What is it Like to be a Designer at a Startup?

10.05.2016

For every web designer toiling away in the agency world, you may be wondering whether the grass is any greener on the other side. Specifically, you may want to know what the daily grind consists of at a startup, and whether it varies significantly from that of an agency designer.

It's no secret that by necessity, agencies are changing the way they do business. In today's rapidly changing tech landscape, in-house design is a growing trend, already utilized by tech giants like Facebook and Google. Once-leading agencies are closing their doors, like Teehan + Lax who joined Facebook, and Adaptive Path who was acquired by Capital One. As Silicon Valley continues to scoop up talented young design grads and companies question the need for outside assistance, traditional agencies are scrambling to offer services in a new, more relevant way.

Of course, this isn’t to say that agencies are doomed to descend into extinction. But as a web designer you may be curious about a career on the other side - one in which your talents are focused more narrowly, as opposed to being spread out across dozens of projects. So if you're considering making a career transition, or simply want to know what life is like for your startup designer friends, here are a few key differences to consider.

Collaboration is Key

When you're working at an agency, the process of delivering a product to a client is more automated and condensed. You are likely working to ensure that the deliverables are completed in a timely fashion, following the directions laid out for you in a client's proposal. A day in the life of a startup designer is often a little less cut-and-dry. Collaboration with other department team members like marketers and engineers is often necessary, as the final product rests on everyone's shoulders, not just the designer's. Instead of communicating via phone or email with clients, the design collaboration process is condensed, as team members can simply lean over your shoulder and make suggestions.

Designer and Developer Collaboration at Frontify
Marc Oertle (Developer) and Roger Dudler (CTO & Designer) working on a design at Frontify

Getting Cozy

One of the upsides to working as a startup designer is that there is less opportunity for confusion and disagreement. With clients of all shapes and sizes tumbling through an agency's doors, you've probably found yourself questioning requests for a particular revision, or feeling the gap between what the agency deems appropriate, and what the client's stakeholders demand. There's just not a great deal of intimate communication between the agency and its clients, aside from the final accept-reject verdict and fairly quick requests for revisions. In a startup, the mood is quite different. As the web designer, you serve the same users day after day. And while you'll never know all of them personally, you're working within the confines of your startup's culture and goals – tracking metrics, collecting feedback, and implementing the same strategies for the same demographic on a day-to-day basis. While things inevitably change at startups, you're not working with the same level of anonymity you would be at an agency serving unique clients.

Room to Explore

Agencies thrive on set deadlines, billable hours, and high quality standards. You may feel a bit more like a businessperson raking in the dough than a fancy artist exploring your craft. Agencies allow designers to gain a wide variety of experience, learn to work fast, and tailor their work to the specific desires of clients. For new web designers especially, this can serve as an incredibly valuable experience. Meanwhile in startupland, you are given a bit more rope. Instead of the efficiently-executed, deadline-driven projects, you are working with more open-ended, long-term projects that span well into the future. For example, version 1.0 of a website can later go through several revisions, existing in constant state of progress and flux. As you learn new skills and experiment with serving the ever-changing needs of your startup, projects grow and develop. As a more experienced designer looking for new challenges, this can be a satisfying change of pace after several years in the agency world. Agencies are obligated to lean toward productivity -- getting it done fast -- while startups have the luxury of letting a project ride, with timing as a secondary priority.

Innovation and Budgets

Is there a relationship between levels of innovation and the size of your budget? Digital Product Designer & Developer, Jack Barham highlights the striking difference between new, lean startups and large, established agencies. "I’ve been in situations where a startup has been down to their last few thousand pounds but need to finish a killer feature so they can demonstrate it to their investors before they tell them they need more money. This makes a team much more finely tuned, passionate and willing to try every trick in the book to get it built." You can see how this sort of challenge can bring out a startup designer's innovation and provide a valuable learning experience. Meanwhile, you see designers craving huge projects with even bigger budgets, but Barham warns that this doesn't always equate to "living the dream."

"Waking up in the morning and knowing the product you’re building isn’t trying to sell sugar coated chocolate cereal to children by getting them to “engage” through some Facebook game built by 37 contractors is a great start."

Making the Switch

If you're working independently or with an agency and considering a career change, there are a few critical factors to consider before signing your design skills over to a hungry startup. First and most importantly, how aligned are you with the product? Can you see yourself eating, sleeping, and breathing this product, or does a few minutes of thinking about it deaden your soul? In the case of the latter, keep looking. There is no faster way to run out of creativity than to work on a project you don't believe in. Secondly, you must practically consider your salary options. Depending on your success as an independent designer, startup money could be more or less than what you are used to. Transitioning from an agency to a smaller or newer startup may mean taking a financial dip for the sake of more engaging work. Keep in mind that when you join a startup, your success is dictated by the startup's success.

So at this point, you're probably itching for some first-hand evidence of a startup that values design as much as you do. Just drop me a line if you want to discuss or learn more about design at Frontify. In a modern business environment, design holds a place of paramount importance. So regardless of where you choose to hang your hat, opportunities for web designers show no signs of decreasing.

Roger Dudler
Roger Dudler CTO at Frontify
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