Where Could a Career in UX Take You? Agency vs. In-House vs. Freelance

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

User experience is everywhere. A variety of industries are seeing the value of crafting their user’s interaction with their products and brands. Therefore, UX designers have the luxury of choosing from many different environments to work in. However, sometimes all these options can make it hard to decide what’s best for you. 

In this article, we break down the three most common workplaces for UX designers to find employment: design agencies, in-house positions, or freelance designing. For each work environment, we’ll go over what the structure looks like, the benefits, the downsides, and what to do before applying. 

If you’re interested in one particular path, use the clickable menu to skip ahead:

  1. Working as a UX designer at an agency
  2. Working as an in-house UX designer
  3. Working as a freelance UX designer

Now let’s get right to it!

1. Agency work for UX designers

A UX agency is usually a large pool of UX designers that work with a variety of companies and industries. Designers’ days are fast-paced and involve working on a range of different projects, sometimes simultaneously. Often, UX designers will specialize or work solely on one aspect of the design process.

UX agency pros

1. Exposure

UX agencies have a constant influx of unique projects. Therefore, agency designers are more likely to encounter a variety of industries that they may not have the opportunity to see in another work environment. 

Furthermore, agencies are fast paced and usually stay very up-to-date with design trends. This gives designers the chance to be exposed to a variety of new tools and design processes. 

2. Mentorship and guidance

Larger staff numbers means more brains to pick, meaning the chances of finding a mentor and guidance within the field is higher. This makes an agency job highly desirable for newly trained and graduated designers. At an agency, you’ll have the chance to learn from people with a variety of backgrounds, experience levels, and specialties, making your entrance into the UX industry a bit smoother. 

Or maybe you are an older designer with a knack for teaching and mentoring. Working at an agency can give you the chance to mentor newer designers and take them under your wing. 

3. Build your portfolio

Another reason that novice designers seek UX agency jobs is because it’s a great place to quickly build your UX design portfolio. Working on such a vast number of unique projects makes it easy to quickly add skills to your repertoire. 

Not only can you quickly boost your portfolio, but you may also have a greater chance to learn and showcase soft skills like the art of pitching, ability to meet deadlines, effective communication, psychology, and more.  

4. Stability

While the type of work you’ll be doing at an agency can be in constant flux, one thing that often remains stable are your working hours and income. Agencies commonly provide routine and consistent pay rates where other UX positions may be more dependent on the project or resources allotted. 

Projects at UX agencies can be very deadline driven, so there may be occasions where you’ll need to work overtime. However, day-to-day working hours along with income and benefits are usually pretty predictable.

A team of UX designers in an office, one standing in front of a flipboard

UX agency cons

1. Difficult clients

Unlike freelance positions, at a UX agency, your clients are chosen for you. Sometimes the clients can be tricky to please or communicate with. They often have set guidelines or expectations that need to be met even if they go against what you feel works best as a UX designer. 

Since you are just one part of many at an agency, you don’t get the chance to take ownership of the product and, in the end, the client has the final say. Therefore, it may be difficult to argue for or against certain product features.

2. Can’t see full scope

Due to the nature of agency work, you’ll most likely be working on small parts of many projects. This means that you probably won’t be able to see the project in its final form or beyond the scope of your specific task. 

It’s very difficult to see how your work impacts the project overall or how the company benefited from hiring you and your team. This lack of long-term influence can feel unfulfilling for some designers and might not make the hard work seem worth it. 

3. Complicated communication

Depending on the size of the agency, it can be very difficult to get in direct contact with the product owner. Not having a clear line of communication to the client can get frustrating and result in delayed feedback, slow iteration, and can prevent the project from moving forward on time. 

Furthermore, without face-to-face communication with the product owner(s), it can be hard to obtain an accurate sense of the brand and what they expect. This can make designing a product that the client will approve of a bit more tricky. 

4. Easy to burn out

With constant projects flooding your desk, it can be easy for UX designers to feel burnout in an agency environment. Clients can expect a lot from design agencies, so sometimes they may demand more than feels possible to achieve within the set deadline. 

It’s easy to feel a bit frazzled and overworked at an agency, but with skills like good time management, stress relief, and effective team communication, the chance of burnout can be decreased. 

What to do before applying to an agency

If you’re thinking UX agency work might be right for you, here’s what to consider before sending your application:

  • Maximize your portfolio and resume to show you can handle variety and a fast-paced environment.
  • Reach out to the current employees of your desired agency on LinkedIn. Ask them what their days are like and make your face known. 
  • Consider your own schedule and if a 9-5 type work day is what’s best for you.

