it’s what comes natural. The “business” aspect however is something we designers don’t typically know much about and will 100% be the difference between succeeding or failing should you pursue a freelance career or certainly breaking out on your own!

    Cheers!

  • http://www.3am.co.za Win

    Great post, thanks man,

  • http://www.magadesign.net maurizio

    We are Magadesign, http://www.magadesign.net, webagency Rome we always leave our designers creative freedom but you can not always express themselves to arrive at a plan that satisfies the customer.

  • http://evolvenet.co.uk/ evolvenet

    Website designers have a combined 21 years experience across both web design and web development.

  • fros

    there is no work in web design… web design is a horrible career choice.

  • http://www.tombradshawdesign.co.uk Tom Bradshaw

    Likewise I’m in the same situation – wouldn’t want to work in house somewhere!!
    @fros you ain’t doing it right mate! ;)

  • http://www.jannahagan.com Janna

    Thanks for this article. I’m starting my first job in the summer this year and I am extremely nervous… at least now I kind of have an idea of what to expect. Thank you.