Working as an In House Web Designer

If you want to pursue full-time employment in the web design industry but not in an agency, then chances are that you’ll be looking at working as an in-house web designer or developer for an internet based company.

This type of role comes with its own lists of benefits and challenges to consider before throwing yourself headlong down this career path.

Today we’ll be exploring all those areas in detail and we’ll also be asking other people in the industry for their experiences to get a broad overview of the entire subject.

Whether you currently work for an agency, as a student, or as a freelancer, there should be some relevant and important information here to keep you interested!

 

Stepping Into an In-House Environment

1

Working as an in-house web designer for a company is very different to working in an agency environment. Here, you’d better get used to being the “tech guy” pretty quick, because the people you work with aren’t web designers at all.

Coming from an agency background the prospect of an in-house position can look appealing because you can pretty easily become the most knowledgeable person at the company on the subject of web design, and run your own agenda – to a certain extent – on that basis. Coming from a student or freelancing background, the process of working nine to five may be daunting but the prospect of working for an exciting company who are outside of your niche may be exciting enough to attract you.

A huge benefit to working in-house is that you get to see a project through and continue to drive the innovation forward for a single company on the web. At an agency you might just do the build, but in-house you make an ongoing difference each and every day.

Rick Nunn works in-house as the Senior Web Designer for an International Courier Services company and he talks about why he feels this is important:

“I thoroughly enjoy being an in-house designer, it gives me the ability to work on much larger and more complex projects for much longer periods of time than would ever be possible as a freelance designer. I’ve been working on one particular project for nearly 18 months now, seeing this project evolve from an idea into something that works so well and has such a large (and happy) user-base is awesome. Being involved from the really early stages is great — you really get emotionally invested with the project because you know it’s going to be a very large part of your life, that’s great for me — it pushes me to work harder and smarter.

You also get to try things and take risks that you wouldn’t be able to do as a freelancer and then react to those things directly from customer (as a posed to client) feedback. Did I mention working with a team is awesome too? Well it is, sitting round a table with passionate designers and developers discussing a new feature, or function, or whatever… will make you want to be more awesome. I’m not saying it’s all roses, there are things I miss about being freelance bug there is no substitute for seeing a company successfully progress as a result of work you have poured yourself into.”


 

What to Expect

2

As an in-house web designer you’ll probably form part of a very small team – indeed, on most occasions, possibly even just you. This can be a challenge in terms of not having a larger support network but it can also be a benefit because you will typically represent an entire department and for that reason have much closer access to the head(s) of the company. If you’re looking to advance in terms of pay level and responsibilities then this certainly isn’t a bad position to be in.

Another benefit of working in-house is that you can make yourself incredibly valuable to the company if you want to be. Whip out some Google Analytics advanced user segmentation data to show where the current site is under-performing and what steps should be taken to improve revenue and you will almost certainly impress your boss. In fact you can use this strategy in interviews if you want to really impress, the author of this article has successfully obtained several jobs this way.

Japh Thomson has seven years of in-house experience as web developer, he offers some words of wisdom with regards to things to expect and some main benefits of this career path: “One of the best things about working in-house is working in a team or across multiple teams where everyone is serious about what’s getting done, and the time pressures are less, really gives a good atmosphere for making sure the job is done right. The converse of the above, is that it can also end up with the “design by committee” approach, which is not so much fun.”

Gavin Elliott is new to working as an in-house web designer but has some incredibly valuable input on the subject when talking about the benefits of this type of work: “You have the utmost respect from people within the business because they’re not designers. They trust what you say but have their own point of view. It’s like having your own in-house usability test. You have enough freedom to push your own ideas and work on things that excite you, you can push your own design style a lot more.”

Luc Pestille has just over a year of experience working in-house and he had this to offer about the benefits: “Being answerable to the same company as the product you’re building is for – your boss can be a lot more lenient. Not having to deal with clients in the traditional way is a wonderful thing if you’re as introverted as most of us technical/creative people.”


 

Challenges to Overcome

3

Unlike when working for an agency, you probably won’t have a very structured day-to-day work life. You are the project manager, the designer, the developer, and everything in between. It’s up to you to take the flimsy and sometimes poorly thought-through ideas of the people higher up in the food chain and turn them into a reality. Or at the very a least a working concept.

