Hiring Design In House vs Agency: Things You Should Know

Amrita Mathur
Amrita Mathur
11 min read
in house vs agency

Is your marketing or product team bottle-necked by design work not being completed on budget and on time? As a marketer myself, I've faced numerous challenges with getting design done well and at scale, particularly when it is for time sensitive campaigns and programs.

In my time at Superside, I've happened to chat with and interview hundreds of scale-ups and enterprise teams and have heard the same thing over and over:

  1. In-house design team are overwhelmed and/or demotivated due to tactical design work, rather than focusing on strategic, big picture projects.
  2. Hiring and retaining designers is slow and difficult. 90 days on average to hire, more so if looking for someone fairly full-stack.
  3. Finding and managing pools of freelancers to add overflow capacity is a cumbersome and takes a lot of time and effort.
  4. The current agency solution is less than optimal due to high costs, slow turnarounds and poor project management.
  5. There are existing designers on the team, but no design leadership or brand stewardship to help steer the ship and guide on larger design strategy.
  6. There's a lack of predictability in addition to a fair bit of chaos when it comes to design planning.

So on and so forth. You're probably now wondering whether you should keep design in-house, opt for an agency or do a combination of the two? We've got you covered with our analysis.

The good news is that if you're currently facing any of these dilemmas, then you already know that design matters - that's half the battle won. But the design outcome itself is almost as important as how the work gets done. We’ve all been there—you need design and you need it fast. But don’t just make a decision based on what you need right now, think to the future! Think about scalability, efficiency and of course budget.

Many organizations face the dilemma of deciding on whether to hire designers in house or sending their design needs to a creative agency. It can feel like a big decision and it should because it will have a significant impact on your brand, website, campaigns, product, really anything design touches.

So, when it comes to your design investments, where should it be spent: internally or externally? A mix of both, perhaps?

In this post we'll be covering:

  1. Big differences between hiring in house vs agency
  2. Pros and cons of each model
  3. Examples of who each option is best suited for
  4. An alternative design model that's elastic and full-stack in nature and gives you a dedicated team
  5. Comparison chart of all three

Read on to determine which decision makes the most sense for your business.

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

Spoiler alert: there is no "one size fits all" choice. Often companies will use a combination of models. But, the outline should help you better understand what the best option is for your organization.

Below we compare these two popular models by looking at the pros, cons, examples and more.

Option 1: Hiring In House Designers

in house designer

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 play a big role in evolving the brand as the company grows. They'll become someone you can tap on the shoulder for design advice, and maybe even have a seat at the table during big business decisions.

TIP: An important consideration when hiring internally is to know where and how your design team/or desiger will fit within your organization’s structure.

When deciding on your design team structure, here are three options to get you started: centralized, cross-functional/embedded, and flexible. There is no right, wrong, or best way of structuring your design team— it all depends on your company’s needs.

What are the benefits of using in house designers?

  • They’re more connected to the brand and team. Part of the hiring process is to see whether or not an individual is aligned with your company goals. Once you find someone who believes in the mission and vision of a company, they’re more likely to connect to the work they’re creating. Not to mention, they’ll be an integrated part of the entire organization.
  • They have a higher sense of ownership. This isn’t a one-time project that they’re working on for someone else. In house designers feel a higher sense of ownership towards what they’re creating because it directly impacts the product, service, customers and company they work for. 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, it will never be as in-depth as the knowledge that an internal worker would have. From company town halls to sitting in on customer calls, internal designers will be the most customer-centric option for any organization.
  • Cost (sometimes). Depending on your needs, quality of work, return on investment and seniority, it can be less costly to hire internally over time than outsourcing the work to an agency.

Cons of hiring in house designers

  • Retention. Designers are in high demand, and they know it. And whether it’s voluntary or not, turnover is expensive. In fact, turnover can cost employers 33% of an employees 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 can also be a really tricky thing to nail down if you don’t have the right systems in place from day one.
  • Limited skillsets. No one designer can do it all. In order to fulfill all of the design needs that the majority of companies require (brand, digital, performance, email, product etc) you'll need to hire a team of designers!
  • Design needs change throughout the year. If you’re an ecommerce brand, for example, it’s likely that you’ll have incredibly busy periods (Christmas, Black Friday, etc), and some slower times. With each busy period, you may burn your design team out because there will be too much to do and not enough bodies. On the other hand, in those down times, a lack of work will not only cost you, but it could actively demotivate designers because there's not enough work to do.
  • Cost (sometimes). As this is a pro, it can also be a con. Depending on your design needs, hiring an internal designer is a constant cost that you incur throughout the year. If you’re not at a point where you have enough work available for an internal designer, you’re likely better off hiring freelancers, an agency or Superside, an option that will cost you less annually.

