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In-House vs. Agency: The Smart Choice on Your Next Design Hire

Amrita Mathur
Amrita Mathur11 min read
Choosing to Hire Design In House vs Agency: The Smart Choice

Overworked designers lead to design bottlenecks, poor morale and reduced quality.

Whether you're a marketer or a creative director, the solution is often hiring.

The question is should you hire in-house or use an agency?

In my time at Superside, after chatting and interviewing hundreds of creatives and marketers at scale-ups and enterprise teams, here's what I repeatedly hear:

  1. My in-house design team is overwhelmed. They're stuck in tactical design work, and I want them to focus on strategic, big-picture projects.
  2. My experience in hiring and retaining designers is slow and difficult. It takes time to find someone who aligns with the values you seek, more so if looking for someone with a full stack of design capabilities.
  3. I'm finding it cumbersome to find and manage pools of freelancers to add overflow capacity. It takes too much time and effort.
  4. I'm tired of the current agency solution.  Slow turnarounds, poor project management, and it's still so expensive.
  5. I’m stuck in chaos and unpredictability. Design planning and prioritization are overshadowing the actual work. Shouldn't there be a better way?

Sound familiar?

The good news: You already know that design matters. And, more importantly, the C-suite believes in the ROI of design and that you can afford to invest in more design resources.

The not-so-good news: If you're in this position, you know the design output is almost as important as how the work gets done. So, you’re weighing your options— hiring a design agency or an in-house designer (or maybe a freelancer, but the extra admin work and unreliability can be a pain (there is another option, we'll get there).

My advice: Instead of falling into the trap of what you need now, focus on your future.

Think about scalability, efficiency and affordablity.

Whatever or whoever you hire will significantly impact your brand, website, campaigns, product—and anything design touches.

An Extension of Your Design Team

Superside hires the top 1% of global design talent to staff your dedicated team so you can scale design with your company's ambitious growth.

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What to consider when deciding between agency or in-house design resources

What are the Main Differences Between In-House vs. Agency Design Models?

An in-house design team knows your brand inside and out. They're part of the company culture and can make quick decisions when a fast turnaround is needed. They're a cost on payroll, may not offer all the capabilities you need and can't scale as you grow (at least not without hiring more people).

An agency takes the time to learn your brand to make recommendations. They're often expensive, with slower turnaround times, and, depending on the agency type, may not offer the full suite of services you require.

Spoiler alert: Often companies will use a combination of models. But, this outline should help you better understand the best option for your organization.

Option 1: Hiring In-House Designers

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In many cases, hiring an in-house designer can feel like the "responsible” choice.

You're hiring designers who will, over time, know your brand inside and out and help to evolve it as your company grows. They'll become someone you can quickly tap for design advice and maybe (ideally) have a seat at the table, helping to guide significant business decisions.

Want to Build a High-Impact Design Team?

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The pros of hiring in-house designers: Brand familiarity, accessibility, control and focus

  • They're more connected to the company culture and team. Part of the hiring process is determining whether or not an individual aligns with your company's goals. Once you find someone who believes in the mission and vision of your company, they're more likely to connect to the work they're creating. Remember, your Internal culture influences the external brand.
  • They have a higher sense of ownership. This isn’t a freelancer working on a one-time project. There's a higher degree of focus from In-house designers because it directly impacts the product/service, customers, and your company. This sense of ownership can play a big part in an individual or team's desire to create something that's high-quality and effective.
  • They'll know your brand and customers inside and out. While agencies will put in the work and time to learn everything they can, their knowledge will never be as in-depth as that of an internal designer. From company town halls to sitting in on customer calls, internal designers will be the most customer-centric option for any organization.
  • They (might) cost less. Depending on your needs, from design capability to seniority, hiring a creative internally can be less costly than outsourcing the work to an agency.