One of the other biggest challenges to overcome is that, as mentioned, you’re the tech guy. You are no longer a user experience professional, a graphic designer, a Ruby developer, you are just a tech guy. What does that mean? Well, it means that when the printer stops working, you fix it. When Skype is acting up, you fix it. When a router is jumbling up its network addresses, you fix it. No, it doesn’t matter what you say, because even if you have no idea how to do any of those things, you’re still deemed to be the “most capable” person in the office when it comes to anything that uses electricity. You can come up with as many metaphors as you like to explain the situation, hell you can even design some t-shirts, but it won’t help. This is one that you’ll just have to put up with.

John Slater worked in-house for a company for just over a year and his less-than-positive experience is an important contrast to some of the benefits already highlighted. John says:

“There are a few major problems designing in-house. I found working on the same project quite fun initially as it allowed the project to expand rapidly and become something I could be proud of. However after the honeymoon period I found working on the same project over and over again quite tedious. I often felt like I was moving in circles with the website and although I spent every waking moment designing and building the website it felt as if it was going nowhere.

My second peeve with in-house was the all famous “Design By Committee”. The internal projects would be tweaked and then the boss would review it, get everyone involved and we would be back to square one making the same changes I made 15 revisions ago. Despite many many meetings to discuss the website we had little progress in the 10 months we worked on the project.

My final pitfall has to be leaving the company with nothing to show for it. I had worked there just over a year and worked endlessly on this massive website for a big company, and yet when I left the company the website was still sitting internally awaiting further changes before it could go live. This made it extremely hard to convince prospective employers that I was efficient and hard working, it also left a rather big void in my portfolio, a void that could have been filled with one year of work.

This was just my experience, I’m not going to say that the company was managed in a perfect way, it wasn’t, so this may just have been me working for the wrong company on the wrong project. My whole in-house experience has made me think twice about taking an in-house job, client work allows me to be more creative. Which is what I want.”


 

Future Career Moves

4

Working in-house is fairly limited in terms of future prospects. Most of the time you’ll come into the company at a level that’s either as high as you can ever go, or one step away from it.

The only long term benefits come in the form of salaries and bonuses. If, however, your career focus is as much on being an entrepreneur as it is on being a web designer, then everything changes substantially.

Working as the in-house web designer for a startup can teach you an incredible amount about starting and running a business that will be absolutely invaluable if and when you set out to do the same by yourself.


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 in-house environment before? What advise would you offer to someone who is about to do the same? Let us know in the comments!

  • http://www.webguide4u.com Vivek Parmar

    That’s a great article, working from home is always a challenging thing. You have to set a time table and work according to it and most of the time, you will not followed due to some work or lack in passion.
    To get success in web designing you have to work hard and sincerely making full use of the time you get.

  • http://trafficcoleman.com/ TrafficColeman

    Sound very challenging to me..don’t think being an in house will be beneficial to me but I see it does have its perks..your able to set your own hours..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • http://twitter.com/garbaczd David Garbacz

    This is actually the position I hold right now straight from graduation. Although thankfully for the common “things aren’t working” there is someone else that handles that :D

  • Maruse

    Very nice article. I’m myself an new in-house designer (I’m in my fifth month now and the only designer in the company) and the comment by Rick Nunn describes exactly why I like my job.

    I’m working in two projects now: the company’s web site and the website of a music festival that will be held next summer. The company’s website project is not very exiting, I just took what the previous designer left and do some basic maintenance (I’m looking forward for the day my boss decides to renew the site…) but the concert site is something entirely my own! Something I see growing from an idea to a complete site. It is not a site that I build in a few weeks and then never see again. It is my “little treasure” and I’m the one nurturing it.

    That makes working as an in-house designer a great experience for me.

  • http://www.backlinksware.com Shannon T Cox

    nice article. Makes me consider an in-house web design position or not.

