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Big. Small. You.

It’s too quiet around here.

Having worked for a huge company (9,000 worldwide - 300 locally) and for a small company (4 worldwide - 4 locally) I can safely say that I would not like to go back to a big company. I still have to try the solo thing, but that will have to wait a few years.

It used to be that a job at big firms or organizations meant job security and a steady rise to the top. Enter 1999 and you have no job security, no corporate ladder to climb and no money to go around. On the other hand, a job at a smaller firm implies more responsibilities, a hands-on approach and a more intimate relationship. And on the third hand there is you. All alone. In your house or in your 600 sf. office churning out work. Independent. Free. Boss of you. Never knowing where the next check is coming from (not always, of course.)

Everything has it’s pros and cons. Creatively. Financially. Personally.

Which work place fits you.?

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.21.2003 BY Armin
plain*clothes’s comment is:

small firms really seem to be the way to go. if they are successfully operated, they offer you the potential to climb the ladder without the big org politics. my wife's firm, for instance, has been able to give her complete freedom in the work she chooses to do -- they review any bids in full with the primary intended consultant. they have also been able to give her a 100% followed by a 50% raise in the past two and a half years. you really can't argue with getting paid well for work that you have personally chosen, now can you?

freelance, which I have done on the side for the past 3 years, is certainly liberating, but often brings a lot of stress with it. I've found that I have much less time to enjoy design when I'm concerned with the minutiae. unless you are willing to source-out production, you end up feeling really exhausted by the end of a project -- even more so if you haven't had a partner off of which to bounce your concepts.

On Feb.21.2003 at 11:09 AM
benfRank’s comment is:

well, after working at a small record label for a year, i have gone back to freelancing...i enjoy it so much more...i can set my hours which is great. since i went back to freelance, i feel my work has gotten much better...i feel much more creative...it's great.

On Feb.21.2003 at 11:11 AM
Kevin’s comment is:

When I left school, I was lucky enough to get a position as a web designer at a small(ish) marketing company even though I didn't know diddly about it. I learned a lot in my first three months or so there. However, the company itself was pretty badly run, the work I was doing was uninteresting and I was seriously underpayed. I eventually left along with their top flash designer and shortly after they fired half the staff to out-source to a bunch of 18 year old school kids. I still really enjoyed the tight environment it provided and I learned a lot from my peers.

Last summer I did an internship at one of the most prestigious(and largest) marketing companies in Montréal. There was a dramatic distance within the creative team, and I soon realised I was just there to fill in while the permanent staff took their summer vacations. Again, I was seriously underpayed but unlike before I really wasn't learning anything new. The projects were more interesting but I rarely had a say. I was led to believe that there would be the possibility of a position after my internship there, but they filled that position while I was still interning there in front of my eyes! It was an overall bad experience, but I suppose it looks good on my CV.

I am currently freelancing and in a small, saturated market like Montreal, it is tough. Though I don't make a regular paycheck, when I do make money, I feel I am making what I am worth. Just as importantly, putting food on the table aside, I have a choice on what I work on and how I do it. I I LOVE the freedom of freelancing but it is incredibly stressful. Luckily I live in Montreal, where rent is CHEAP.

So, to be honest, my 'career' as a designer hasn't proved to be quite as fruitful as I had hoped. However, I'm still young(ish) and I see good things on the horizon. Does anyone have any advice for someone whoo is still just starting out and trying to break into this field?

On Feb.21.2003 at 11:58 AM
Damien’s comment is:

When I began freelancing I found it tough, as I could only learn as fast as I could make mistakes and I was isolated from other designers and people in my field.

Though I managed to afford to rent office space, and I was able to grow my clients quickly and start a small company.

It was when I got hired by Studio Archetype in Atlanta that I was able to see the benefits of working with others, and learning how a fairly successful firm ran itself and managed large clients. It was also great to be able to have the access to incredible designers and 'thought leaders' - as some called themselves.

Studio Archetype had a lot of incredibly loyal and committed associates and so when it became Sapient, it seemed to anger people that it had gone from a medium sized design firm to a large technology consultancy.

I found the need to play politics grew as the organization did, and it would become more difficult to have the same principles and beliefs as when working at a smaller design studio.

I think that creativity and innovation in an organization have a lot to do with the team and office size, as well as the type of company and people. There has been a lot of research into the ideal size of team or organization to be able to retain a certain energy of creativity and innovation - and so from my experience, it is offices with 35 or less (or companies) that have the best chance of communication, freedom from politics and too many corporate ladders, to be able to produce the best and most successful work.

I've been freelancing for the last two years now, and for a while I teamed up with my girlfriend, which was possibly the best scenario of being freelance. I don't really like working on my own - I know a lot of designers do, but I think it can be very healthy to team up with someone, even if it is only to do concept projects or pro bono work, so that you at least keep the ability to communicate, collaborate and (I can't think of another 'c' word there) get outside a little.

