I’ve spent a good part of my career as a graphic designer working in the setting of a small design agency in firms with fewer than ten people. Some of those agencies were start-ups and some were small companies that had been around for years. Working in a small design firm has its challenges and it’s perks. Here’s a list of five of the things I learned while working in small design agency.
1. You Wear So Many Hats
This is metaphorical, of course. Although, if you want to physically wear a lot of hats, that would probably be fine too.
In a small design firm, there simply aren’t enough people for everyone to have highly specialized jobs. This means everyone ends up doing multiple jobs every single day.
At one of the first companies I worked for I did design work for clients, went to networking meetings, and tried my hand at sales. In another company, just in it’s start-up phase, I was the art director, receptionist, publication planner, and content editor.
In each case, there simply weren’t enough employees for everyone to only do a single job. As a small company we didn’t have the resources to do that at the time.
2. Start-Ups Can Be Messy
Most new companies start pretty small, so often if you’re looking to work at a small firm, it might be pretty new. Just like any company that is just starting out, a new design firm can be a complete mess.
Design agencies are sometimes started by former designers who assumed they could simply be the boss without any real thought to how a business is supposed to be run. This means that the company can quickly spiral into disaster for everyone involved.
This isn’t always the case fortunately, but you should be wary regardless. I’ve had the opportunity to work in two small agencies where the difference in professionalism and organization was night and day. One small agency was a few years old and the other had been successful for over a decade. The start-up was a mess from the get-go and employee turnover was high. The other company was a masterclass in running a small design agency and I learned more there than anywhere I’ve worked at since.
3. There’s Less Room For Growth
When you work in a small company, there simply isn’t much room for advancement. It’s not totally off the table, it’s just harder because there are less people overall and so many people do so many different things already.
If you’re at a very small company of only a few people, you might be the only graphic designer. If the company grows larger then you could eventually become the senior designer within a small team, but otherwise you’re likely to remain the only one. I mean, your salary should still continually go up over the years, but you might not take on many new responsibilities or have a new title.
4. Learning From Peers Is More Difficult
When you work at a small design firm there might be only a few designers at or above your level of experience. Alternatively, there could be none. At the smallest company I worked at I was the only designer with any real training and I was still new to the industry. This was the worst place to be when I was still learning. I had no mentor; no one to tell me if I was doing something wrong or right. Even if there are a few other designers at your company, it might be hard to find someone to learn from.
Fortunately, this isn’t always the case. I’ve also worked for a small company where I learned a ton because the talented people there were invested in helping me learn. It was a positive atmosphere that let me learn from my mistakes under other creatives who had decades more experience than I did.
5. When Someone Leaves, The Entire Company Feels It
I don’t mean emotionally. Well, maybe a little. When someone leaves a small company things can be out of whack for awhile following their departure. When people do so many different jobs in a small company they can leave a large hole when they leave. This also makes them harder to replace.
At a former company I was art director, secretary, editor, assistant, and project manager. By the time I left that company we had hired a few more people, but it was still difficult to find someone that could adequately replace me. The person who eventually did only lasted a month (or so I’m told). This meant that the person the company hired after that was practically coming in blind.
Unlike working in a large agency, at a small design agency, you know all your coworkers. If you get along with your them, they can eventually seem more like family or close friends than coworkers. Spending everyday with a small group of people will do that. Obviously, this can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the people you work with.
Working In A Small Design Agency: In Conclusion
I’m not trying to deter you from getting a job at a small agency; just inform you. If you get in with the right company, working at a small design agency can be really awesome. Do your homework and find out how long the company has been around, who they’ve worked with, and what their employee turnover is like. It’s crucial to make an informed decision about where you plan on working.
If you live in a small city it’s likely your only real job options will be in a small design agency or being a freelance designer. There are pros and cons to each option, it just depends what you want to get out of your career.
Working in a large agency also has its perks and drawbacks, but I’ll go into that in a later post.
Have you ever worked in a small design agency? What was it like? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to learn more about working in an agency setting? Check out Burn Your Portfolio: Stuff they Don’t Teach You in Design School, But Should by Michael Janda. This is an amazing resource that goes into detail about the practical knowledge you need when working in a design agency.
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