  • Drew

    I work as an in-house-everything and I find just the opposite to John Slater.
    I can see that I make a difference, I have ideas and progress them to reality, start with vague concepts from on-high and turn them into websites. The only issue is that no matter how hard I work, the rewards are not commensurate with effort.
    This really narks me!

  • http://www.nicky-lock.com Nicky Lock

    Great post. I work in house at the moment and completely agree with both the positive and negative parts of the role. If anyone else wants any further information on working in house, im always happy to share my knowledge!

    Cheers guys

  • http://di-gae.blogspot.com Flávio Alves

    I’m self-studing cause I want to be a professional of web design and those are important informations to me. I like the fact that I can learn and work from home and do a serious nice job. Thank you for the article. =]

  • http://www.jianart.com Jian Adornado

    First! This is a great post! I have an experience in both working for an agency and for in-house as a designer. I find that working in-house provides good work-life balance mainly because it is structured from 9 to 5. The great aspect working for an agency is the variety of style/designs because with agency you work with multiple brands.

  • http://8isc.com Sean C

    I’ve taken a number of in-house positions, and there is one fatal pitfall that you don’t touch on in this article. What happens when either a) the project is complete, or b) the decision-makers get too caught up with running the business to be concerned with their web presence? Either circumstance leads to your job being unnecessary. You’re not part of the primary function of the company, and you’re among the first to be cut when cuts need to happen.

    There are other risks of taking in-house positions. The projects run the risk of not panning out, due to the lack of buy-in from the people in charge, they think that throwing money at an employee is cheaper then going to a firm, and they don’t realize that regardless of how much you pay, making a website or tool requires a time commitment from the paying party. Especially, beware of ‘idea’ people, who have lots of dreams, but are so over-committed to those dreams that they have no time to manage the execution of one.

    You also lose much of your professional leverage, gained over years of experience working in the industry. It’s much easier to pushback on a client and tell them what the problems are, since they’re paying for your expertise, then to push back on a boss, who expects you to do what you’re told.

    Another risk is having your technical skillset stagnate, due to a lack of peers and/or a lack of current industry understanding from the people in charge.

    However, despite all the risks, in-house work can be fairly interesting and diverse, it all depends on where you end up. I’ve worked on presidential campaigns and made documentaries about rebuilding Ferraris. I don’t want to disregard it as a general rule, but my personal experience tends to favor agency environments if I’m looking for f/t work.

    • http://www.yourwebdepartment.com Flavio Mester

      I agree with you. I’ve seen everything you describe happen with a few clients of ours, who used our system to create their corporate website(s) but then, once it became just maintenance work, became kind of redundant and ended up leaving.

      On the other hand there are exceptions of course — organizations where the focus on marketing and branding is so strong that an internal design person (or department) becomes invaluable.

      I guess it all depends on the size of the organization, its culture, target audience, etc.

    • http://john.onolan.org JohnONolan

      Great comment Sean, thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts. Generally this was written from the position of in-house startups for tech companies where the web presence is very much the primary focus, however I take your point :)

  • http://studioplexstudios.com Jon Garcia

    Great article, especially with the diversity of good and bad quotes.

    I’ve been an in house designer for 7 years. It is very rewarding experience most of the time. I’ve had a lot of creative freedom and respect for what my team and I produce.

    Because we’re in house, the trade off for creative freedom and leading the company brand is that we are expected to produce quality much quicker than an external agency. This could be just this start-ups mentality, but I’m talking 2-3 days for a professional marketing ready logo or a week to do a presentation-ready multi-page interface design.

    Between this and the option to freelance, I enjoy working with a team and a company that appreciates my talents. Also the regular paycheck and paid time off are worth it all right now.

  • http://twitter.com/jakerocheleau Jake Rocheleau

    These are some great tips for getting start in-house. Design agencies are usually built around large clients and smaller groups of developers and artists. It’s a great way to earn a living and meet some very talented creative individuals.

  • http://www.christrude.com Chris Trude

    I feel the same way about my position as John Slater does, 18 months on one project…but not even really developing and designing it that whole time. I did the designs 12 months ago, so far I’ve just been doing mockups for future components and testing, testing, testing. I has helped me fulfill the role of being the resident user-experience expert, but my portfolio is still empty for the last 18 months worth of work. And now, in wanting to move on, I’m trying to get more side work to build that portfolio, but I feel like I’ve been sapped of my creativity and skill somewhat. It’s very disheartening…I’m trying to find my way back to that college atmosphere where I could do anything.

