There’s one key question that all aspiring UX designers need to face: “Should I go on my own as a freelancer, or join an agency full time?” Either path has its own challenges, and either can result in an equally successful UX design career. Yet, at the same time, they are extremely different.
Here are the pros and cons of working on your own versus being a part of a design firm or agency.
Doing UX design as a freelancer
Pro: You set your own hours
This is perhaps one of the most obvious and popularized pros of “living the freelance lifestyle.” Being able to set your own hours as a freelancer is technically correct. Though, if you don’t yet have good planning and work organization skills, it might lead you to working all of the time. Nevertheless, a freelancer can decide when they will work and for how long. More to the point, it turns out that full-time freelancers work 36 hours per week on average (four less than what’s traditionally considered “full time”).
Pro: Freelancing is getting more and more popular
According to the latest data, 35 percent of the US workforce freelanced in 2016. In 2014 and 2015, it was 34 percent. Granted, it’s not a huge rise, but still an upward trend, and those numbers are not expected to drop anytime soon. In fact, most of the people that were part of this study started freelancing by choice and not by necessity. Surely, freelancing has become an acceptable and even trendy career path, meaning that you also won’t have to struggle explaining to your friends what it is that you actually do.
Pro: You can work from anywhere
As a freelancer, you can not only set your own hours, but also pick your workplace. Cafes, co-working spaces, your kitchen table, the park, you name it. Of course, not all of those places will turn out to be good working environments, but this still gives you a lot of options to choose from if you’re not feeling productive in your current location.
Pro: You generally feel more productive
Studies suggest that all work-from-home scenarios result in a productivity boost. There’s generally less distractions in your surroundings, and you get to be in control of the situation entirely. If there’s a problem with your current location, you can simply leave. Additionally, you can take a break when you’re not feeling entirely tuned in and come back when you do — something that would be impossible in a standard job setup. In one study, 30 percent of the participants said that working remotely lets them do more in less time, or at least more in the same amount of time. Guy Ligertwood shares many of these sentiments in the lessons he’s learned while working from home.
Pro: You get to pick your clients and coworkers
You’re the captain of your own ship here, which means that you get to make all the important decisions as to who you work with as well as who you work for. Whenever you come across a prospective client (or a fellow professional) and you have a gut feeling that you’re not going to click with that person, no one is forcing you to go any further. When you freelance, you get the luxury to pick your clients. When you’re part of an agency, on the other hand, it’s your boss who makes all these decisions, and depending on your position, you might have very little say in that.
Pro: You can work with as many or as few clients as you wish
While this all comes down to your personal preference and work processes, being a freelancer gives you the freedom to decide how many client projects you can take on at a time. Thus, you can build your freelancing business in multiple ways. Some of us don’t mind working on multiple smaller client projects at the same time, while others might be intimidated by the scenario. Alternatively, maybe working with just one huge client doesn’t sound too financially secure to you, and you’d prefer not to keep all your eggs in one basket.
When freelancing, the choice is up to you, and you can dial things in to feel comfortable.
Pro: You can make more money in the long run
While getting started with freelancing will by no means lead you to huge profits right away, you are likely to earn more in the long run. A majority of freelancers report that they were able to make more within a year after leaving their full-time job.
With the pros of freelancing fresh in your mind, now here’s why freelancing could be a challenge:
Con: You need to manage your own finances
Things like accounting, handling your month-to-month cash flow, managing your software subscriptions, and so on can get really time consuming — not to mention boring. And don’t even get me started on taxes. Doing taxes by the book and not making a costly mistake is in a league of its own (the degree of difficulty here depends on the country you’re from).
In many cases, having all this taken care of properly involves either hiring an accountant or at least getting quality accounting software. Either way, it will cost you time or money — or both. This is something you traditionally don’t need to worry about if you’re working full-time for an agency. They will do the heavy lifting for you and provide you with correct paperwork at the end of the year (again, the specific rules of that change from country to country).
Con: You can end up working all the time
While you do get to pick your own hours, it’s still possible to get too preoccupied with work. This is especially risky when you’re just starting out as a freelancer. You may not have the financial stability of well-paid projects coming your way, so you might feel compelled to devote more time to work.
Con: You often need to buy your own tools
When you’re part of an agency, you get all the tools you need. This includes a computer, design software, and any other piece of equipment that might come in handy. While it isn’t always the case, most of the time freelancers have to purchase their own tools. And stocking up on equipment can be really expensive. Though there are some good deals out there.
