Life as a Designer: Client-side vs agency-side

Apr 2017

In my years as a Graphic Designer, I’ve worked with a variety of clients across industries. The creative aspect of this profession brings with it the necessity to adapt to new environments and, since going freelance full-time five years ago, I’ve noticed a few quirks that I think are worth sharing.

The ongoing debate is between client-side and agency-side experience.

Which is better? Which gives you the most creative freedom? Which is the most restrictive to work in as a designer? Having worked with 15+ agencies as a freelancer and in numerous contract capacities client-side, here’s my honest take:

Client-side

Pros

One of the main benefits of working directly with a client on a project is the human-to-human element of the business relationship. There’s nothing quite like working alongside the key stakeholders to reach a mutual end-goal.

The workflow is much simpler when your engagement is directly with the client and you can talk about the branding or the imagery or the tone of the design you’re creating. More detailed feedback ensures a smoother process and removes the ambiguity that can sometimes arise.

What’s more, the very nature of spending time with clients means you get to know them better, so it’s much more conducive to building lasting relationships with them. Being able to collaborate directly with clients ensures that you quickly understand their needs and ways of working and can therefore better manage their overall expectations, which is a huge bonus in the long-run.

Client-side projects also mean that you can better manage your own workload. This principle applies to both managing their expectations for delivery and, broadly speaking, managing your own client-base. If you don’t have an interest in enhancing your design skills in a particular area, you can diplomatically turn down the project and look for a more appealing one.

Cons

One of the major downfalls, however, of working client-side is that it all comes down to you and you alone. Of course, this is part and parcel of being a freelancer, but it can be stressful and time-consuming supporting client needs independently. If something goes wrong, the relationship could be damaged and the likelihood of more work is lessened. That said, this can be a pro – it keeps you on your toes (and we all need that to produce our best work).

Another negative aspect of client-side projects is that you automatically become restricted in terms of exposure to the broader market. Working with one client, particularly if they are a relatively small outfit, for months on end can restrict your development as a designer, so it’s important to pick your projects wisely.

That said, though, it’s a common headache in all walks of the freelance life to maintain a steady workflow to keep paying those bills, so every opportunity must be considered in great depth before you can make a decision. Can you afford to turn this project down in the hope of landing another bigger one soon or will accepting it mean you block your chances to secure those bigger projects for six or 12 months at a time?

Agency-side

Pros

Agency-side work is a different ball game. It’s a fast-paced and lively environment that gives you the opportunity to meet and learn from a number of likeminded creative people. Moreover, you get exposure to more clients – usually of a bigger stature than you might secure as a one-man band – so your experience is generally multiplied as a natural consequence of working with an agency.

The collaborative element of creative work becomes much more apparent and necessary in the agency environment, so it’s an unbeatable way to gain a greater understanding of other disciplines. I wouldn’t have the knowledge I have of copywriting, development and project management if it wasn’t for the time I’ve spent with agencies in Bristol and Bath.

You get a unique perspective of how such agencies approach their work with clients, too, especially if they are big-name clients. You’re a vital component of delivering great work for a number of clients at any given time, so the end-products can be very rewarding personally for you.

Cons

Working on a range of clients sure varies your days, but it also increases the pressure on you as a freelance designer. Yes, pressure is good, but many clients means many deadlines and unfortunately not many more hours in which to complete the work.

As an outsider coming in, the challenges are two-fold as far as I’ve experienced: (1) in-house designers tend to get more creative projects on bigger names than freelancers and (2) it can be difficult to integrate into the agency life and culture if you’re only spending a short time there.

Agencies can be cliquey and freelancers are temporary, so you’re perennially the outsider, no matter how hard you try. It’s easy for a freelancer to deal with a lack of integration in an agency – after all, you’ve chosen the solitary freelance life – but the most difficult thing is that your portfolio might suffer as a result if you don’t get given the big projects on big brands.

Whatever kind of project you get, too, you’ll always have project managers to mollify, so it becomes a case of adapting to micro-management, which can be a challenge if you’re used to managing your own time on a daily basis.

Conclusion

Each approach to freelancing suits different personalities, so it has to be a case of trying them out to see which one suits you best. Personally, I find working in isolation tiresome at times, so I love to get involved in internal teams and try to immerse myself in the culture to get the most out of the experience, both as designer who needs a strong portfolio and a human who needs social interaction!

For me, flexibility is key. More and more clients and agencies alike are becoming comfortable with remote working, so the traditional route of being on-site with either type of organisation is not as common as it once was – but it depends how you like to work.

You get more freedom to manage your own schedule client-side, but more market exposure agency-side, so try both to see how you adapt and how you want to select your clients in the future.