Just Creative

I’m Jacob Cass, the founder of JUST™ Creative. I’m a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, working with clients all around the world. My specialty is logo & brand identity design. JUST™ Get in touch.

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Design Agency VS Freelance Life

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Life's A Beach

As a designer, I often get asked what is better, freelancing or working at a design agency? To be honest, there is no correct answer but there are certainly perks and pitfalls of both. In this article, I’ll share my honest opinions based on 6 months of working at an agency and 4 years of professional freelancing.

Before I launch into comparing them, I thought it should be known that I still currently do both… I work full time (Mon-Fri, 9 to 6) at Carrot Creative and also do contracting under my own business, Just Creative Design, mostly at night and occasionally on weekends if need be. I love both.

For comparison’s sake, I’ll look at the components that form the foundation of a happy designer: the type of projects they get to work on, the amount of work they have to do, what they get in return, the amount of freedom they get, as well the ‘fun’ factor.

1. The Work / Workload

Colourful Eye

Freelance:

As a freelancer, you get to choose when you work and what type of projects you want to work on, however this perk comes with much more behind-the-scenes work such as marketing yourself, doing paperwork, emailing etc. Consequently, this means you will be doing less of what you love (designing).

Agency:

At an agency, the behind-the-scenes work is being done for you, which means you can do more designing but the downfall of this, is that you don’t get as much say on the type of projects you work on… however, if you find the right agency, this shouldn’t be a big problem.

Another bonus of working at an agency is that you get to work for larger brands though this is not always a ‘bonus’ (so I’ve been told). In my short time at Carrot, I’ve luckily enjoyed every project I’ve worked on, especially the ones for Disney & Star Wars.

Verdict:

As long as you work on projects you like, you will be happy either working for yourself or an agency, though personally, I prefer working at an agency as it gives me more time to actually design and on a much wider array of projects… and I just love Disney pixie dust.

2. Rewards / Freedom

Freedom

Freelance:

Nothing is more satisfying than running your own successful (freelance) business. As a freelancer, you can choose your own clients, set your own rates and most importantly, work when you want to. This allows for much more flexibility, more vacation time and overall, an arguably better way of life. (eg. no daily commutes, more time to yourself, etc.). The monetary rewards are also generally better than working at an agency as well, though this of course depends on your experience / roll as well as how hard (smart) you work.

Agency:

Agency life also has its perks, the main being job security… the fact that you know you’re going to get paid and when. There are also other fringe benefits of working at an agency such as health insurance, parties, work outings, etc.

Verdict:

Overall, in terms of monetary rewards and freedom I think freelancing is a more rewarding choice, especially if you love traveling as much as me… though you do have to work for it.

3. The ‘Fun’ Factor

Lights

Freelance:

Freelancing can get lonely at times, especially if you don’t have anyone else around the house or office, however, you do get more freedom, which essentially means you can go out with your non-work buddies more often… and wake up later.

Agency:

An agency atmosphere is going to be a lot livelier than if you were freelancing at your own home / office as you can talk, laugh & collaborate with people at the office. You also have outings with your work buddies such as lunch breaks, movies, day trips, sport games, etc.

Verdict:

This may be biased as I am in NYC and working for Carrot, but you’re definitely going to have more fun at an agency.

Final Words

Whether you are just about to graduate or are considering switching to freelance or agency life, ensure you know what your goals are, have done the appropriate research & have planned out how to get there.

If you’re going the freelance route, I’ve collected many freelancing resources over the past few years, so be sure to check them out. If you have any further questions, please let me know and I’ll happily answer them in the comments.

Your Opinion?

These opinions are based from my experiences only so I would love to hear what your opinions are re freelance / agency life? If you’ve worked in both, what do you prefer and why?

Photo: Shutterstock

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66 JUST™ Creative Comments

  • Victor G. Reano Reply

    I’m sure the freelancing is nice, but the stability at your full time agency must be a nice crutch for you. No need to worry about the next contract coming in, or worrying about the paperwork.