Small firms often suffer from the same problems freelancers do, in being able to ballance the marketing of themselves with getting all the work done. A really successful small firm can trip up on itself by not constantly looking further ahead of what is currently happening, but also may not be able to because it doesn't want to constantly be selling.

I know Studio Archetype was extremely busy, at the time of merging with Sapient, and was having to turn away work, but it also had expanded too quickly and perhaps wasn't as efficient as it was when it was a smaller firm. So the merger with Sapient was necessary for it to stay in business - even though it was turning away work.

However, as a freelancer, I do get to choose the music all the time, and my commute is... well, non-existant really.

On Feb.21.2003 at 12:21 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

These types of issues aren't specific to the graphic design industry.

The whole 'job security with a big firm' argument has been gone for about a decade now regardless of the industry.

The bigger the firm, the greater the Dilbert effect. ;o)

Working for yourself is the only way to go in terms of ultimate freedom and hapiness in life. The catch is that you have to make money doing it to survive. Ugh. That little gotcha always gets me.

On Feb.21.2003 at 12:25 PM
Darrel’s comment is:


Did you ever get to work directly with Clement Mok? I've only met him once, but he seemed like a truly practical guy. I never understood the Sapient move either. (other than, I suppose, making some money...which certainly is a justifiable decision.)

On Feb.21.2003 at 12:26 PM
Damien’s comment is:

Working for yourself is the only way to go in terms of ultimate freedom and hapiness in life.

I wouldn't agree with that. I've greatly enjoyed working with certain people. Since it is possible to accomplish more with more help, I have found it to be more gratifying to work with several people than simply on my own.

I do understand what you might be referring to - in that it often seems to be more restricting and less fruitfall to work with others you haven't chosen to.

I enjoy learning from working with others and particularly working with people who can design or build great things, that I simply cannot do. It was great to work at frog design to work with product designers and develop products.

At home. I am only pushed as hard as I push myself or work as hard as I feel like.

I'm afraid I never got to work with Clement Mok, he worked out of the San Francisco office. I think that by the time I got to Studio, he was much more of a figurehead and thought-leader and someone that was instrumental in talking to the chief executives of the larger clients, like UPS, SUN or IBM.

I did met him several times, he has an amazing ability to remember someone's name, which included everyone's name at the Studio. Some years later, I bumped into him at SFO and he still remembered. The chances are he'll remember your name too Darrel.

My experience of him is probably similar to what most seem to think of him. He's a really kind, personal and very intelligent person, who is oddly void of ego or arrogance, for someone in his position. It did seem that it was those around him that made him out to be "Clement Mok" and he was simply happy being himself.

My father said that he had seen Mok on a panel with Jakob Nielsen once. I think that would have been interesting to see.

On Feb.21.2003 at 12:52 PM
Sam’s comment is:

It's certainly a matter of personality which scale appeals to which person.

I've come to the conclusion that I don't make a good employee--not that I can't take orders or handle a defined job, but I just haven't ever been really happy for very long in that structure.

I was laid off from the first company I worked for (a medium-sized NY publishing company), which woke me up right away to ever feeling loyal or obligated to an employer. Lots of people now, unfortunately, have had the same experience, but I think it's good to learn not to depend on one company to provide for you.

I also worked for a large (300+) publishing company; I interned at Sapient in Atlanta right after the Studio Archetype merger and right before they doubled the staff (late 98), and after school I worked for a 3/4 person general design studio, which you might call more of a boutique kind of place.

All have advantages and drawbacks. If you care about having lots of office supplies, work for a big company. If you want to defend your own ideas, smaller is better. At the small studio, personality types were the defining factor of what my day was like and how I felt about everything. Unfortunately, short of major psychotherapy, there aren't really any great solutions to major personality conflicts in a small workplaces, since the sources of conflict are kind of fundamental.

I have one friend who's worked for the same publishing company for 10 years. He's survived untold horrendous rounds of lay-offs, takeovers, even a union strike. It's almost incomprehensible.

On Feb.21.2003 at 01:06 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Quite frankly I am DYING to get back into the medium-sized or slightly larger than small design firm. I am currently the only designer in a small in-house firm and it is sucking me dry. I really miss the collaboration between designers and working with people who truely understand the goal you are to attain.

Most of the time I feel like I am a freelancer, but without the freedom of creativity and the requirement to come in at a certain time and so on and so on. I don't have to just abide by the client's demands, I have to abide by every other "marketer's" demands here as well.

If you can't tell, I am down on where I am at. This job market sucks and I am afraid the longer I stay here, the more my work will suffer and the harder it will be to get out. AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

On Feb.21.2003 at 01:35 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I have found it to be more gratifying to work with several people than simply on my own.

