It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented a designer you are, when you first enter the workforce you’ll probably be quite professionally inept unless you have a few years’ experience in some other profession. This is only natural, as all aspiring professionals begin their careers with various ineptitudes. While the early part of your design education is dedicated to learning how to be a technician and craftsman, you must resolve that the early part of your design career is going to bring with it the rather daunting component of learning how to be a design professional. While you gain professional experience you need guidance, mentorship, and ample consequential work and interactions from which to learn, else that time is wasted.
Therefore, choosing freelance as your entry into the profession is unwise and amounts to an unprofessional first step that will likely have significant consequences (more on that in the section on freelance practice). Given these realities, the responsible and appropriate way for designers to first enter the workforce and to establish a sound professional foundation is to join a design agency. Joining the design department of a company is a significantly lesser choice for those just starting out, but still far better than floundering as an unprepared freelancer.
In short, the important requirements a freelance-based start to your career could never provide, an agency-based start can provide as a matter of course. One of the reasons you shouldn’t begin your career self guided is that your preferred way of dealing with things is likely to be subjectively corrupt. The breadth of your perception is likely underdeveloped. You need guidance and practice and a support system.
Starting With an Agency
Professions typically require a significant period of hands-on practical experience in the protected company of senior members before aspirants are recognized as professionals. After which, ongoing education toward professional development is compulsory. A profession may or may not require formal credentials and/or other standards for admission.
There are many facets to design professionalism and the best place for you to become exposed to them is in a collective professional environment. Such an environment is not only rich in learning opportunities, it is also forgiving; with built-in safety features for when inevitable blunders occur.
An agency is a good place to learn to work as part of a team.
As clichéd as it sounds, working harmoniously with others is important in the design profession. If you are a competent designer, the most crucial and pivotal moments in any project are going to occur while you’re working with others—peers or clients.
In an agency environment, working with others comes with the territory. You get good at it or you wash out and learn that you’re unsuited to a profession (all of them involve working with others). In the day-to-day work in an agency environment you will learn to express and support your ideas and concerns while preserving the dignity of those around you or, again, you will learn that you’ve no future in a profession.
Working as part of a team is the designer’s lot. Your team will consist of coworkers and your clients’ teams, but might include supervisors and/or subordinates. In any case, part of your development as a professional hinges on your reputation as being a good teammate and honest broker when working with others. This sort of reputation is built by your pattern of behavior.
An agency is a good place to hone your craft.
Along with its other benefits, an agency offers a helpful and forgiving environment for the development of your design craft. Being a competent design professional means being a competent designer first. And no matter how skilled you think you are when you first enter the workforce, you need years of practice to become as skilled as you responsibilities will demand.
Part of the benefit of working in an agency is the opportunity to receive critique of your design work. In order for you to grow as a designer, you must become comfortable with having your work evaluated in consequential situations. This is true partly so that you can learn from the greater skill and helpful insights of more experienced designers and partly so that you can become practiced at supporting your decisions in a critical context.
Supporting your design decisions demands that they be deliberately made, fundamentally and contextually sound decisions. In a consequential environment, you’ll quickly learn to dispense with frivolous design choices, as they will not survive a responsible, compulsory critique.
An agency is a good place to observe the inner workings of the design business and begin to form your professional standards.
To learn to be a competent design professional you have to observe and have experience with good and bad business choices. In an agency you’ll be exposed to both; you will get to see how professional relationships work well and how they fail. By paying attention to such things you’ll also get to see what caused those failures. There you’ll get to observe how the agency pursues potential clients, which ones they deliberate with, and which ones they work with, and what results those choices eventuate.
Even if it is not your job to keep tabs on such things, it is your responsibility as a budding professional to be curious and observe. Ask questions of those involved and learn what factors impact the potential contract deliberations. By doing so, you will learn much about your agency and your clients. Though your opinions and voice may not carry much weight early in your career, your developing understanding and opinions on these processes will be vital to your professional practice in the years to come.
