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I love working with new designers. In fact, I spend most of my time mentoring new designers through my ebook, business critique service, and blog. One of the most common questions I get from up and coming designers is this:

“Should I start out freelancing or start by working at an agency?”

It’s a great question and can be a pretty difficult one to answer, but today, I want to offer some pros and cons for both freelancing first and joining an agency first.

After you read through my list of pros and cons, please leave a comment on this post and tell me what you think: which is better, starting as a freelancer or starting at a design agency?

Starting your design career as a freelancer

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Possibly the most common decision by designers who hope to make a livelihood from design is to start your design career as a freelancer.

Let’s explore both sides of the issue:

Pros of starting out as a freelancer

First, we’ll start with the pros of being a freelance designer.

You build a name for yourself

A great reason to start freelancing first is to build a name for yourself as a designer. When freelancing, you get all the credit for all the design work that happens for your clients. When you do good work, your clients refer you to others and come back for more. When working for an agency, you’re building their name and reputation.

You decide your income, hours, clients, etc.
As a freelancer, you have a little more liberty when it comes to your pay rate, your weekly work hours, the clients you work for, and the project you work on.

I remember when I started as a designer, I worked for an agency and it sickened me to fill out a time sheet knowing that our clients were being billed ten times the amount of money I was getting paid. Additionally, I frequently had to work on projects for clients I wasn’t passionate about.

You decide how fast your business grows
Starting as a freelancer could ultimately turn into growing a business as well. When starting out as a freelance designer, you have the luxury of deciding how quickly your business grows, who to hire (or not hire), when to increase prices, and more! The control is completely yours.

Cons of starting out as a freelancer

Next, we’ll look at the down side of freelancing first.

You have to do the work of finding clients
You may want to simply be a designer. And that’s great. If you don’t want the hassle of finding clients and managing their expectations, don’t start out as a freelancer. It’s a sacrifice all freelance designers make: usually spending more time finding and working directly with clients than actually designing.

Your paycheck relies entirely on your ability to find and keep clients

Not only do you have to find clients, you have to continually impress them beyond anything they’ve seen before in order to justify your paycheck. If you lose one client, you have to immediately find another so that your income doesn’t take a turn for the worst.

That’s why I always recommend that freelance designers find a few key ways to make passive income.

You have to manage a business in addition to being a designer
Lastly, if you’re the kind of designer who hates finances, client management, or clocking in, I wouldn’t recommend the freelance-first route. Being a freelancer also means being an accountant, an account executive, a secretary, the customer service representative, the facilities manager, the payroll clerk, and the list goes on and on.

Be prepared to manage a business if you decide to freelance first.

Starting your design career at an agency

Even though most designers try to start out freelancing, there’s nothing wrong with trying out an agency first.

Let’s explore both sides of the issue:

Pros of starting out at a design agency

First, we’ll start with the pros of starting your design career working for an agency:

You get to design all day long

One of the most enticing aspects of working for a design agency is that you get to design all day long. Since the company you work for is taking care of all the details of finding clients, managing finances, and handling customer service, you get to spend all day every day doing what you love: design. If you love sitting at your computer all day with a Wacom tablet by your side, then joining a design agency is definitely the route for you!

You work with other designers who teach and mentor you
Another great aspect of working with an agency is the mentorship and help you get from fellow designers. Most likely, they’ve been designing longer than you have and can offer serious help, insights, and guidance to help make you a better designer.

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You don’t have to work directly with rude or inconsiderate clients
Lastly, one great advantage of starting at an agency is you don’t have to learn how to deal with rude or inconsiderate clients right out of the gate. Instead, you get to watch your boss work with clients. This allows you to learn from them, form your own strategies and learn what makes a good client and a bad one. Again, you get to spend most of your time designing instead of communicating with clients.

Cons of starting out at a design agency

There are also a few down sides of working at an agency first. A few of them include:

You get paid significantly less per hour
One real downer of working for a design agency is that you get paid significantly less per hour than if you worked on your own.

Granted, the work is more steady, so your weekly total could be higher, but for some designers it’s hard to know that you’re only earning a fraction of the income the client is paying for your work.

Your boss decides who your clients are, what projects you work on, and when
Working at an agency, you also have little say on who your clients are, what projects you work on and what your hours are. You don’t get to turn down a project because you don’t agree with the company’s standards or point of view which means you might end up designing materials for politicians you don’t see eye to eye with, companies who do things you don’t agree with, or project that simply bore you.

The final results don’t belong to you or carry your name

The last down side of working with an agency is that once you’re done at the agency, none of your hard work follows you. Sure, you can take your portfolio with you. Sure, you can get some references, but the bulk of the good name and reputation you spent time building get attributed to the company you’ve worked for.

Will you freelance first or join an agency first?

Now that we’ve explored both sides of the issue, which choice are you going to make? Will you be a freelance designer first or join an agency first? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it!