A look into brands with in house design teams

Microsoft believes that employees know the brand best.

  • During a talk at RetailEXPO, Ben Chan, Principal Design Director for Microsoft Store described how the team at Microsoft has been transitioning to a hybrid model over the past two years.
  • “All campaigns were done by agencies back then, and UX work was on an ad hoc basis but it was not a cohesive strategy. I see a continuation of our move [to a hybrid model] and each year we’ll evaluate it. [...] Nobody knows your brand, and where your company is going, more than internal employees, [but] we bring in people when we’ve not got the expertise. We have a partner where we outsource a portion of work. We also think about what design and user experiences could be done with our own employees and what work could be done with the partner.”

Wealthsimple designers have a high-sense of ownership.

  • In an interview with CNBC, Wealthsimple’s Executive Creative Director, Mike Giepert commented on an in house created campaign, Tomorrow Begins Today (as seen above). He said, “We are [all] partial owners in the company [and] we act that way. I think we believe that every single campaign that comes out is building to creating this great brand.”

Insurance startup Lemonade prefers in house vs agency.

  • Nuno Ferreira, the Head of Creative Marketing at Lemonade shared her reasoning for wanting to go 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,” said Wininger. “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.”

In house design teams are great for:

  • Organizations who understand and value design as a function
  • Companies who want to bring on individuals who will not only represent the company, but be a part of evolving the brand as the company grows
  • Companies with enough design needs to require full-time employees

Option 2: Hiring Creative Agencies

creative agency

As companies start to scale their design efforts, a popular option for many is to work with an agency to get outsourced designs. Whether a company's internal team doesn’t have the time or skill set required to get the job done, they want a fresh perspective, or they would rather have their internal design team spend time on other projects, there are many reasons why companies should bring on a creative agency.

But, when it comes to hiring a creative agency, there are many types to consider.

What is a creative agency?

Creative agencies work on creative strategies to help clients achieve their goals. They typically focus on four key areas:

  • Strategy
  • Design
  • Technology
  • Advertising

Ultimately, creative agencies are a more generalized name that can be applied to companies who focus on one area, or a full-service agency that does it all.

What is an advertising agency?

Much like their name, advertising agencies focus a lot on raising awareness for a client’s brand and product through advertisements. Some common services that these agencies provide include:

  • Marketing research
  • Advertising strategy
  • Ad creation
  • Ad management

From digital billboards in Times Square to flyers in your local newspaper, if it’s an avenue for advertising, they’re likely doing it.

What is a design/graphic design agency?

Just as advertising agencies laser-focus on advertisements, design agencies do the same with design. They focus on the look of your brand, products and services. In other words, they work to catch your audience’s attention through great creative. Services that design agencies provide include:

  • Digital design (social media, display ads, etc)
  • Print design (flyers, direct mail, etc)
  • Branding design (logo, brand guidelines, etc)
  • Product design (user experience, product marketing, etc)
  • Advertising design (designs for paid digital or offline campaigns, etc)
  • Video and commercial ads (YouTube ads, TV commercials, etc)

Pros: Why you should hire an agency

  • High-quality work. This is true so long as you pick the agency that best fits your needs. Seek referrals, testimonials and have a look at the past work they’ve done.
  • Team who’ll take the time to understand your brand. When you have a team of experts who’ll take the time to know your brand, product/services and audience, you’ll be unstoppable.
  • Access expert knowledge. Well established agencies come with years of collective experience and a team of people with varied talents. It's simply incomparable to hiring one person to fill all of your design needs. If you need many types of design done, agencies may just 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. This can, over time, stifle creativity. Outsourcing design, whether it’s on a full-time or one-off basis, is a great way to bring on a fresh set of eyes to really push the envelope for your brand.