    Ah, Jacob, I envy you! Hope Carrot in NY is treating you well.

  • Omar Reply

    People use to think that working for an agency give them stability and security, but it’s true? Sometimes we get fired without prior notice, it’s that security?

  • Carlos Yabar Reply

    Unlees you are a well-known designer it’s better to work for an agency, I have worked (and still continue) working as a freelancer, but if you don’t have the monthly payment that an agency can offer you can’t enjoy the benefits of being freelancer.

    These days I work for a company and in my free time I work as a freelancer, that’s a cool balance. Don’t have to worry about the money.

  • Nathalie Reply

    HEY! Thanks for this. Helped a lot. I’m starting a trainee here in Buenos Aires and having all this kind of conversations with EVERYONE. So… to begin, I’ll start at an agency ofr a while, and then go I’ll go freelance. (I’m still studying :]) CHEERS FROM BsAs! and say hi to the dog that has twitter :P

  • Albert Reply

    Great post! It’s a question I’ve asked myself often, though the answer has been the same for over 2 years now = freelancing. I’m unique from graphic designers in that I often spend my time onsite in an agency working regular business hours, so I get the perks you mentioned. Having gone through the layoff mill in the dot.bomb bust, I never again trusted the apparent security of a full-time job. You can be let go for any reason at any time.

    Maybe you’d label me a “permalancer” rather than a “freelancer” given my integration with agencies rather than working from a home office on my own.

  • Karol Munoz Reply

    Hey, this is great! I’m also a lover of traveling and kinda fresh in the business so freelancing is working out for me. And yes the money is better for the most part, but you’re always working. I can’t watch a movie without feeling unproductive, because there’s always something more I can do. And since I work from home there’s not feeling of being out of the office.
    I’ve done all of it, FT agency, freelance and now i’m freelancing but working on site a few days a week. For me there’s no “better,” I think a variety will always make life more interesting.

    Thanks for writing about this!

  • Smashy Design Reply

    Hi jacob,

    Hope you and your team doing fine.

    I moved to full time freelance from a full time designer for an agency. Opposite of what you are witnessing. The Main reason i moved to full time freelancing is the “fun” factor. Courtesy your tours and design stuff which pushed me towards here.

    Yes I dearly miss my colleagues at lunch time and outing. But i got chance to meet my old friends at school and yes i had very good time with them. One very good thing is where you have more time to spent with your family and relations.

    It didnt took much time to figure out how “fun” is freelancing is. For me, Less work, More fun / freedom and more $$$. To some what i have been able to complete that. Still early days to say any long comments.

    BUT working as full time freelancer, one thing you will miss is fixed monthly income. But after you complete a project or two, you can earn few months salary at once.

    Really i am enjoying my freelancing time. Those points you mentioned are which i personally experienced(ing). It was great feeling when i read what you wrote which i have experienced as same as it is… :)

    Thanks for another rocking post.
    Cheers!
    SD

  • Sanjeev Reply

    Gosh, Jacob…
    You left me where i was- sitting on a fence.
    I am unable to decide which will suit me- freelancing or working with an agency.
    Waiting for more feedback.
    Thanks, anyway.

  • Michael Rose Reply

    This is an amazing read. Fantastic to have it laid out so beautifully.

    We had a similar piece on Briefing for a Web Site… not as in-depth but might be useful to your readers…

    http://www.freelanceadvisor.co.uk/starting-out/getting-started-how-do-i-make-my-website-happen/

  • Andrew Cohen Reply

    From my experiences working at both an agency and freelance I find freelancing to be much better. My issue with the agency workplace is you’re constantly forced into one role and that can get quite repetitive. I also found that having people in marketing harping about making it pop and not knowing what they were talking about was another drag. Often I found that if the agency doesn’t run and operate as you do personally you’ll often have numerous redflags that stiffle your projects and cause huge issues down the road.