A UX designer sitting at a desk, with a laptop in view

2. Working as an in-house UX designer

An in-house position may involve working as a designer for anything from a small start-up to a large corporation. In contrast to agency work, as an in-house designer you’ll focus on working with one company and brand at a time. Therefore, designers get a deeper understanding of the project but usually encounter less variety. Design teams may range from 10-15 designers to you working as the sole UX designer for the brand. 

In-house pros

1. Greater ownership and control

Working on a project at an in-house position means you are a lot closer to the project and get to understand every aspect. You’ll have the chance to advocate for certain features, iterate upon them, and see how your idea for the project is implemented. Unlike agency work, you’ll be able to see the project evolve from start to finish.

Not only will you be able to have more control on how the project is crafted, but you’ll be able to have a clear view of the impact your work has and how the company benefits from your designs. 

While being directly tied to the success of the product can be a bit overwhelming, the sense of ownership available with in-house work can be extremely rewarding for designers to experience. 

2. More time, potentially less burnout

With in-house positions, there is more flexibility as to when certain tasks need to be met. It is more common for deadlines to be pushed back if it’s what’s best for the product’s success. Need to test another feature or do a quick re-design of the UI? This is usually not an issue for in-house designers as they have more control over the product. 

Your work improving the product is constant and allows more time to brainstorm better solutions and processes to make the user experience the best it can be. This can make things feel a bit more laidback and less fast paced, leading to a lower chance of burnout (but not always! It will primarily depend on each individual workplace).

3. Collaboration and community

Whether it is with the client themselves or a different company team, lines of communication are a lot clearer when working in-house jobs.  You have the ability to easily collaborate with all aspects of the company on a closer level than you would at an agency. This can make your work more streamlined and can increase the chances of fulfilling the product owner’s vision for the project. 

Additionally, better communication and more collaboration can leave you with a greater sense of community than you would find at an agency. Everyone at an in-house position is working toward the same goal and this can unite the employees in a way that helps motivate and inspire them

4. Obtain business savvy

With the ability to see the full scope of a project comes the opportunity to learn the intertwinings of business and UX design, a marketable and valuable skill in  today’s competitive market. In-house positions keep you closer to the financial side of the project as well. 

Understanding where the quality of the user’s experience and a company’s financial needs intersect can give you a better sense of how to design within a budget, how to make decisions that will benefit the user and stakeholder, as well as how to be a more flexible and innovative designer. 

Two UX designers sitting on a beanbag, looking at a laptop

Cons of in-house work 

1. Monotony and maintenance mode

In-house positions lack a variety of clients and the ability to encounter different industries. For some designers this can feel monotonous and lead to less excitement in their jobs over time. While you may not always be working on the same product each day, you’ll be working with the same brand, trying to solve similar problems. For some this is thrilling, for others it can be tiresome.

On the same note, in-house positions don’t always offer the opportunity to create something new as many times you are maintaining a product that is already up and running. If you’re someone who likes to see things from grassroots to completion, in-house jobs may not be for you.

2. Less guidance

Being an in-house designer with a brand may mean being one of the few designers, if not the only  designer, on the whole project. While the challenge and responsibility can be invigorating, it doesn’t allow much time for teaching and guidance. If you’re a newer designer or know you like being a part of larger design teams, this may be a problem.

Smaller teams and lack of mentors may mean more of a responsibility to teach yourself new skills and learn on the job. While for those of you who have taught yourself UX design in the first place, this might not be so much of a change, for the many of us this has the potential to feel overwhelming for some and lead to less productivity. 

3. May have to fight for UX culture

Depending on the size of the company and their knowledge of UX, you may have to exert more energy into allocating resources for yourself or convincing other teams of your importance as a UX designer. Companies that don’t put as much value in carefully curating their user’s experience may not understand or embrace what your role is. 

Not all in-house employers have a user-centric culture and investing in resources to make the UX of their product better may not be a priority. Asking questions about the client’s knowledge of UX during your interviews can help ensure you are joining a team that is valued and understood. 

4. Office politics

Due somewhat in part to the chance of other employees not understanding your position or the role of UX, in-house positions can be more prone to frustrating office politics. With more direct lines of communication among designers and other teams, in-house UX roles can require more patience, diplomacy, and respectful communication skills than other jobs. 

While not all in-house career paths are like this, there is a greater chance you’ll have to be in more constant communication with other employees with diverse roles. This is something that may or may not work for your personality.  

What to do before applying for an in-house UX design role

If an in-house UX position sounds like the right role for you, here’s what to consider before applying: 

  • Take courses in areas where you feel you are lacking. As there is less guidance with in-house jobs, you’ll have to spend more personal time expanding your UX knowledge when necessary.
  • Maximize your resume and portfolio to show you can work on projects from start to finish and that you can understand the business side of things well. 
  • Research the brand you are working for, their mission, and what the company culture is like.