The cons of hiring in-house designers: Capabilities, recruiting and retention

  • Hiring and talent recruitment take time. The average time to hire in the design and creative field is 27 days. Add a few more days depending on the industry and HR processes. Making a more senior hire typically means multiple rounds of interviews, design tests, and capabilities challenges, too—all of which you have to review. And what if you make the wrong decision?
  • Retaining top talent isn't easy. Designers are in high demand. They can get poached for higher pay, better benefits, or even the "cool” factor of a big brand—and turnover costs employers 33% of an employee's annual salary. From finding a replacement to ramp-up time, this is an expensive cost to take on if you can't retain your designers. Outside of cost, knowledge transfer is tricky to nail down. Expect a longer onboarding process if you don’t have the right systems in place from day one.
  • Range of capabilities and limits of knowledge. No one designer can do it all. To fulfill all of the design needs that the majority of companies require (brand, digital, performance, etc), you'll need to hire a brand designer, a graphic designer, a motion designer, etc.—and hope their levels in their respective talents match each other.
  • Design needs change throughout the year. If you're an eCommerce brand, Christmas and Black Friday, for example, are hectic periods. With each busy period, you may burn out your design team with too much to do and not enough bodies to do it. While downtimes, like summer, could demotivate designers because there's not enough work to do.
  • They (might) cost more. Depending on your design needs, hiring an internal designer is an ongoing cost to payroll. Without enough work available, you're likely better off hiring freelancer(s), an agency (or Superside—an option that will cost you less annually, but we'll get there).

Why insurance startup Lemonade prefers in-house vs agency

For us, having people coming in day in and day out, working the problems, understanding what we’re trying to build, which is a lovable brand, is the right way to build the brand. Working with an agency is a much more transactional business. It’s usually time-based. You cut corners because there’s a certain budget, and you have to make due with what you have. In many cases, you get average work because [agencies] make due with what [they] have, and I don’t think that’s right for us.

Nuno Ferrerira, former head of Creative Marketing at Lemonade (source)

In-house design teams are great for:

  • Organizations that understand and value design as a function.
  • Companies that want to bring on individuals who will represent the company and be a part of evolving the brand through its growth.
  • Companies with enough design needs to require full-time employees.

Option 2: Hiring Design Agencies

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As companies start to scale their design efforts, a popular option for many is to work with an agency to get outsourced designs, because:

  • Their internal team doesn't have the time or skill set.
  • The company needs fresh perspectives on age-old problems.
  • They'd rather have their internal design team spend time on strategic initiatives.
  • The creative director needs someone to handle the production work of resizing and ad variations.
  • The agency offers design capabilities that the in-house team doesn't have.

The pros of hiring an agency: Quality, expertise and perspectives

  • High-quality work. If you hire an agency, pick the agency that best fits your needs. Seek referrals and testimonials and look at their portfolio to understand how they define quality.
  • A team who'll take the time to understand your brand. You'll be unstoppable when you have a team of experts who'll take the time to know your brand, product, services and audience.
  • Access expert knowledge. Well-established agencies come with years of collective experience. It's simply incomparable to hiring one person to fill all of your design needs. If you need many different kinds of design services, agencies may be the better option.
  • A fresh set of eyes. Whether you're in sales, marketing or design, it's easy to fall into the "that's how we've always done it” trap. Outsourcing design, whether on a full-time or one-off basis, is a great way to gain fresh perspectives.

The cons of hiring an agency: Speed, cost and inefficiencies

  • Slow turnarounds. Between all of the meetings, back and forth, and research, agencies are also splitting their time with clients. Depending on the projects at hand, this can directly affect the speed of design delivery.
  • Expensive. 💸Years of experience and a wide range of talents don't come cheap. From onboarding to sometimes hidden costs, agencies can be a very costly expenditure compared to other design avenues. The seafood platters and cocktails in meetings aren't part of the experience, they're part of your bill.
  • Lots of time and money spent on meetings. When you hire an agency, know that creativity takes time. While it's fantastic to have a talented team investing time to understand your brand, it’ll come at a cost.

Why some companies choose agencies:

  • Launching a big campaign (such as a new product or rebrand) requires a lot of planning and expertise that you just don't have the time for.
  • Bringing on a fresh perspective to tackle creative and design needs
  • Directing design teams who need constant inspiration, and perhaps have a limited scope and skillset.
  • Building capacity for teams who either don't have enough bandwidth to accomplish all design needs in time or would rather keep specific designs in-house while outsourcing others to agencies.