    Since freelancing i think I’ve found the best model which is finding a few small agencies that you like and work with them. This has lead to me working and collabing with people I truly enjoy doing it with, constant repeat clients, and I can still say no to projects I don’t want to do. I get the joy of being apart of a team, but at the same time I can call the shots.

  • Scott Reply

    Great read.

    I’ve worked for 7 years now and have done both freelance and agency work…I agree that agency life is the better way to go. It really does depend on the person though. Regarding freelance, I hated the behind the scenes work that was necessary and I really like shutting down at the end of the day to give myself more time to paint draw and work on photography.

    The only drawback from Agency life that i would caution new blood to is the office politics and there will be some silly stuff that goes down.

    Accounts VS Creative now there’s a topic for discussion.

    cheers
    Scott

  • Douglas Bonneville Reply

    I’ve done both extensively and have concluded that the best of both worlds is where you have a design business combined with a business that offers products. Coming up with a product – a book or quantifiable objective service – is not easy, but if you can get stable, monthly income built up from a portfolio of products, it leaves you able to turn down lots of jobs you’d otherwise have to take.

    I wish I had done this years ago. We only started this year in earnest, but am happily on the way to releasing 3-5 different products this year, and at least that many next year.

    Books, eBooks, iPhone Apps, consulting, speaking & teaching engagements, etc., are all things many designers could do that have just a big effect on bringing in new business, but also generate income on their own! That is just the smarter way to go!

    Many well-known graphic design bloggers have done the same, and even created second companies around their services and products, only to find themselves full-time at their “part time” hobby. That’s not a bad way to go!

  • Emily Smith Reply

    I’ve worked in both fields and think that it is really important to get the experience from both. Working in an agency can show you how to (or not to!) work. It can give you the bigger picture that you just don’t get on yourself.

  • sbuster Reply

    I agree with your ideas, I sincerely prefer to work for the agency ‘HOZTdesigns’ with colleagues because we share many ideas for projects and everything is much more respectable to work with freelance…

  • Squarelogo Reply

    I find it interesting that you are able to work at an agency AND still do freelance work. Most creative agencies that I’m aware of don’t allow freelancing.

  • KIren Reply

    I would opt for the agency job. No matter how slow things get, there will always be a steady work flow. Sometimes it will be something you don’t enjoy doing (depending on the project) but if you really wanted to, you can do both. Like yourself.

  • A Reply

    I’ve found that freelancer is definitely better than agency work. Not only do I get to pick and choose what kind of client and projects I take on, I also get to choose how much I get paid. Also, for those with the argument that having a full-time job is “guaranteed” income, obviously have never been laid off before. I’d rather be in control of work coming on, rather than letting someone else do it, and then come in to work one day to find out the company went over. Nothing is guaranteed, but at least you can work as a freelancer to make sure you’re never without clients.

  • Florida Search Engine Optimization Reply

    Great post. I can relate because i worked as a freelancer for 2 years now and I also worked in an agency before. There’s a big difference working on both environment.

  • Liss Reply

    Hi Jacob,

    You left out a 3rd option for designers…Working in-house for a company!

    I currently work in-house, and it has its perks. However, like any other job, it also its negative aspects.

  • Jacob Cass Reply

    Thanks for all your comments, I’ll get back to you all after I return from San Francisco next week.

  • S Sarkar Reply

    Wonderful post! I have been working for the last two years from home (not so successful yet!) and I realized every bit of your words of this article.

  • Shale Reply

    You’re doing what I want to do – full time agency work, with freelance on the side. (My ultimate, however, would be to work for somewhere like Ogilvy)

    I’m not afraid of long, hard hours and I have an expensive hobby (track racing) to fund. A foot in both doors would be a lot of fun.

    Getting going with the freelance is what I’m finding hard…it’s difficult to be competitive these days with SO MANY people out there! For the time being I’m upskilling, getting ready to study a diploma in digital media; qualified print experience + new digital skillz = FAR more skills on the whole! Hopefully it’ll open the door to some proper freelance, as I’ve always worked in a studio (and no, it doesn’t necessarily GUARANTEE job security…I’ve just lost a week out of every month due to lack of work…)

    I always look forward to another of your blog posts filled with sage advice or little designgasms. This is another of your relevant and interesting posts.

