The Great In-House Escape: Leaving an In-House Design Job

In my prior post, Getting Into In-House, I looked at the pros and cons of an in-house design job, and some of the things to consider before making your way in-house. But what if you want to get out of an in-house design job, and work at an agency? Or start your own agency?

Cast your vote in our latest design poll: Would you ever leave your in-house gig to go freelance?

Working at an agency has its own set of challenges, as well as rewards, and plenty of designers have been able to make the leap, whether they’ve built up a list of dream clients and gone after them aggressively or sought out an agent or business development person to assist them with landing work. You may also be able to get into an established agency so you can hit the ground running without having to develop your own client roster over time, but that’s not to say that you should give up your self-employment dreams.

Go Your Own Way

Freelance Design in Practice

Freelance Design in Practice offers insight and advice from working professionals who have successfully jumped the many hurdles on the road to becoming solo practitioners.

If you have aspirations of leaving your in-house design job behind, rest assured, you can do it. Even though you’ve worked on that one brand, you can still get out and get into a situation that affords you the variety that you may crave. If you opt to leave your in-house design job, and set out on your own, there’s a good chance you could make a career out of freelancing, especially if you have a lot of experience having working in-house already. If you identify a company or group of companies that you understand, you could very well be doing all of your freelance work for an in-house client cohort.

Matt Fangman, associate director of user experience design at AT&T, offers these words of wisdom when it comes to finding freelancers to work with on projects at AT&T: “We work with outside agencies for many different reasons. Personally, I look for signs that they will be extremely reliable. Whether we are working with them to be a production arm (i.e. highly repeatable, less customized work) or a subject matter expert (perhaps bringing skills or a technical solution to the table) in an area we are lacking. I want our agency partner to be transparent and consistent.” It’s highly likely that you’ll need to demonstrate that consistency by being transparent, sharing all of your work in the form of case studies, and also sharing the names and contact information of past clients, as well as contacts from your prior in-house design job.

Creating Your Own Niche

Charlotte, N.C., designer Rachel Martin, who had worked at Louis Dreyfus, BBDO Worldwide in the past, has found success on her own with Rachel Martin Design LLC. Martin specializes in developing creative and sustainable solutions, that are socially responsible. With eight years of experience as a consultant and freelancer for in-house departments, she finds the experience rewarding. Martin offers praise for her clients and views them as collaborators.

Design work by Rachel Martin Design LLC for Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department, completed for Michael Kirschman, Deputy Director, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department

Design work by Rachel Martin Design LLC for Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department, completed for Michael Kirschman, Deputy Director, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department

Martin says, “I enjoy working as a design consultant for in-house departments because you have creative freedom and a fresh perspective to give them. Companies hire me to help with their focus on sustainability and how to integrate it into their business along with their design materials. For me, working with in-house departments offers a creative collaboration of disciplines with their team where I learn a lot about them and the company and get inspired on how to create a truly effective and powerful design solution.”


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Tim Rebich, principal of Centerfold, has worked in the design industry for close to eight years. Prior to forming Centerfold, he was in-house at International Paper as a designer in their retail division and then at Adams Outdoor Advertising as an art director. He looks back on his in-house experience as formative, and when asked about what he deems valuable from those days, Rebich says that he learned how to sell. “Ideas had to be passed up the food chain, approved (sometimes by stakeholders that weren’t even privy to the initiative) and then ultimately by the client. I also learned how to articulate the value of creative to those that had different perspectives of the business. A design vernacular does not prove to be beneficial when you are the only one in the board room that speaks it.”

Greener Grass, Sans Guilt

But Rebich also saw some processes and methods as cumbersome and complicated. “You know the awkward moment, when it becomes an Innovative Brainstorm of Synergy and everyone is mandated to think outside of the box. (Did you respond to my meeting request yet?) Collaboration is only as effective as the people involved and their understanding of the challenge at hand.” With his own agency, Centerfold puts Rebich in a place where he and his fellow designers work together without having to worry about what he calls “forced collaboration.”

Design by Centerfold for the Charleston Marauders, what Rebich calls "a new team, in a new sport based on functional fitness, in a new league‚ the SAGL, that serves as the minor league team for the DC Brawlers in the NPGL.

Design by Centerfold for the Charleston Marauders, what Rebich calls “a new team, in a new sport based on functional fitness, in a new league‚ the SAGL, that serves as the minor league team for the DC Brawlers in the NPGL.

Design by Centerfold for Punchstone Foodhouse, a paleo friendly, healthy frozen meal made for the high-performance athlete on the go.

Design by Centerfold for Punchstone Foodhouse, a paleo friendly, healthy frozen meal made for the high-performance athlete on the go.

Now that Rebich is in charge of the creative process, he and his colleagues at Centerfold get to see their impact and how their business strategy affects the design process, sans guilt. “Being able to take a mid afternoon run without feeling the guilt of not being at my desk is pretty nice.” Like other designers who’ve left in-house gigs behind to start up their own agency or embark on a rewarding freelance career, Rebich doesn’t bother looking back. He can already see that the grass is greener on the other side, especially during those mid-afternoon runs.

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How to Start Your Own Freelance Business

An online course with Ilise Benun

In this online course from HOW Design University, instructor Ilise Benun will cover the four main areas you need to know to be successful in your venture. You’ll learn about marketing and sales, client relations and etiquette, pricing and taxes, and how to establish a work/life balance. You’ll walk away with a solid understanding of how to get started on your own, and the tools you need to ensure you’re set-up for success. Learn more and register!

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