Con: Maintaining a healthy bottom line can be tricky
All freelancers, even the more seasoned ones, need to deal with occasional ebbs and flows in terms of the amount of money they make month after month. This comes down to the timelines of your projects, the number of clients you can work with at the same time, and the overall popularity of your services in any given month. For instance, one month you can have plenty of projects, and then zero the month after.
Con: Succeeding requires skills outside of UX design
Even though you might be confident about your UX design abilities, this might still not be enough to build a successful career as a freelancer.
Getting the core of your work done properly is just one side of the coin. The other is marketing your services, acquiring new clients, being able to plan everything in time, negotiating, and so on. I’d even risk saying that your pure UX design skills will only account for half of your success as a freelancer.
Joining a design agency
Pro: Easier to get started
If you want to be working on meaningful and interesting projects, you’ll likely be able to do that quicker if you join an agency. You can apply for a paid internship as soon as today — even if you’re completely new to UX design — and potentially start getting paid for your work from day one.
Pro: You could gain experience quicker
There are many factors that could contribute to your growth when you’re part of an agency:
- You get to work with and learn from multiple people at the office.
- You can be mentored by more experienced designers on the team.
- You get to interact with multiple clients.
- You learn the workflows of a UX design job.
- You get access to top-of-the-line tools.
- You often get professional training paid for by the company.
You simply won’t get all that when beginning your journey as a freelancer.
Pro: You get more financial stability at the beginning
You get paid on day one. And you get paid the same predictable amount month after month. This makes things easier on your house budget, your credit scores, and your overall financial health and peace of mind.
Pro: You have a more consistent workload
Since the agency is paying you a stable salary, they will make sure that you have something to work on every day. This helps you adapt and find your rhythm at work. When you walk through the door on Wednesday morning, for instance, there are always tasks waiting for you, and all you have to do is give it your best.
Pro: Benefits, 401ks, health insurance, etc.
The employee benefits that you can be offered depend highly on the agency that’s hiring you and the country you’re in. On the extreme end of the spectrum, you can expect things like health insurance (including dental plans), relocation assistance, retirement benefit plans, long term care insurance plans, legal assistance, child care benefits, transportation benefits, paid time off, sick pay, and more. Your employer will take care of all that for you, without you having to do any of the paperwork involved.
When you’re freelancing, you will want to handle some of those yourself (like your health insurance, at the very least), and doing so can be costly.
These have been the pros of working full-time for an agency. Now let’s look at the cons:
Con: You don’t get to pick your projects or clients
Your agency has a pool of projects that are being worked on, with teams (or individual employees) assigned to each project. When a particular project needs to be done, you don’t get to say that you’re not interested. It’s your boss who always makes the final call. When freelancing, you’re that boss.
Con: You might get forced into doing unrelated things
“Coffee, anyone?” — often the problem for interns. This one depends highly on the specific agency that hired you. Nevertheless, finding yourself in a situation where you’re being assigned to a task that’s not entirely within your work responsibilities is more likely to happen when working with an agency.
Con: You don’t get to negotiate your rates as often
When you’re freelancing, nobody’s stopping you from quoting one client at $100/hour and another at twice that. Basically, you can be as fluid with your rates as you wish.
When working a standard agency job, you’re less likely to get the raise you want every year.
Con: Commuting and being stuck at the office
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it takes the average American 26 minutes to get to work. This means that you will waste about 5 hours every week commuting.
Those 5 hours could be much better spent building up your own business or looking for new work opportunities.
The fact that work happens in one building every day from 9 to 5 is also problematic if you ever need to cut the day short to take care of some personal matters. With freelancing, you can align — say — all your doctor appointments however you wish, with no one having to approve your office absence.
How to decide what’s best for you
In the end, it all comes down to your priorities. If you’re at a point in your life where job security and receiving a reliable monthly salary is key above all else, then the agency path is probably better for you. If, on the other hand, you value independence, being able to set your own hours, and working from anywhere, then freelancing is the right path.
To make your decision easier, try creating a scorecard based on the pros and cons listed above. Put “freelancer” on one side and “agency” on the other. Then go through all the pros and cons for each.
- For the pros, assign values from 0 (not valuable) to 5 (extremely valuable) to each one.
- For the cons, go with values from -5 (really significant) to 0 (insignificant).
Then, look at which of the paths has more points.
Hopefully, the pros and cons described above will help steer you onto the right career path. At the same time, keep in mind that no decision is final, and you can always switch careers from freelancing to agency or vice versa.