Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


Almost as complicated as finding the right design solution, is the process of finding the right kind of designer for the job. An in-house design team may be knowledgeable, but lack out-of-the-box thinking. An agency may have an army of resources, but be over-the-top expensive. A consultant may be agile, but not always available. The following outlines the pros and cons of working with each group and which projects may be best suited for each one.

The In-House Design Team
If you have an in-house design team, they are probably your greatest asset for quick turn-around of marketing materials, website updates and presentation graphics. You might also have one or more “product people” on staff who specialize in user experience design, visual design, product management or all the above. These folks are (hopefully) user or customer experts and thoroughly understand both the company’s business and user goals.

Good in-house product people have accumulated countless hours studying the needs, behaviors and attitudes of the customer/user in order to provide the best experience for them. They are an investment in time and education with the result that they know the product inch for inch just as a sailor alone out at sea knows his vessel. Companies like in-house design teams or individuals because they are product masters and will probably stick around for at least a few years.

But like everything, in-house teams don’t come trouble-free. In-house design teams and individuals can become stale and dispassionate especially if office politics gets them down. Motivation is typically the hardest for staff designers who over time can lose inspiration and their ability to think out of the box. One person described it like eating at the same restaurant everyday. Coming to the same job and challenges everyday can eventually lead to boredom and indifference.

It’s also not uncommon for employees (designers included) to be too close to a project for an extended amount of time and lose sight of what’s most important. Being too close to something, they are blind to other possibilities and may seek opinions from the outside. Companies will spend thousands of dollars to have brand firms remind them what it is they do for a living. Seeking fresh eyes is one of the biggest reasons companies invest in outside design help.

The Design Agency
Companies hire design agencies above all, because they are perceived as having almost magical powers. Agencies are responsible for things like memorable ad campaigns, tag lines that stick, saliva-inducing graphics, jaw-dropping interaction and mostly, making a bunch of techies and sales guys look “cool”.

Design agencies know human emotion, how to manipulate it and drive it to bring sales. They know that at the end of the day, it’s not about how it looks or works but how it “feels”. Why? Because human beings are wired for emotion, and eliciting a good feeling is the surest route to winning the mind and heart of every user and customer.

Successful design agencies typically have years of experience, have people who specialize in every aspect of the design process and are driven not only by profits, but by projects that will enhance their portfolio and win them awards. They can bring a new sense of passion to a project, come up with whacky/never-done-before ideas and help drive a company toward innovation. While not being immediate experts of your product, they are quick to learn and may even have the tools and drive to dig deeper than your staff employees.

However, design agencies are viewed as expensive, especially in comparison to an art school graduate willing to do the same logo for 1/10 of the cost. Like any business, they have overhead costs to cover and will typically have several specialists involved on one project.

There is quick turn-around in some agencies and the Creative Director or Senior Designers will sometimes begin a project and then hand-off the rest to junior designers or interns to complete. This can sometimes result in less-than-stellar work. I once went for an interview at a very large and well-known design agency to find that most of the staff (several floors of the building) were in their early 20s. What it indicated to me was the agency was mostly business-driven, using (and probably exhausting) the most affordable design talent available.

Design agencies also usually require a lengthy  “discovery phase” that enables them to get up to speed with the business and user goals. While this is a necessary step in order to design what’s right for the company and customer, this sometimes frustrates stakeholders who see no immediate return on their investment.

Lastly, design agencies typically won’t work on-site, only coming in for meetings. This is one reason why some companies choose to hire freelancers.

The Freelancer/Consultant
Freelancers are known for their flexibility. On one end of the spectrum there are “consultants” and on the other, “designers for rent”. One will provide well thought out analysis and design strategies, while the other will be content working on whatever is placed in front of them. Their prices range from just below agency fees to designers just starting out willing to work for nothing more than a good portfolio piece. Both freelancers and consultants offer companies a way to get immediate design help without committing to long-term financial commitments and employee benefits.