  • Rochelle Dancel Reply

    I think it depends what you’re looking to get out of your career. I’m happy to get the best of both worlds. For most of the week, I’m the in-house designer in the marketing department for a financial company, and the synergy of my department with other departments has taught me to deliver end to end campaigns, negotiate harder and understand the processes and context in which my work will sit from a business perspective. I’m learnt a lot about being commercial. For the rest of the week, I freelance, and I love all the benefits that that brings too.

    I have learnt stuff from my office 9-5 that I have directly applied to my freelance business; indeed, when you work by yourself, it’s more difficult to find people to mentor you or teach you something new. If I didn’t have my current set-up I’d probably opt for being an integrated agency freelancer :)

  • Web Design Reply

    Each one has its up and downs, it is very similar to working as a SEO guy. I think everyone has to make its own choice based on its own needs and ideas.
    However, most freelancers do not succeed in this though industry….

  • Mizael Reply

    Jacob, another great post! The responses from everyone have also been great! I tell you, everytime I come back to visit, I learn from yout posts. Good knowledge for any student such as my self!

    Thanks a bunch!

  • Diana Reply

    Hello, Jacob:

    In my opinion both are good, of course the ideal is working at an agency and freelancing part time..How do you work as freelancer by night, Jacob? I mean how you find the time? :)

    By the other hand, I think is not necesary working at agency in order to work for big brands, there many freelancers who worked for Coca Cola, Nike, Adobe, etc I personally worked for a Toy company and it was a good experience as freelancer.

    Other point, it dependes of the goals, education, etc.

    I´m still thinking if I should continue working as freelancer, or go for a company, to gain experience.

    Cheers
    Diana

  • Web Design Dispatch Reply

    Being a freelancer def isn’t easy but once you start working from home you never want to go back to the office life.

  • Graphic Designers Reply

    I worked at one company for about 4 years… 2 before my degree and 2 after. My degree was in another field(music). It was fun but there were small problems… Finally when the recession hit I realized I would have to make a change if I wanted to het a raise that year, namely moving to a bigger agency with bigger clients… Turns out that that “bigger” agency had less employees, less freedom and less socialising and way more cruddy jobs… 7 months later I started freelancing and I am rather happy. business could be better. Im working on improving it. ive been freelancing for about 8 months now. It affords me time to also sort out other areas of my life and work on other entrepeneurial projects. Hence I am also teaching music 2 days a week at a company which is not high-paying per hour like freelance designing is but it is stable. The perks of freelancing are also that I get paid 5 times what i used to per hour when I do have work and that is with a LOW rate. At a normal design rate I can make about 11 times what I used to per hour.

  • Rory Reply

    The BIG question that runs around my head daily, personally I’d love to work freelance but I know what I am like…waking up would get later and later, the home/office would be more of a distraction than a relaxed work area. I’d end up watching porn for 7 hours. Although its the dream I think for me I’m better off at a busy web design agency.
    I don’t know how you can do both Jacob when do you sleep?

  • SJL Web Design Reply

    Nice article, both freelance and working for an angecy must be great if you get to do what you love doing!!

    Cheers.

  • 36design Reply

    Like everything in live there are pro’s and cons for every decisions. Going freelancer or agency definitely has their share of both.

  • Jon Pianki Reply

    Great article. I work as an in-house designer for 2 companies and then run my freelance company in my extra time. I like the security of the steady paychecks but I enjoy the freelance life better. I like getting a wide variety of projects and clients and being able to work on my time (Plus, I like saying no to clients or projects that I REALLY don’t want to do).

  • Chicken Awesome Reply

    My wife and I (both designers) have kicked around the idea of starting our own design business. While we do the occasional freelance job, we simply do not have “business” set minds.

    Plus, dealing with people who try to weasel out of paying hurts my head. The stories clients will use are simply amazing. NO!reSPECt :)

    The benefits of our corporate jobs are great, and thankfully, we love where we work.

