June 20, 2017

How to choose your first design gig: startup, corporate, or freelance?

Coming from university or a UX career transition, you’ve spent time to perfect your portfolio and resume—what now?

You scroll over job boards, take a look at openings from big tech companies, and gloss over a few design agencies you’ve come across at Behance. On the other hand, some of your friends are building a startup, and they need a designer on board. You’re the designer they want because they see you doing “UI/UX” stuff all the time. There are plenty of startups out there to join too. Jumping ahead to market yourself as a freelance designer doing consultancy work is also possible.

What do you choose?

A. The “glorious” startup life

Artwork by Moncho Masse

Going the startup route is no joke. Whether you have a lot to lose or not, there’s nothing more exciting than a fast-paced dynamic environment where you have towear multiple hats to get the job done.

Doing design at a startup would mean you will take on abroad role. You don’t just do wireframes or UI design, you might even be doing marketing work, then planning your next UX research move. You could be doing anything at any given point in time. This means there’s an opportunity to go for breadth.

You will be a design evangelist. The majority of your stay is about convincing your stakeholders that design is important. You have to do this yourself because the startup can’t afford any other designer aside from you and maybe two other persons. You might work on pitch decks, journey maps, survey work, and do the usability testing yourself too. You’ve purchased a copy of The User Experience Team of One from Rosenfeld Media, just because.

Your day-to-day is harsh. You work a lot of hours. You’re pushing your boundaries. You eat your cup noodles (of course, the pay isn’t that great! what do you expect?) and you realize doing design at a startup is actually hard. You’ll be quite involved with the business side of things as you and the startup struggle to get more funding so you could survive. The good thing about all this craziness? You learn multiple things spectacularly fast in a short amount of time.

The startup route is for designers who are also entrepreneurial souls. If you are the type to grind your way through to success, and love a high risk but high reward environment, then this might be the first job for you. There could also be a general lack of structures, systems, and processes. It is up to you and your team to figure out, but this is part of the set of challenges you are about to face taking this route. Just take note that almost 90% of startups fail. Be a stoic. Otherwise, choose to be part of the 10%. 😎

B. The good ‘ole corporate route

Artwork by Markus Magnusson

There are several things to consider when choosing a company to work for. It ranges from joining small web design shops to medium-sized design agencies, to full-blown big tech companies that have multiple product teams that have hundreds of designers. The most important thing you need to consider when choosing aside from the regular paycheck and secure benefits? Mentorship.

The reason why going to a company after graduation is such an obvious choice is because that are so many people who can help shape your career—people who are wiser, more intelligent, more experienced than you are. You can always get feedback from your manager, learn the ropes, and make your way through the design corporate ladder. But of course, there are still some parameters to consider.

If you’re going the agency route, you have the chance to work with different clients, but the design work you’ll be having could be high level in nature. You do some UX work for some time, meet the deadline, hand over the project, and that’s it. The advantages lie in being able to jump from project to project, to get the trust of your clients and continuously win pitches for the agency, and to try to incorporate design to as many projects as you can. There’s a possibility that you might still be the lone designer here, so there are a lot of overlaps with a startup setup.

If you’re going the product route, you’ll be immersed in a whole different world. You can’t get away with badly designed experiences because you have KPIs (a type of performance measurement) to meet. You’re going to have to wear your problem-solving hat and continuously innovate and go through your design process to work on certain features for long periods of time. You might be in the position to be working with cross-functional teams who specialize in prototyping, research, visual design, or UX. You answer to the product owner or product manager too. You’re a product designer now. You have to be intentional about the things you design because everything is measured. You can’t bullshit your way to success, but learning to fail, of course, encouraged.

There might be differences in bureaucracy and how fast things are moving. Sometimes, there are a lot of approval levels to consider, which might be a hindrance to your growth as a designer. Choosing a company that values design, where it actually has a seat on the table is exceedingly important. However, in the end, it’s all about the people who you are going to be with so make sure you do your research.

Corporate is usually for designers who like a structured approach to learning. There are mechanisms and systems that are already in place so you’re equipped to do the work you’re supposed to do. If you don’t mind the occasional bureaucracy (depending on your company), then it could be a great fit. My advice is to choose companies that already favor design, but it can always be your choice to evangelize it in more traditional organizations.

C. The freelance route full of freedom

Artwork by Evgeny Polukhin

You see yourself as a digital nomad and you might want to travel the world while doing some UX or web design work for your clients. Or, you could just be at home in your pajamas while doing the work. In any case, your chief problem is to figure out where your next client will come from and when your next paycheck is going to be. It’s a tough life, but you find solace in being your own boss and doing design work at your own time.

Your freelance gig depends on what kinds of clients you can get. You may choose to specialize in doing freelance work for startups, agencies, or companies, or just mix them all up.

You need to keep your business going, file the tax returns, and keep your expenses in check. You will be devoid of daily human interaction necessitated by going to an office, but you can spend some time working at a coffee shop or a co-working space.

Doing freelance work is for people who want to be independent and figure things out on their own. The freedom with freelancing comes with owning your time and not having to bother with commuting and dressing up to work. It also works to your advantage if you want to spend more time with your friends and family, or working on your own hobbies.

In conclusion

Going into your first design job is like playing an RPG game where you choose to adventure into different dungeons to gain experience. Pick an environment where you can survive, level up in a pace that you like, and gain massive loads of skill points. It will be your first adventure, so make it count!

Featured Image by Elina and Roman Novak

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