What kind of company should you work for?

A few months ago I was asked to speak at Fordham University to a small group of upcoming interactive design graduates about the future of their career. Their questions centered around a common theme. What kind of company should we work for? And what if we choose the wrong one?

It’s inevitable that you’ll cycle through many types of working environments throughout your career. You might even learn that you like working in a cyclical pattern that ebbs and flows between two extremes every few years. Whatever you end up choosing, remember that you can always course correct and nothing is forever.

With 10 years of experience at companies large and small, both fully employed and self employed, I’d like to dive into some of the pro’s and con’s of working at various sizes of companies as a designer.

Keep in mind that these have been my personal experiences so far, and all have exceptions.

1000+ Employees

Snacks, meetings, and incremental changes

Large companies are great for designers who desire the calmness and security in making steady (but sometimes slow) progress toward a goal, and the ability to reach millions of users with their designs and ideas. These companies often hire groups of generalists who work well together and place them on specific teams to create specialists out of the group rather than the individuals. The day-to-day typically consists of more meetings, critiques, and process discussions than you’d find at a smaller company. Perks like unlimited free snacks, meals, and stock options are often enticing, though for me always felt over-the-top and un-motivating compared to overcoming obstacles and wearing multiple hats.

Who will love it: designers who enjoy focusing on one portion of the product and iterating slowly and purposefully, designers who code their work and prefer prototypes over mockups, and people who enjoy the stability and perks that come with large companies.

Who won’t: specialists who can be discouraged by the anonymity of working among many people, designers who prefer variety and the ability to wear multiple hats in a fast-paced environment, designers who aren’t open to continual critique, questioning, and compromise, and people looking to help guide the vision of a company.

10+ Employees

Food trucks, desk chats, and ridiculous deadlines

Small and mid-sized agencies and startups are great for designers who want to get their feet wet with lots of design challenges in a fast-paced environment. Agency work is inevitably driven by deadlines that seem impossible to meet, while startup work is all about pivoting quickly and getting out MVP’s to the users. There’s not always time for lunch, let alone weekly meetings to discuss your career goals, but the speed at which you accomplish things can be truly invigorating. At their best small companies can be an inspiring and exciting to work at, especially when your co-workers have complementary skill sets who respect each other’s craft and communicate openly. At their worst small companies can be draining, ask for too much of your free time to finish un-achievable deadlines, and become difficult when co-workers and bosses with domineering personalities stop you from doing your job.

Who will love it: people who learn quickly on the job and are interested in exploring many facets of design challenges, younger designers who are seeking more responsibility than large companies are comfortable giving, senior designers and directors looking to build out their own teams, and people who enjoy working in an authentic and close-knit environment.

Who won’t: people who value process and slow, purposeful progress over speed and making mistakes, designers who don’t operate well under pressure or tight deadlines, people looking to make impressions on larger audiences and iterate on one thing.

1 Employee and a dog

Working from home, responding to email, and being ok with down time

The self-directed career works well for people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, who want to be in charge of their achievements and failures and take complete ownership over the work they produce. Freelancers have to keep up with a lot more than the latest design trends. They navigate how to get the right clients (and talk to them), define a pricing strategy, and battle the stress of finding new work. It can be difficult to adapt to new groups of people, and sometimes the project can be over before you’ve had a chance to form a trusting relationship with co-workers. Companies tend to seek freelance designers only when they feel the pain of a looming problem or deadline, so it can be difficult to get up to speed with the issue at hand as well as follow up once the project has ended.

Who will love it: thrill seekers, designers who want to carve their own path, people who prefer variety and ownership over steadiness and community driven design.

Who won’t: designers who dislike reactive design, people who have trouble asking questions to get beyond surface-level problems that clients initially communicate, people who have trouble budgeting or saving money.

Erin Nolan