    • http://etomco.com Tom

      I had a similar experience as Chris. Didn’t get much for my book because I was working on the same project. This was 7-years ago, since then:

      Year 1-2 = Took on as much freelance as I could, even free projects. I know people don’t say to do this but it helps trust me… it opens up other doors.
      Year 3-4 = Moved to another company for my 9-5 based on the freelance work I did. Still continued to do freelance.
      Years 5-7 = Move to another company, based on freelance I did during year 4

      The one common theme in my career thus far is taking on freelance projects always opened up other doors for full time positions.

      I have been an inhouse designer for 7 years but with the freelance projects I have taken on I consider myself a utility designer rather than agency or inhouse.

      My advice to you would be ask friends, family, etc if they need a website and just build them. They can be used in your book and for the most part you get full rein on the design and code.

      Just my 2

  • http://www.dustbunnymafia.com Bret Juliano

    I like the focus on the in house designer topic in the article but the one thing I disagree with is that depending on the company, you’re not always the tech guy. Yes, in smaller companies where there may be only you as the technical staff, then yes, you’ll wear all the hats related to technology. But in the 3 companies I’ve worked as in house web designers, where the company size ranged from 15-500+ people, they have always had other tech guys that did support while I focused on design and marketing. You’ll always get a few things out of your realm of web/graphic design, but for the most part, companies tend to have an additional person for support and tech issues.

  • http://maustingraphics.com Michael

    I just recently took on a position as in house web designer at an online bank about 2 months ago. My experience has been both enjoyable and extremely jaring, but mostly its a learning experience for me.

    Let me start with that good stuff, I get to work on one brand and I dont have to juggle 20 clients to make the income I need to support my family. I also get health insurance and other perks. Its really enjoyable seeing a business from the inside out. I have worked on thousands of designs over the past 15 years and not once have i had the opportunity to learn about a company in the way I have over the past two months. Thats the good so far, lets hope more comes from this over the next coming months.

    Now for the not so good. Well where to begin… I am a creative, I have had the opportunity to succeed in life by being a commercial artist for all sorts of brands, bands, and other things. My style tends to be all over the place as I try not to pidgin hole my self into one single style. That is very enjoyable for me and for my A.D.D.
    In my current position I have yet found the opportunity to express this, even when I’m told “oh that landing page can deviate from the brand.” Well it can’t and it must not. Now this company is fairly new, so with my experience I felt I was going to have the opportunity to help shape a brand that is lacking and not quite refined yet. Well I can’t “we tested that color and thats what we think works!” and that all fine and dandy but again very very limiting from my normal past experience of ” can you make this look awesome!” Maybe im just to much of a rebel at heart and cant be contained by rules, however when starting I was under the impression that I would have some sort of controle in creative direction… Maybe it just not the right time and who knows one day with a little trust I will have that opportunity.
    Another gripe is the time lines, I would say a typical landing page with 3 variations for an online application, in witch this application is still vaporware, should typically take aprox 5 days from start to finish… No, two days is whats to be expected, not cool and very hindering to the about of detail I provide in my designs.

    I was hired for my experience as a director and the work in my portfolio, my pay also reflex that experience. However I am expected to be noting more then a production artist. If you ask me they could have saved over 60k a year hiring some one who is entry level.

    Well we will see how things pan out, I am optimistic and really hope for the best. but for now I will be an arm, for my families sake, and worry about being a brain later. although its supper tough to revert my self back many many years.

    I wanted include this comment to add more contrast to this grate post above. I’m not saying I’m un-happy or happy.. hell it may just be a wrong fit or the wrong time with the company. However I hope it helps people look at all things when considering uprooting yourself from what your currently doing. Best of luck to all and I hope my comment helps shine another light on the subject.

  • John

    I think some people have misunderstood the term “In House”, its not working “from home” its being a designer/developer directly for a company – Rather than the company hiring a agency.