    The bonus of my job is that I have one client (the company), no billable hours, plenty of time to complete jobs, and I get to work on a quarterly comic for kids(!). Oh yeah…and a steady paycheck.

    I am spoiled.

    While designing for one client only might be a turn-off for some designers, I’m lucky that our range of demographics allow for fantastic opportunities in creative design work. I love it.

  • Jacob Cass Reply

    Thank you all for your patience in waiting for my reply.

    Victor,
    All is well at Carrot and NY, and yeah stability is great with a full time job until you get reminded that your job could be replaced at any time, which means you lose the working Visa and have to head back home.

    Omar,
    As I said to Victor above, there is a false sense of security though loosely, having a steady income can still be more secure than freelancing when it can dry up at times.

    Carlos,
    I don’t think being well known has anything to do with it, if you can promote yourself to the right people and have the work to back it up, you’ve got a good chance of succeeding. There are many ‘unknown’ designers out there with far superior work to those with prolific profiles.

    Finding the right balance between agency + freelance life is a nice fit… and also allowing time for personal projects.

    Nathalie,
    Good luck for your career! And Jonas says hi back!

    Albert,
    Ah that sounds like a comfortable way to go… being a ‘permalancer’. Thanks for your input!

    Karol,
    Finding the right balance between work + personal life is always a challenge and you’re right, there is no ‘better’.

    Smashy,
    Yeah all going well here at Carrot, business is good. Glad to hear you are enjoying freelancing as well and things are going well. Interesting to see the other side of the story! Thanks for your input.

    Sanjeev,
    I guess you have more comments to read now, to make up your mind!

    Andrew,
    I guess this varies from place to place (re roles) though personally I find the variety here at Carrot quite a positive factor. One week I could be doing a website, the next an Iphone app, the next a Facebook App and all for different industries.

    I’m yet to partner with any agencies for freelance work but this is something I may look into for the future… as well as focusing on recurring clients. Thanks for offering your insight, it does sound like quite an appealing position to be in.

    Scott,
    You’re right about it depending on the person, as well as living situations. Re the behind the scenes work, I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to do much of this (the marketing anyway) due to high search engine rankings however this comes with writing blog articles such as this one. I haven’t really noticed much office politics in this office but I guess it still happens behind the scenes.

    Could you elaborate on accounts vs creatives?

    Douglas,
    A business that offers products is something I have not yet ventured into, but maybe sometime in the future. Alternatively, affiliate sales is another way to get some income without having a product of your own.

    What products do you sell out of interest and if you can share, the ones coming up?

    Squarelogo,
    Yes, not all agencies allow this however I wanted to make sure that I could still do this before signing on with Carrot. Quite lucky however we both do have different target markets / capabilities.

    Kiren,
    I do both, however it’s important to remember, as I said to Omar and Carlos above that a full time job can easily be lost.

    A,
    But it does take a lot to pull a successful freelance business off, correct?

    Liss,
    Yes, I did leave that out! I haven’t had experience with working in house so I would be interested to hear your positive and negative experiences with it, if you would so kindly share.

    Shale,
    Thanks for your input and good luck with your goal of freelancing and working at an agency. Be warned, it’s a lot of (fun) work!

    Rochelle,
    I agree with you about getting the best of both worlds… choosing who you and what you work for is a huge benefit when you have the security of your main job to fall back on.

    Mizael,
    You’re welcome!

    Diana,
    Finding time isn’t that hard if you manage your time well, though I’m still yet to find out how to do that. I take on work I would like to do and then do it! It’s not really work if you want to do it!

    Also, you are absolutely correct about working for large companies however it’s much more difficult.

    Happy decision making.

    Web Dispatch,
    Depends what office your at.

    Rory,
    That comment made me laugh, but I know what you mean about waking up later and later. When I was freelancing I never had a wake up time, so I just worked when I felt like it… I found that I was quite productive at late hours of the night so I worked quite a lot around that time however since moving to an agency, that has changed.