A freelance UX designer sitting at a desk, looking at a laptop

3. Working as a freelance UX designer

Freelance designers are completely on their own when it comes to finding clients and projects to work on. This allows them to determine their own schedule, the type of work they pick up, and where they work. While this provides a lot of freedom for UX designers, it can also be a challenge to obtain guidance, stay motivated, and find stakeholders. 

Pros of freelance work 

1. Easier to create desired lifestyle

Freelancing is exactly as it sounds, freeing! When you are the sole decision-maker for your work, you can choose how often, when, and where you work as well as the types of clients you decide to work with. You can set your own pay rate and determine what industries you want to work in. 

For these reasons, many freelance UX designers choose to work as a digital nomad since their work is not confined to a specific location or team. If travelling the world while working is not your thing, you can still decide to avoid tiring commutes and spend more time with family by working freelance from or close to home.  

2. Higher earning potential

As a freelance designer, you’re often tasked with completing a project from start to finish or maintaining the entirety of an already existent one. Because you have more responsibility, you can often charge clients more and earn more per project than you would in-house or with an agency. 

Charging higher rates will allow you to pay for other things that in-house and agency positions may already provide like equipment, design programs and tools, and various benefits. You can learn more about how to price yourself as a freelancer in this guide.  

3. Less conflict

Since freelancing often means you are a one person team, there’s less chance for office politics and co-worker conflict. You will often have to be in direct contact with the client but most design decisions are yours alone.

As a freelancer you take on many roles: CEO, project manager, designer, financial administrator and more. Therefore, there’s no need for communication across organizational silos or to higher-up employees which can sometimes be difficult or time-consuming.   

4. Great for experienced designers

Freelancers have to have in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the design process as well as running a business. Therefore, freelance work is great for designers that have soaked up tons of knowledge in the field and want to branch off on their own. 

As a freelance designer, you have the opportunity to take all that you’ve learned throughout your career and pick and choose the processes, design tools, and industries that you like best.  

A freelance UX designer working on a laptop

Cons of freelance work

1. Can be lonely

If you’re someone that loves forming work friendships and bouncing ideas off of co-workers, freelancing may not be for you. Working on your own can get lonely and may leave you feeling less enthusiastic about your day-to-day work tasks. 

It’s also harder to find a mentor as a new designer choosing to do freelance work as you’ll likely have fewer day-to-day opportunities to come into contact with experienced colleagues. This may be something to think about if you are less confident about your design and business skills. 

2. Lots of responsibility

While the idea of being your own boss is enticing, it requires self-control, discipline, and managing responsibility. There is no one monitoring your work hours or if you meet a deadline and you’ll have to come up with your own routine and way of doing things. 

You are the sole owner of your designs, and your client’s satisfaction is totally reliant on the quality of your work and their experience collaborating with you. All of this can be a bit much for designers that are used to being supervised and guided each day. 

3. Must market yourself

When you freelance, you must find and approve of the clients you work with. This also means your clients must be able to find you. Freelancing requires you to market yourself in order to find all your projects. This is an extra step that most agency and in-house designers don’t have to worry about. 

Freelance designers must work to make their services known to potential clients and make a good name for their brand and design skills. This may even mean setting aside out-of-pocket funds specifically for marketing. 

4. Unpredictable income

Finding your own work can result in inconsistent income if you don’t have a steady stream of projects established for yourself. Although you may be able to charge a higher price for each client, sometimes your work can be spread out or unpredictable. 

Furthermore, freelancing requires you to spend money on other resources that are usually provided for you at an agency or in-house position. The design tools you use may be limited by what you can afford and you’ll have to budget for other things like health insurance and other necessary benefits, depending on where you live. 

What to do before choosing freelance

If working solo sounds like the right path for you, here’s what to consider before looking for freelance work:

  • Consider your time commitments and money requirements.
  • Assess your skill level and how comfortable you are working alone.
  • Research how to market yourself and get your designs out there. 
  • Understand how to charge for your design work, file for taxes, and obtain benefits on your own.

A UX designer working from home

How to choose what’s right for you

UX design has an infinite possibility of work opportunities for a variety of personalities. Agency, in-house, and freelance have something to offer every designer. But, in the end, you’ll have to weigh your options and choose what’s best for you. Consider your level of experience, personal work habits, whether you want to specialize in something or be a UX generalist, and what type of industries you’d like to come in contact with. 

As a UX designer, you have the opportunity to make meaningful changes to the world around you. When you work in an environment that makes you feel supported, your designs can flourish and make even more of a positive impact on the lives of others.

Want to learn more about forging a career in UX design? Check out the following:

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