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In-house (big company or startup) and agency roles offer different advantages. This is a simplified model, but it should give you a rough idea of the work you’d be doing at those types of companies.
Table: Types of Companies
Early stage startup
You’ll gain deep expertise and, depending on the company, may work within a limited subset of industries.
At an agency (unless they’re specialized) you’ll work with a variety of clients who come from different industries.
You’ll become the in-house design expert, knowing the ins and outs of your industry and how it relates to the company.
Variety of design projects
In a large company this will be highly dependent on the team. However, the benefit of large companies is that you have many teams to choose from.
You’ll be exposed to different clients and organizations. Some engagements last a week and others may last months, but variety is usually the norm.
As the only designer or as part of a small team, you’ll have your hands full in a variety of design projects for the company from product, to brand, to marketing, and so on.
Tends to be higher as large companies are sustainably profitable.
Usually runs lower as service businesses aren’t easy to scale and most of the cost is due to human resources.
Most of your compensation here will be derived from equity, not so much cash.
Risk and longevity
Usually highly stable, less risk for the company to go under.
As a service business, agencies are inherently risky in that they depend on a continuous stream of clients.
Not many startups survive beyond their first year, and many don’t turn in a profit.
Usually highly structured, defined processes, much slower than a startup.
Depends on the agency, newer agencies typically don’t have as much structure.
Usually no structure, the primary focus is on getting the company off the ground.
Specialized individual contributor skills with an opportunity to get into design management.
Similar to the big company, you’ll develop specialized craft skills, and you may also choose to advance in the client-relationship track.
You’ll wear multiple hats and may cross over domains (marketing, front-end, and so on). If the company grows and starts hiring, there may also be an opportunity to manage incoming designers.
As an in-house designer at a big company, you’ll have the opportunity to master the industry the company is operating in. You’ll be responsible for seeing how a project gets built all the way to the end and then track it afterward. Your work may never be cleanly finished (compared to an agency), but that’s OK because you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your company and the market.
Another way to think about in-house is this: Which domain do you want to operate in? In large tech companies (think Google) you could work on a variety of different projects. In non-tech companies you’ll still have project variety, but you’ll likely be focused on a specific industry vertical.
In a larger company you’ll have the advantage of learning from other designers. You’ll also most likely have horizontal mobility to try out different teams and roles and the vertical mobility to climb the corporate ladder, either as an individual contributor or into management.
Usually, in small to mid-size startups a designer will take on a generalist role. You’ll have lots of autonomy, and if you’re the only designer, you’ll be running the show. This could prove a double-edged sword, as you’ll have to continuously learn how to triage and prioritize your time to ship work quickly and sometimes compromise on quality. Most likely the design won’t be perfect and corners will be cut to get things out fast.
If you’re starting off new, this could be a sink-or-swim type of environment. It’s helpful to get perspective and mentorship outside of the company. Startups also typically offer lower pay and are a high-risk but high-reward environment. However, that’s not a bad thing (even if you do end up in one that’s going through a downturn), and if you’re comfortable with ambiguity, this could be a great way to learn and make an impact on large projects.
With startups there are also a few important distinctions to keep in mind:
Early-stage (pre-market validation). These companies change rapidly in search of customers. Your work will change at a similar clip as well. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and if you’re comfortable with high risk and ambiguity, this would be a good fit.
Mid-stage (market validated but far from profitability). Startups at this stage still feel relatively tame, at least in comparison to early-stage. At this phase you’ll be focusing on growth and helping the company scale while lowering costs with the goal of reaching profitability.
Late-stage (close to a liquidity event). These types of startups are closer to a big company; there isn’t as much change and the business will do OK in the long run. The design focus will be on optimization and growing existing products.
At a startup, you’ll be deep in the work and may develop strong professional relationships as a result. If this company goes well, these connections can last for decades to come—maybe you’ll even launch your own startup together someday. Even if things go completely south, you’ll have a mutual bond of going through this experience together.
Unlike a large company though, you won’t be able to easily move around if you don’t end up getting along with your workers. Startups also face the challenge of being selective in hiring the right person—they’re desperate for help but usually have little to offer in cash (thus the higher compensation in equity).
What If You Only Get Offers From Startups?
If you are just starting out in the design industry, you may not get the opportunity to work at a large company with established design processes. But you may find certain startups more than happy to take a chance on you.
Some industry veterans argue against newcomers joining startups. They believe that the designer is going to “lock” the company into a cycle of bad decisions and the lack of formal mentorship will stifle one’s growth. I disagree. If you’ve taken the initiative and done your homework, you can still provide a ton of value and learn in the process. While startups typically have low design maturity, as long as their culture is open to design and experimentation, scaling the maturity curve won’t be a problem.
Product design isn’t etched in stone; things change quickly, and in startups rapid pivots are usually the norm, so no product is too precious to change. As for finding mentorship, you can supplement that from online resources outside the company. Many special groups exist out there, for new designers or for designers within a company.
At an agency, you’ll be surrounded by top designers—it’s another great place to start to hone your craft. You’ll learn quickly from diverse peers and experienced mentors. In most agencies, design itself is the product.
A downside of agencies is that they usually pay lower (compared to more established companies or larger tech companies). The hours can be long, too, but that depends largely on the company and its culture. As a result, few designers stay in agencies long-term; many choose to pursue more lucrative roles in-house after their agency stint. The ones who do choose to continue typically end up in client management roles, which are less craft focused and require collaboration and business savvy.
important Aside from deeply focusing on design craft, agencies require designers to present and to interact with clients. This opportunity is a great way to get an inside peek into some of the company’s inner workings, politics, and team dynamics—without actually joining the company.
The focus of the agencies varies, but in general they offer a variety of projects, which can be a great way to expand your design skill set quickly. One day you might be working for a project on transportation, another on healthcare, and the next day could be something completely different.
You probably won’t be able to go very deep and grasp the nuances of each domain, but that’s OK because you’ll have a broad skill set that you could (in theory) apply anywhere else you feel most passionate about. If you’re not committed to a specific industry, agencies are a great way to test out the waters and make the jump.
In closing, agencies are in an interesting transition time these days. Over the last couple of years, large consulting (like McKinsey) and tech companies (like Facebook) have been buying up agencies left and right. According to John Maeda’s Design In Tech Report 2019, there were 19 agencies bought in that year. So if you do end up at a large company, you may find yourself working for an agency inside the company or working closely with them. Or if you start your work at an agency, don’t be surprised if you become part of acquihire.
Looking to learn more about different types of agencies? Take a look at SoDA, a membership organization that has a list of agencies known for their high-quality work.
If startups are more your jam, I recommend starting with a resource such as AngelList—think of it as a LinkedIn for startups. Many jobs listed there are of high quality and usually come with a salary range attached (unlike many job postings online).
Designing Consumer or Enterprise Products
If you’re going in-house, two more factors to consider are enterprise or consumer. If you’re going the agency route, most specialize in consumer products, but some exclusively focus on complex enterprise apps.
Table: Consumer versus Enterprise
Places a premium on
Simplicity, high polish, solid craft, aesthetics.
Solving for complex interactions, extensibility.
Who do these companies serve?
Usually many every-day individual consumers.
Usually fewer buyers, who get the product on behalf of a company.
Watch out for
Flurry of activity that leads nowhere.
Sales-driven culture that doesn’t value design’s input.
Typically moves faster with limitations driven by platforms (for example, mobile slightly behind web).
Slower, sometimes determined by sales cycles or mandated updates that happen a few times a year.
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