Posted 21 March 2019
Written by Nils Westerlund

Design agency or startup: Where should you work as an emerging designer?

If you’re in the process of applying for design jobs, or considering your options as a new-starter or graduate, the myriad of companies and choices for types of work can seem overwhelming. In an effort to help you get to grips with what’s available and how it might affect you as an employee, Nils Westerlund – design director at design agency Doberman – has put together this guide and checklist. Having interviewed a multitude of people about their work over the past year, Nils’ words have been put together with digital product designers in mind, but can be applied to a range of design roles.

For designers, the world is full of opportunities to explore. We solve problems using design, in a world where problems (opportunities to design) seem endless. While exciting, this abundance of choice can also be daunting.

Over the last year I’ve been interviewing people who work in product design on what matters to them at the places they worked. In doing so a few key themes have emerged that I would like to share with you.

Size matters
Small companies, whether agencies or startups, can offer you more responsibility than a corporation or larger, more established tech company often can. However, if you are looking to expand on your people skills, want a big name to qualify your resume, or you’re seeking access to specific expertise, then a bigger company might be a better fit. No matter what size company you pursue, make sure the team values your background, your skills, and that you have people to learn from and look up to in your role.

Growth matters
A company that is growing fast will offer many opportunities, but it might be at the cost of not getting a lot of personal support for you to do your job well. Having mentors and advisors, both within your workplace or industry and outside of it, can be a good way to balance up the support you feel in your design role. If you get it right, this can be one of the more exciting environments to work in as a designer because you often get to see the impact of your work first-hand.

Type of company matters
In a design agency setting you will learn quickly by testing different roles, processes, and approaches. You will work on a variety of projects with the opportunity to tackle vastly different problems and learn from other designers.

On the flip side, at a company that specialises in a certain type of solution or industry, you will instead get the opportunity to go really deep into that industry or problem space. You will not stop with the first version but keep on building, learn which assumptions work in reality, and have the opportunity to create a close relationship with the people you are designing for.

Purpose matters (but perhaps less than working with the right team)
Working for the right purpose feels good. However, as was reflected by several of my friends, you might find that the purpose matters less than the team being really kick-ass and feeling like you’re making great work.

Collaboration matters
In design school, one of the most important skills you learn is how to use critique to make your work better. Finding a place that welcomes mistakes and open collaboration will be key to your growth in the workplace, too. The more often you can show your work to others and build on their input, the quicker you will not only find better solutions, but also learn to think in new ways.

“Finding a place that welcomes mistakes and open collaboration will be key to your growth in the workplace.”

Of course, there are things you should be wary of when considering any potential new work experience. For example, a design manager who wants to be a designer more than a mentor seems to be a common problem for young designers. In these cases, your manager might end up failing to help you become a better designer because they are too busy designing everything themselves.

I’ve also heard designers talk about companies falsely claiming to be ‘design-driven’. But if the ratio of designers to developers is 1 to 10, the culture is more likely to be driven by the technology. This might not be bad, however the risk in these environments is that the solution is created for creation’s sake, rather than questioning why the solution matters in the first place.

Lastly, a couple of designers I spoke to who had worked only for agencies found it hard to switch to startup work later down the line. But working for different types of companies will make you a more interesting candidate in both environments, and ultimately have more fun.

Hopefully this article has given you a clearer sense of how you might want to think of your next move. To take it a step further, here are a few ways you could transform these ideas into action:

• If you’re a grad or student, connect with peers who are a few years out of your course to learn about their experiences – offer to buy them a coffee or lunch for their time. Plus, ask your professors if they know any professionals you can shadow to get first-hand exposure of what their day-to-day looks like.
• Think about what’s important to you in a job before you think about the specific opportunities.
• Be open to tangential experiences or be less precious about getting the exact job you want, because experiences will often inform each other.
• Collaborate with people outside your field.
• Ping me on Twitter!


Nils Westerlund is a design director at Doberman, a design firm based in Stockholm and New York. Before that he ran his own company, How.Do, and was also among the first ten employees at Soundcloud.

Illustration by Jiro Bevis
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Written by Nils Westerlund
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