    A great article, definatly gives people something to think about if theyre looking at in house roles.

  • http://catladydesignsonline.com Cat Lady

    This was an excellent article! I’m an in-house designer for an ESP now and have been for other companies over the last 6 years and this article hit the nail on the major ups and downs of it.

    The downs of it definitely helped me decide what kind of company I prefer to work for when I was searching for my current job. Remember you’re the expert so you can size them up and as much as they’re going to size you up…

    What keeps me an in-house designer rather than a full time freelancer is I enjoy being the go to person when it comes to design and coding questions, the steady paycheck, and luckily, since I’m in the Email Marketing industry, I can play with email, web design and sometimes print for the company’s marketing material so there’s good variety.

    I found myself in the same situation as John Slater a few years ago – I ended up working for the wrong company who saw me as the “tech person”. With my main job, as their Email Newsletter Manager, I never felt I really got a chance to evolve there and it showed in my work so when the economy tanked, I didn’t have much to fight with to prevent a pink slip. It ended up being the greatest thing ever, because during my time off, I really understood the importance of a portfolio and that gave me the chance to freelance so when I applied for the job I have now, I had a lot of good work to show.

    Now, to combat the monotony that can sometimes happen and a big empty time hole in your portfolio is to do side work. It doesn’t have to be all the time, and it doesn’t even have to be paying work. Volunteer for a non-profit or help your friend out who’s starting their own business…I barter a lot of times just to update my portfolio periodically. While it doesn’t fix the worse disadvantages to being an in-house designer, this will definitely help feed your creativity and give you some ammo should you decide it’s time to pack up one day….

  • jay rizza

    This is a terrific article! I definitely had to adjust from an agency to being the in-house person at another company. And I’ll say that I agree that in-house can definitely have a ton of pros to outweigh the cons, if you focus on them!

  • http://iamchristinabot.com christina panarese

    I’ve been working as an in-house designer/developer for over a year and I love it, but I can see a position like this isn’t for everyone. My favorite part of working in-house is the freedom I have with my work and the control I have with developing my skills. I also like that I’m able to get more involved with the evolution of the product and contribute ideas to its growth. There are some people that don’t want to be so involved, especially when it comes to design-by-committee.

    Sometimes, I do feel like the work can become tedious and at times it can be difficult to reach certain goals. I find that I’m able to clear my head and get back into things by taking a vacation or a work-from-home friday and reading new material that allows me to view my work in a new light. Other times, I take a break from designing and focus on coding, cleaning up my style sheet, analyzing web stats etc.

    I’m the go-to person when it comes to anything design and I find that often the thought behind instructions that I’m given are not completely finished and we have to edit over and over. I think that when design is outsourced the thought process is complete and then design changes are put into effect. This is actually a big something that took getting use to.

    Instead of being the go-to tech person, I find myself often going to the backend developers for help. For example, “How do I fix this merge in git?” or “Why isn’t my database loading?” All this just contributes to my work experience and I don’t care if the tech people think I’m a noob.

    It has been great to watch the company’s product grow and change but I do think there is a time and place for being a full-time designer, it definitely isn’t for everyone.

  • http://cankgoestechnical.wordpress.com Joao Ferreira

    Great Article. loved the different views ( good vs bad). I think at the end of the day it will probably be down to the company you work for, if its going to be a good or bad experience…

  • http://www.michaelpauljames.com Michael James

    This is a great article and I can relate to it so much that it sounds as though it’s written about me! I particularly like the fact that I don’t simply design and move on to the next project, but I get to develop the site further, analyse it’s performance and make constant improvements. I suppose there is something to be said for the variety of work when at an agency though!

  • http://www.slaterjohn.com John Slater

    I should point out that the company i worked for were not very internet heavy. They used their website for promoting areas of their business. I spent a long time working on the project and even after i had left it hadn’t gone live.

    I do believe that in-house design can be rewarding and pay off, but this hasn’t been my experience and after all, you only need one bad experience to put you off it for life.

    I suspect my experience was simply the fact that the company was holding back what i wanted to go live, there wasn’t much room to be creative, and after a year i was only looking at the negative points.