Option 3: The Agency Alternative—Superside

Superside is a creative-as-a-subscription (CaaS) service helping scale-ups and enterprise companies break through design bottlenecks, develop design systems, and ramp up design production.

You get a dedicated team, not a single designer, that includes world-class designers and a project manager to deliver high-quality creative assets quickly and cost-effectively.

Superside uses a DesignOps platform where you and your team can collaborate with your creative project manager and easily submit briefs, provide feedback and store your creative assets—stuff agencies don't really do outside the boardroom.

Trusted by brands like Meta, Google, Amazon and Shopify, Superside makes design frictionless and hassle-free, letting you unleash your creative capacity. We've delivered more than 50,000 projects, with 99.3% delivered on schedule.

Our process is smoother and more efficient because we handle the design process end-to-end—from managing design feedback to picking the right talent to do the job.

Superside has 700+ employees working across 57+ countries and 19+ time zones, giving you global perspectives and always-on design support.

We believe that innovative teams and companies care about design and understand it to be an essential part of their growth strategy. We also strive to consistently "explode the triangle" by delivering all three fronts: price, quality and speed.

The benefits of Superside:

  • A dedicated design team with members representing the top 1% of design talent worldwide.
  • An always-on and lightning-fast turnarounds that can deliver in 12 to 24 hours if needed.
  • A fully-managed DesignOps process that is reliable, battle-tested and scales with your needs.
  • An affordable and predictable pricing model that is over 30% less expensive than agencies and the fully loaded costs of in-house designers.
  • A digital platform for communication, collaboration and storage of assets.

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Honestly, I was looking for agencies for about six months. Everything including traditional type agencies, email design agencies, and so on. Superside popped up one late night, and it just seemed to be the exact model that we were looking for. Someone who could help us scale and bring a lot of professional talent, too.

-Marc Vitulli, VP of Marketing at S&S Activewear

Read the S&S Activewear case study for more

Questions to ask yourself when deciding between in-house vs. agency:

  1. What are you trying to achieve in hiring for design? Is it leveling up your brand? You can hire a brand designer, but what about updating all your marketing collateral and touchpoints, from pitch decks to social ads? Rebranding doesn't stop after a brand guide. Or maybe you want high-quality assets reliably delivered with speed? A freelancer takes vacations; a design team provides backups. Do you need help to drive your creative vision? Nail down your why and goals before hiring a design agency or internally. With clear objectives, you can find the right partner to achieve your goals.
  2. Do you need industry relevance? While a local agency is convenient, they may be missing the big picture and valuable insights from working across multiple industries on a global scale. Look for a design solution with intimate knowledge of your industry and experience working with a company of your size.
  3. What matters more to your organization? Is it growing your internal design talent and having creative be close to your core functions? Or getting quality creative work done by folks who service clients for a living? Are you planning to grow—how will hiring an in-house designer scale? Do you need to hire a graphic designer, motion designer, or illustrator? What does your company look like in 5 years? Can your internal design team keep pace with the ever-changing landscape of design needs, especially in the ad space?
  4. What does their own content look like? While you can spend time on their portfolio, they'll only showcase their best. Spend some time on their social media channels and their blog, and attend an event or two—are all the marketing touchpoints aligned?
  5. Who are your primary decision-makers? Price, quality, speed, flexibility? Each option has its own strengths. Whatever you value most, make sure they can deliver on their promises.

Level Up Your Design

With Superside, you don't need to compromise between in-house designers and an agency. We bring you a full range of capabilities and the peace of mind of becoming an extension of your team. Want to learn more?

Let's chat

If possible, investigate all possibilities before you make a final decision. You never know what will work until you try it.

If you'd like to learn more about how your team can keep up with the fast-changing world of creativity and design, book a call, and we’ll find a solution that works best for you.



Published: Sep 26, 2022
Amrita Mathur
Written by
Amrita Mathur
Amrita is a veteran B2B SaaS marketer and the VP of Marketing at Superside. Besides preaching to everyone and their mother about how good execution is the ultimate differentiator for your company, she hosts our monthly Gather & Grow Show featuring guests from PUMA, Wix, Intuit, Prime Gaming, Outbrain and more. Find her on Twitter @amritamathur and say hi!

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