Agency vs. In-House Designers: What’s the Difference?

Kristina Lakeway
Kristina Lakeway
- 3 min read

Back in November, Randall, Kaitlyn, and I ventured into D.C. to listen to Cap Watkins, Etsy’s Senior Design Manager. Cap’s talk covered all the neat aspects of Etsy’s product design principles. It was incredibly informational, insightful, and down-right entertaining—we especially loved the kitty-flying-into-space-on-bacon slide.

Overall, it was a very productive evening. (1)

As Cap shared stories about working as an in-house designer, I realized just how different in-house designers are compared to agency designers. Little things like:

  • having time to test different layouts for content to see what will drive sales,
  • having time to review analytics,
  • and making changes based on what doesn’t work for clients.

All are things agency designers rarely have the luxury of time to do. (2)

To compare, I thought of this metaphor. Agency designers are the hands-off parents who send their children—the websites they’ve worked on—off to kindergarten and pray they are well received by their peers—the client and the client’s users. On the other hand, in-house designers are the helicopter parents who take note of every interaction the child has, and then offers suggestions on how their time at school can be made better (which they typically follow through on).

What Other Major Differences Are There?

Designing for Your Company versus Designing for the Client’s Company

In-house designers focus solely on their company. Whether it’s designing, developing, creating, mocking up and cutting out, or generally slapping things together, their job is to execute internal deliverables.

By being intensely involved and invested in their company, the designers help keep their company’s image and message consistent. And by zeroing in on maintaining and updating the company’s product across every facet, in-house designers are able to push out new updates that keep their users happy and coming back.

While agency designers can find themselves doing similar activities for their own company, it isn’t the main focus of their job. Agency designers direct their energy towards their client’s needs. Typically, this involves producing a single, complete product that is not intended to undergo any major revisions for many years. (3)

Balancing the Client and the Client’s Users

While in-house designers work to meet their company’s goals, agency designers have to work with both their client and their client’s audience in mind. This means agency designers consider not just who is coming to a site, but also the needs and wants of a company when creating a website.

Sometimes, agency designers run into companies who don’t have a solid identity they identify with. So it’s up to the designers to use their creative brains and come up with the best representation for the client.

Along the same line, agency designers have more creative leeway to suggest design concepts to clients. In-house designers have a little less freedom in that they have to stick with their brand. It can equally be difficult to convince co-workers that the company should branch out into a different direction, if that company has a strong identity and a strong audience-base.

But There Are Some Major Similarities, Right?

Of course there are!

At the end of the day, both designers work hard to devise finished products to introduce into the world. Our efforts are spent putting a company’s best face forward, while also ensuring users can easily interact.

Cap gave a perfectly insightful talk about in-house designers, but it was hard to find takeaway points for our own work as agency designers.

I can say, though, that his ideas were a much-needed reminder that a designer’s work is never done. We hand off dozens and dozens of sites to our clients, but there is always room to improve. (And hopefully, those clients will one day approach us to build version 1.1 of their sites, too!)

(1) Thursday’s are typically observed as “pizza night” and are rarely missed. Going to Cap’s talk was worth pushing pizza night to Friday.

(2) Your typical, everyday clients usually won’t have the time or money for testing, nor do they see all the benefits there are to testing. It’s not until you have an extremely large budget that part of the money might be allocated towards user testing.

(3) It’s widely thought that a well-designed site shouldn’t have to be updated for up to a decade. A site based on current flashy trends—not substance—is likely to need updates within a year or two.

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