One of the many habits you must cultivate in your practice as a professional is the habit of qualitative discrimination. The good and the bad, the effective and ineffective, the wise and the unwise practices and decisions you observe are important to informing your professional development. You must learn theory—and much of it is presented in this treatise—but it is experience that will provide for your professional success.
An agency is a good place to establish a pattern of trustworthiness and build your reputation.
As a professional, you need those who have learned to trust you and who know you’ll accomplish what you’ve promised. Your design skills will amount to nothing if people do not trust you and your decisions. Since people cannot trust what they don’t know or understand, part of your professional obligation involves demonstrating a consistent pattern of trustworthy behavior; first for your peers and employers and, as time passes, for a collection of clients. Eventually, perhaps even for your employees.
In an agency environment, you’ve got a built-in community available daily to observe and appreciate your pattern of behavior. Your coworkers and supervisors will mark your development and may offer advice as it is deemed necessary. What’s more, the agency serves to provide you with a string of clients with whom you can practice your developing craft in a consequential context.
In time, the simple process of your daily work and interactions will build your reputation and establish your place in the minds and esteem of your ever-growing professional community. It bears repeating: what a freelance start to your career could never provide, an agency start can provide as a matter of course…if you choose your employer well.
Choosing an employer
At some point, perhaps during your formal education or perhaps after its conclusion, you will seek employment with an agency or in-house with a company. Here again you have responsibilities; in how you conduct your employment search and in your choices associated with that process.
In keeping with the focus of this treatise, I will avoid discussions of the commonly cited admonishments regarding job searching and interviews (e.g., don’t exaggerate your qualifications, arrive on time to the interview, etc.), but I will offer some standards-relevant advice. Note that this advice assumes that you already maintain high standards and possess uncompromising core values.
Before you try and land the position you want you should be building a compelling portfolio of work. Since you’re not likely to be a well-known designer at this point, you may have to populate your portfolio with work done for those you know or for yourself. Relatives and friends are good resources for your early projects, but do make sure they’re consequential projects; make sure they matter to someone. Focus your skills and work hard to produce excellent results so that you’ve got some specific, excellent examples of your design skill, design thinking, and creative acumen to show prospective employers.
Choose employers according to your values and high standards
Don’t necessarily settle for the first thing that comes along. Your employer, even your very first one, must mesh with your values and meet your high standards. You must educate yourself about their history, their reputation, the publicly acknowledged quality of their product, their culture, their values, and their expectations. Here I’m referring to both the company and the principal individuals involved.
Luckily, this sort of research is not difficult, so you’ve no excuse not to put in the work. If you fail to do so you run the risk of finding yourself in the midst of recurring conflicts at your new agency, and that fault will lie entirely with you; because remember: the buck stops with you and your every professional circumstance is the result of a choice that you made earlier.
In your interviews, interview the agency as much as they interview you. Work to satisfy your requirements just as they will do. Employment is a professional relationship and only fools go into such things blindly. By expressing your expectations and asking that your potential employer meet them, you will in part define your professionalism, standards, and values. In business as in life, few things are as attractive as shared values.
It should go without saying that if you find that your values and/or expectations do not jive with those of your potential employer, pass. If you are a competent designer and a disciplined job searcher, you will find a better offer. Perhaps most important, however, is that you be conscious of the idea that it is dangerous to use an act of compromise to begin a career as an uncompromising professional. You are what your behavior says you are and bad habits can be hard to break.
Make a true commitment
Once you’ve been hired, commit professionally to your employer. Learn what your obligations are and never fail to meet or exceed them. If you’re not prepared to be loyal and commit to your employer, don’t take the job in the first place.
In other words, don’t be a scoundrel. If I’ve been too subtle in the preceding statement, let me say it more plainly: don’t take a wage as an agency employee and run your own competing enterprise on the side. That is the act of a scoundrel.