  • http://gauravmishra.com Gaurav Mishra

    Simply great!
    Lots of Respect to In house web designers :-D

  • http://www.inpixelitrust.fr Inpixelitrust

    Nice article, I would like to see more of those. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only in-house designer out there, everybody writes about freelance and webagancies. So again thanks a lot for the great article and the nice comments.
    I started my “career” doing a 6 months internship as an in-house-designer, and now I’m hired so I only got 10 months of “experience”.
    One thing that is particularly true is ” “You have the utmost respect from people within the business because they’re not designers. ” . This is both very exciting, but sometimes freaks me out. I feel I’ve got such a huge power, but I’m young, just started so it is very difficult for me, when people give me such importance “we will do it it because she said it’s good, and she’s the expert”. I don’t doubt my skills, but sometimes I can’t stop asking myself “did I really diserve so much respect and credibility, those people are crazy trusting me I’ve just 10 month experience!” ^^
    But working as an in-house-designer is a great experience, the team work is cool and I got to do stuff I would never do in a web-agency (iphone/ipad apps, print design, etc).
    For the moment, I don’t have the “12 months going 15 revisions project”, I’m very lucky (in a kind of way) that decisions are taken very quickly very I work (I’m also building the agency website). I’m also that my most of my co-workers are computer engineers and software developpers. I might be one of the less “techyguy” so no printer to fix so far !!

  • http://www.martymccolgan.com Marty McColgan

    This is such a great article I can really relate to every part of it. Well done John

  • http://www.sametomorrow.com/blog adam

    Nice, interesting post.

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

    The biggest problem I think working as an in-house designer is your family, you cannot concentrate on your work when you have your parents / wife kids with you. Even if you have a separate workspace but still family comes first if you are under same roof !
    Great article BTW!

    • http://new.himachalsoft.com Prashant

      In-House here does not mean working from your own house. It means not freelancer, but employed, working for an organization.

  • http://www.thefount.com Graphic and website designer

    I’ve had several designers that I’ve mentored over the years discuss opportunities for in-house design positions with me. I always point out that for a designer (maybe not a developer) the restrictions of working on one ‘account’ can become monotonous and unfulfilling over time.

    There’s also the reality that if you are the only designer at a company you lose the support and perspective from fellow designers that is important for continual development.

  • http://www.jcianfrone.com J

    I work as in-house web “designer” at an educational institution. I put the term “designer” in quotes as design only covers a small portion of what I am expected to do.
    That said, the scale of work i do here is vast, I may not always have the opportunity to be creative as possible but definitely learning new things all the time.

    Its a completely different kettle of fish to working as a freelancer but a role very beneficial in itself that can see you push yourself that step further. There’s nothing worse than having to do the same thing all the time and in the position I’m in that is rarely the case.

  • mayan balon

    Wow great article and great comments, a helpful post indeed. I’m an in-house web designer as well. And in my stay so far with my current employment, things have been good and bad. I could relate to some and to John Slater’s but the bottom-line question is, how does one learn to survive?

    Smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors. We have to learn to adopt with whatever situation we’re in. That’s what I’m proud of being a web designer. We’re not only creative, we are logical thinkers as well. We can jump from being the tech guy, to a content writer, a manager, designer, maintenance guy, etc…

    Plus we have such a big community online to keep us sane and inspired, like WDD. :D

  • http://www.rawkmedia.com John

    Although I agree with the notion that working as an inhouse designer makes yourself incredibly valuable, there’s something to be said about stifled creativity that can only be satisfied at an agency or going freelance.

    Great pros / cons article!

  • http://www.annarobertson.ca Anna

    Great article, but tech “guy”? Come on, there are in house tech girls too. :)

  • Sampath

    Nice artic… Nice too see my kind of tech guyz/ girls :D

  • http://www.martiandesign.com David Platt

    I liked working in-house. It was fun being the knowledgable designer and it’s great to be able to develop a brand, but it’s hard to create a diverse portfolio when working for a single company. For me, this is a big drawback.

    -dp

  • http://www.themanagementskills.com Johny

    Working as a freelancer is always challenging. Most of time you lost motivation.