Freelance Vs. In-House: Which Produces The Best Designers?

One of my favorite things, besides design, food, and writing about design and food, is perturbing my fellow designers with strange questions. You guys should try it sometime; it’s really fun. Anyway, today I was thinking about the dynamic of an in-house work environment, and how it compares to freelancing. I’ve done both, and I definitely have some thoughts on the matter.

Does the uncertainty and ever-changing nature of freelancing produce designers with sharper, more adaptable skills? Or does the social, fast-paced, and ordered workflow of an agency or design firm create more design superstars? Let’s see if we can find some answers.

Jobs Are Stable… Or Are They?

Not in this economy they’re not. Having a job these days, especially in the creative industry, is almost as uncertain as freelancing. In fact, it can be even more uncertain. But does uncertainty by itself create a more stimulating creative environment? In my experience, the answer is: yes and no.

Yes, you can feel challenged to perform well under pressure, and as a result create excellent work. But the opposite can also happen. You can freeze up if faced with too much pressure, resulting in disappointment all around. For this round, I believe freelancing and working in-house are tied. It all depends on whether you feel more pressure on your own, or beneath the watchful eye of a fickle boss.

The Truth About Being Your Own Boss

When you freelance, you call the shots. That means not only can you pick who to work with, you can also pick what you learn and whom you choose to associate with.

But are you truly better off on your own? Does the endless ability to choose your own projects and reject anything for any reason develop a tough enough hide to help you deal with scrutiny from users and the design community?

From my perspective, working as an in-house designer puts you in the position of an employee. You have an itinerary of things to get done, and there is a whole operation of people counting on you to do it all on time. You’re given a project and are told exactly what to do and when to do it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if all you want to do is design.

Freelancing is a business. One of the main reasons freelancers give up freelancing to work at an agency or firm is because they get tired of handling all the non-design, “business stuff.” Marketing and self-promotion, networking, bookkeeping, contracts and other legal issues; those things can get tiresome if you’re not the entrepreneurial type. It can actually drain some people’s energy which they would ordinarily use for creating great designs.

So, for this round, I’d say it depends on where you draw your energy and inspiration from. If you feed off of working for yourself and handling all of your own affairs (and I mean ALL of them), then definitely freelancing will bring out your best as a designer. But if you only want to focus purely on design itself, working in-house is the way to go.

The Social Factor

Let’s face it: freelancing can get pretty lonely sometimes. Especially if you do all of your work from home and not, say, from an office or even a coffee shop. If your family and friends are all at work or school during the day, or if you live alone, your exposure to healthy social activities can seriously suffer. Depending on the type of designer you are, this can either inspire you to work harder, or completely drain you of motivation.

If you’re more of an introvert, you may find freelancing to be pretty much the ideal lifestyle. There’s no office or co-workers to deal with, and you can pretty much work as much as you want without seeing another human face.

But if you’re more extraverted, you might find freelancing unbearable, and prefer the more social atmosphere of an in-house environment. There are other creatives to bounce ideas off of, and you can take the edge off the solitude of your work with friends near.

Again, it comes down to the type of person you are, and the ideal design workflow you wish to cultivate. There is really no “right” way to go here. Whether you freelance or work in-house, you can still have a social life and benefit from the spontaneity of having people around; you’ll just have to work a bit harder at it if you freelance.

It All Comes Down To The Work

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter whether a great design was produced in-house or by an independent contractor. All that matters is that the work solves the design problems it was meant to solve. But what kind of work will your career choice bring you, and is the grass greener on the other side?

It’s true that, at an agency or firm, you (arguably) have more opportunities to land huge, corporate clients and work on large-scale projects which will be seen by millions. While as a freelancer you (again, arguably) have more opportunities to select meaningful projects that you truly believe in.

But let me play the devil’s advocate anyway. Does in-house work actually fill more pages of design annuals and win more awards than freelance work? Or vice-versa? I’ll leave it to you to formulate your own answers to these questions. (It’s no fun if I simply tell you, now is it?)

What Do You Think?

So, designers: what’s your verdict? Do freelancers make better designers, or does working in-house tend to bring out the best in creative professionals? We’d love to hear your thoughts.