Note that I’m not referring here to taking on side jobs and personal projects that do not compete with your employer. Designers are, by and large, highly creative, hungry, energetic people, and crave outlets for this sort of energy. Taking on personal projects and inconsequential side-jobs are a perfect outlet for these energies.
This healthy activity contrasts, however, with the practice of maintaining your own company or freelance practice on the side. If you work at an agency and you have a website advertising for or promoting your design services, you are behaving in a highly unprofessional manner.
There is a marked difference between promoting your design skills and promoting your design services. If you’re employed by an agency and you’re promoting your own services on the side, reflect on your values and end that unprofessional practice. If you don’t have the shame and integrity to correct such a mistake, you’re not suited to a career as a design professional…or any sort of professional for that matter.
Some problems with agencies
Despite the fact that starting your career with an agency is always the best choice, it does not mean that such an environment is all perfection, success, rainbows, and ponies. As a human institution, an agency is just as likely to have faults and corruptions as any other; some much more than others. There will be much that is positive from which you can learn, but different agencies have different benefits…and problems. For example:
Taking a merchant approach rather than a professional approach
It seems like a non sequitur, but many so-called design professionals behave more like merchants than professionals and they end up running their agencies in the same manner. One of the more common articulations of this malady is the unprofessional manner and standards by which agencies select clients. Too many agencies will take up with any sort of client, regardless of the degree of mutual suitability.
Another symptom of this approach, and largely a result of the previous one, is that the agency ends up behaving more like a waiter who takes, follows, and fills orders rather than like a professional who fulfills clients’ needs. Be sure that the agency you go to work for makes a habit of potential-client and potential-project discrimination according to specific standards and values.
Insulation of designers from clients
Some agencies have compulsory practices that keep designers from interacting appropriately with clients. Having someone other than the designer conduct the discovery process directly with clients; having someone other than the designer to craft project/design briefs; having someone other than the designer presenting at design reviews, etc… all work to rob designers of their professionalism. As consequence, these practices facilitate destructive results.
Illogical segregation of project team members and tasks
Some agencies prescribe policies or compulsory processes that limit or prevent beneficial interactions between designers, developers, content writers, information architects, and other departments and staff members. Arbitrary separation of project components and the people involved typically results in a lower-quality result.
Large agencies, ad agencies especially, are fond of this sort of dysfunctional, walled-off segregation of disciplines due to their flawed staff models and irresponsible hiring/layoff practices. Unless you have years to waste and no regard for your professional development; unless you aspire toward a career as an advertising or graphic production designer rather than as a design professional; unless you don’t care to follow the uncompromising course described in this treatise, do not go to work at such a place. Neither professional work nor professional development is offered there.
Be sure that the agency you go to work for has a culture that encourages cross-discipline communication and inter-departmental collaboration and development on projects from start to finish.
Robbing designers of responsibility
Many agencies rely on highly unprofessional practices as their basic design process. Practices like having design teams with shared responsibility and having more than one designer craft designs to later choose the “winning” design rob the designers of responsibility and ensure low-quality results. A designer who knows that she’s not fully responsible for ultimate design success will have no compulsion to craft excellence.
Be sure that the agency you go to work for makes a practice of assigning ultimate project responsibility to one individual for each project, regardless of how many individuals collaborate on the work. Collaboration does not mean shared responsibility, but rather wide and varied perspective with the several ideas, evaluations, and suggestions that result. In the end, there must be an individual who is responsible for final qualitative discrimination and who makes final design decisions. Anything less is corruption.
In case it’s not obvious, the way to ensure that you understand how an agency works and measures against these standards is to plainly ask about these things during your interview. The buck stops with you.
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These and other problems aside, there is no substitute for spending a few years in the company of peers in an agency or in-house with the design department of a company. If you’ve chosen your employer well, the experience you will receive in just a few short years will prove invaluable in later years. This experience will become vitally important should you choose to then enter into freelance practice, which we’ll examine next.