Yea, you are right. I should have phrased that better. I think I meant to say that choosing your own working environment is the way to go. Sometimes that's on your own. Sometimes that's with a select small group of people. And, sometimes, though much rarer, it's with a large org.

My father said that he had seen Mok on a panel with Jakob Nielsen once. I think that would have been interesting to see.

Yes. That would be very interesting!

I saw him at a conference, and, at the time, I was working at a firm where we had to be billable 80% of the time and mark our time cards in 15 minute increments. A question was asked about that to Clement and he replied 'you can't do anything worthwhile for a client in less than 4 hours.'

I thought that was a brilliant response. ;o)

On Feb.21.2003 at 01:41 PM
KM’s comment is:

Working for a large ad agency, small firm, freelance, back to a small firm, then to a small art dept. I would have to say - small is better. Didn't enjoy freelance, I enjoy bouncing ideas with my peers. Didn't enjoy a creative director on the other side of the country who wasn't around during the creative process.

On Feb.21.2003 at 03:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I would have to say that working in a very small studio has lots of advantages portfolio-wise, every project you do that gets out door is 99% done by you and that gives you a lot of ownership of what you put in your portfolio. Unless you are stuck with some big ego, control freak principal who wants everything done their way. In which case stay for a few months, learn a few things and then get out as fast as you can.

I'm also lucky that I work with great people. Otherwise I'd probably go crazy. And we (the 2 designers) have lots of creative freedom.

Working for marchFIRST we ended up being 30 designers and senior designers at one point plus art directors and creative directors. Somehow I managed to get a few decent pieces done my way. But mostly it was always a battle to churn out comps and hope that the client picked yours. And yes, lots of office supplies available 24/7. Free printing, free electricity, free fruit (although that went away,) free massages (although that went away,) free soda (although that went away too.) And Aeron chairs.

The politics, the false promises and all around bullshit was just too much too handle. It would take so much energy to deal with it that there would be nothing left to do some designing.

On Feb.21.2003 at 04:20 PM
Shelley’s comment is:

I've enjoyed being a freelancer for three years now. I can relate completely to the comment above regarding the realization that "I'm not a good employee." I need too much freedom and get too frustrated with what I perceive as mediocrity around me (perhaps I'm a control freak; perhaps I just haven't met the right job). I do, however, really miss the company of a close team of people/friends...but have learned to live without it and balance my time with out-of-the-house pursuits like tutoring and art classes. Living vicariously through my husband's work stories helps, too.

How do freelancers feel about the differences in working with large or small CLIENTS? From my contract/freelancer's perspective -- at least to date -- the larger the company, the more professional they are to deal with. Less ego-tripping and psychosis, more consideration and respectful interaction. It's almost as though there's a large-company momentum/aura/personality that acts as a type of buffer (if only psychological) to soften the harshness of the individual personality. It's very interesting.

On Feb.24.2003 at 12:42 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Interesting question, Shelley, about the way client size affects things. I have had clients on the smallish side who are both great and lousy--the great ones appreciated my role in helping their business, the crappy ones treated me like "the logo guy" like I was delivering fish.

I think the bigger the client's company, the less personally, emotionally attached they might be to their work in general and therefore to the project that the designer is brought in on. That's always been my experience when working for big companies--it's just that much more a job and little else.

On the other hand, when you're working with an author and it's their book, it's really their baby and they freak out about everything. But if they're a good person, generally they're decent in dealing with me and I can live with their constant picky worries as long as they appreciate what I am doing for them. It's the old problem of getting the client to appreciate what exactly the designer is doing for them (and it's ain't delivering fish).

On Feb.24.2003 at 03:58 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>the larger the company, the more professional they are to deal with. Less ego-tripping and psychosis, more consideration and respectful interaction.

I think it goes both ways. We've dealt with larger clients that are complete psychos, and the layers of approval that you have to go through to get something approved is frustrating.

And with smaller clients I've had much better experiences. They are very involved, not in a micro-managing kind of way, so I can understand much better waht they are trying to do. Instead of getting strategy plans from some department, somewhere else, watered down through a marketing person. There is also a bigger sense of accomplishment, business and relationship wise, when you have helped a small place get off the ground and given them the tools to appear like a legitimate, professional business.

On Feb.24.2003 at 06:25 PM
Justin’s comment is:

I feel it in my bones unleashing some kind of unknown energy into my blood. It makes my skin tingle. My every ounce of being is screaming to be creative, to work late, to slave myself for great design.

I can't; no money equals no marketing equals no clients equals the end of my freelance career.

Me Oh how I would love to own my own studio.

Maybe this is an exaggeration but it's how I feel everyday when I drive forty-five minutes to my deadend job to sit and surf the net. Sure it sounds like a beautiful atmosphere where I you'll get paid to do nothing. No, I'm getting paid to supress the creative beast inside.

How do I market myself successfully with little to no budget?

On Feb.25.2003 at 11:31 AM