A consultant, like agencies, has worked in many different client situations and can bring a fresh view to any project. A good consultant has worn many hats in their career and probably has experience working with all areas of the company org chart including product, marketing, engineering and creative services. They may specialize in one area–whether it be interaction design, visual design, web design, mobile apps or working with startups–and enjoy working one-on-one. They see themselves as craftsmen and are eager to share their expertise and experience.

A less seasoned designer may see themselves as simply offering “services”. That is, it’s their job to be there on-site fulfilling whatever task is assigned to them. They are typically very agile and work on an hourly basis. They come into projects like rescue workers, filling in for other designers or offering a helping hand when deadlines approach and things get crazy.

Working with freelancers or consultants can also have its challenges. Over time, a company might find they’re investing too heavily in a consultant becoming a customer and product expert. While there are some situations where this is acceptable (e.g. the consultant has a particular specialty that’s hard to replace), it might be better for the company to just hire someone full-time in order to have that customer expert on staff where they always know where to find them. Consultants may also take a longer time than a design team would to complete design phases.

A less seasoned freelancer, not having worked for a design agency or in-house design team before, might be too inexperienced. Less experienced freelancers will sometimes offer to skip important design phases and convince the client they’re a bargain by charging a minimal fee. Unfortunately–like the old saying goes–you get what you pay for and it might take you several junior freelancers and a lot of wasted money before you learn who to work with.

Project Examples
With all the pros and cons, there are certain projects and situations where one kind of designer or team is a better fit than the other. Below is an attempt to show the best match-ups.

I have less than $5,000 to spend on designing a new website for my company.
If that’s your absolute limit, your best bet is seeking out a junior freelance designer and planning on giving him or her a lot of direction.

We’d like to build a prototype to show investors.
A seasoned consultant is an excellent choice for this kind of project, especially if you find someone who has experience working with startups. They should be able to recommend a lean process that doesn’t burn through loads of cash and provide a process that validates customer interest.

We need a new corporate identity.
Design agencies are typically experts at this sort of thing and will probably have numerous portfolio examples.

We need someone to closely and constantly monitor the success of our product.
In-house, all the way.

We think the product could use some UI work.
“We think” means you’re not sure and need an expert. A consultant or interactive design agency will help determine what problems you may have.

We have a conference coming up and need extra graphics help.
Call up that freelance guy your buddy always uses.

We’ve had our heads down on this product too long and can’t see what needs to be done.
A design agency or consultant will bring clarity.

It’s Tuesday and I need this done by Friday.
Tough situation. You might try calling a freelancer to check their availability. Most agencies will politely decline without being able to schedule weeks in advance.

I have the design direction, I just need someone to flesh out the rest.
Try a freelancer.

We have several web assets that need to be maintained on a regular basis.
This might go to any of the groups but most likely, an in-house creative services team would be best.

Users are leaving once they get to the shopping cart page. Why?
A seasoned consultant would be best for this situation.

We need an eye-popping microsite to promote a new product.

Design agencies are masters at this sort of thing.

Related Posts:
Help! My Designer Wants a “Discovery Phase”



  1. 1 Leslye

    This is a really good analysis and seems pretty objective. A lot of times for freelancers though, the amount of consulting possible can be really limited by the client’s preconceived ideas of what they want. Companies often feel that by hiring a freelancer they’re just getting an extra set of hands, and are sometimes not interested in that person’s analysis.

  2. 2 admin

    Agreed. This often happens and sometimes requires humility on the part of the consultant. Sometimes you’re the expert and sometimes you’re just a “reliable resource”.

  3. 3 Rob

    In defense of in-house teams, it’s all in how they are managed. When running in-house teams for Deutsche Asset Management, I made certain that my team did not become stale or bored with their work. I kept them engaged with the client and offered creative challenges to keep them fresh, as well as to keep the brand alive.

    Being an in-house designer requires not only the knowledge of the internal clients but also the outside market place and making sure that your brand on the ground is keeping up with that market. And that takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.

  4. 4 admin

    Well stated. Thanks for the comment.

  5. 5 Jo (Dexterous Diva)

    Really well put article and excellent analysis of different strengths of design output. Fab.

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