    Jon,
    Wow, 3 jobs, that must be a handful! Good on ya!

    Chicken,
    As long as you love where you work, then you have no problems and you sound like you got just that so good on ya!

  • Lynn Brown Reply

    Good read Jacob! I see it both ways as advantage or not. But if you love what you do, for me, it doesn’t matter where I am at. I love to be creative and to help others as well. Thanks for the article – I am going to share with my clients.

  • Xplore Studio Reply

    I tend to think it goes both ways – freelance graphic design can be very stressfull, but then again so can meeting deadlines in a big firm…

  • Mohsinfancy Reply

    totaly agree..
    I love to do freelance graphic work..
    because its give you the freedom to work creatively.. with your own rule and ethics.

    MOhsinfancy
    Freelance Graphic designer from pakistan

  • Rob Reply

    There’s always pros and cons, why can’t there ever be just pros? :D For those of you going the freelance direction there’s a whole bunch of useful contract and client relation templates that can really help you stay organized and consistent at http://www.sessions.edu/Design-Career-Center/Design-Tools/Freelance-Design-Contracts-Templates.asp?fmid=0

  • Nick Jones Reply

    Hiya,

    It’s a great post and being professional graphic designer I have always chosen to work as Free Lancer and open up more with the industry.

    You have put up great content.

    Best,
    Nick Jones

  • Nelspruit Web Design Reply

    I have done contracting and freelancing. Now I have my own agency. The difference between freelancing and an agency is the add on services like hosting that get you a regular income.

    Freelancing in my experience has you doing work for a company and then them taking control. Contracting is not dissimilar to working for an agency but there is a finite term.

    Freelancing and contracting both mean continuous selling and looking for work, as does your own agency. The difference is once you reach critical mass your income is pretty fixed. I dream of this happening in the next 3 years or so.

  • Concursuri machiaj Reply

    Freelance all the way :) I have been doing that for the last 8 years and I don’t regret a single second. As for the work buddies – well, I’m not a team girl, so I love it that I’m on my own.

  • nitGreen Reply

    Jacob Cass,

    Nice article,

    I will say both work can give you benefit or not,

    If you are freelancer , you can get lots of work but at low cost and not from big or known company,

    If you have your on agency,

    You have to pay salary of your employers for every month, whether you have work or not,

  • zohaib zulfiqar (Graphic Designer) Reply

    Nice post and informative
    I thing freelance life is a whole learning process of every because we directly communicate with clients

  • Nick Reply

    I like freelancing work. I think only free atmosphere can make my inspiration open. Thinking in freedom can be more creative. If working for an agency, you will be stuck.

  • Dizayner Kiev Reply

    Freelance only Freelance
    more money

  • Huub Reply

    I’m starting my own business, mostly illustration but also graphic design. Currently I’m looking for illustration agency who can represent me.

    My question is this: if I’m represented by an illustration agency can I still work for clients on my own? Clients that I got by searching myself?

    Feel free to contact me about this question, thanks :)

    Huub
    huubb.com

  • Hassan Nasir Reply

    This topic is very debatable and different for person to person. If you have enough passion and patience with appropriate skills then you can do freelance for a long time. I did a freelance job at Canadian firm for 3 years and now i am running my own online design firm. First year was very difficult and needed a hard work but now its stable. I am doing a teaching too so it balanced me wealth wise too. :)

  • EA Reply

    Some times I feel like freelancing is scary, because you’ll never know when your next income/contract will come. But the money’s good, since you don’t spend a lot of time outside, commuting and buying food. Spending nights in doors, at the movies whenever you want to, and reading a good book whenever, just great.

  • denisa Reply

    Hy Jacob,
    I’ve just finished reading your post. It was really great! It made me think of a lot of things. I am still very young and I don’t have any experience at all in freelancing. I got so many questions to ask and I would like to learn more about it. Can you help me by sending me some sources of informations? That would me more than great! PS: I am interested in fashion design. Have a great day!


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