Cons: Why you shouldn’t hire an agency

  • Turnarounds can be slow. Between all of the meetings, back and forth and research, agency turnaround times can be quite slow. Depending on the agency, they are also splitting their time with clients, so depending on the projects at hand, this can directly affect the speed of design delivery.
  • $$$ Pricey. Years of experience and a wide range of talents doesn't come cheap. And from onboarding to sometimes hidden costs, agencies can be a very costly expenditure when compared to other design avenues.
  • Lots of time and money spent on strategy meetings. Creativity takes time! While it’s awesome to have a talented team who’s going to take the time to understand your brand, you’re going to have to pay for that to happen.

Types of creative agencies to consider

Let’s walk through the range and types of creative agencies you can choose from:

Full-stack creative agencies:

  • These companies offer a wide range of creative and design services.
  • Fullstack Digital, for example, is an agency that does everything from web design, user experience, brand strategy, creative management, you name it.
  • Bold + Beyond is another full-stack create agency who's worked with brands like L’Oreal, Forever 21 and Publicis. In addition to their consultation services, they also offer a wide range of creative solutions, such as digital commerce, user interface design and social media management.

Small and niche creative agencies:

  • These are agencies who specialize in a specific area of design, whether it’s branding or user experience.
  • Take Clay, for example. Their creative agency is laser-focused on UI/UX design and have helped major brands like Slack, Uber, and Amazon develop seamless user experiences.
  • Or PixelPush, a Newzealand based animation agency that specializes in stop-motion video. They're offering a very unique and niche service that many design and creative studios don't have the in-house talented or equipment to tackle!

High-end creative agencies:

  • These are the Porsches of the creative agency world, offering high-end creative solutions.
  • Take Pentagram, a multi-disciplinary design studio, for example. They specialize in areas such as brand identity, exhibitions and installations, and digital design. The Pentagram team have helped leading companies such as Waze, Rolls-Royce, and Warner Records come to life.
  • Huge is another great high-end agency. Founded in DUMBO, Brooklyn, they help their clients create a unified brand experience through digital ecosystems, campaigns and content, physical environments, as well as products and services. Having worked with companies like Nike, Google and Proctor & Gamble, it's clear that they're one of the go-to agencies for megabrands.

Of course, don’t forget to look at other external design resources should you choose to outsource your design needs.

Agency models are great for:

  • When you need to launch a big campaign (such as a new product or rebrand) which requires a lot of planning and expertise that you just don’t have the time for
  • Teams who want to bring on a fresh perspective to tackle creative and design needs
  • Design teams who need constant direction and inspiration, and perhaps have a limited scope and skillset
  • Teams who either don’t have enough bandwidth to accomplish all design needs in time, or would rather keep certain designs in house while outsourcing others to agencies

Option 3: An Alternative, Elastic and Dedicated Team Model

Superside design team

There are very few companies that offer an alternative approach to in-house designers and agencies (or working with freelancers, who are hard to find and manage). One of those leading companies is Superside. A Y-combinator startup that has helped hundreds of scales-ups and enterprise teams like Twitch, PUMA, Zoho, Cisco etc scale their design output - taking on everyday production design work to large-scale strategic design solutions.

Trusted by 3,000+ businesses, Superside makes design frictionless and delightful, by combining top designers and creative project managers from all over the world, with purpose-built tech and the rigour of DesignOps.

Based in Palo Alto California and a 100% remote, Superside has 150 employees working across 57 countries and 19 timezones that allows them to be always-on and deliver good design, at lightning fast speeds.

We believe that innovative teams and companies care about design and understand it to be an important part of their growth strategy. We also strive to consistently "explode the triangle" by delivering all all 3 fronts: price-quality-speed. We understand the pitfalls of agencies, in house designers and even markplaces. Our goal is provide a service that simply cannot be beat.

The benefits of Superside:

  • Dedicated design team made up of super design talent from around the world.
  • We’re always-on and lightning fast, with the ability to do 12 or 24 hour turnarounds.
  • A reliable, battle-tested and fully managed process that scales with your needs.
  • On-brand designs only, through training on your company brand, audience and objectives.
  • Price-predictable and over 30% more affordable than agencies and the fully loaded costs of in house designers.
  • An out-of-the-box solution built for Enterprise teams with communication, security and confidentiality in mind.

A look into how one company works with Superside

A wide range of businesses and industries work with us to get design done at scale. From companies with multiple design departments, to no design team at all, we work with our customers to create the best solution for their design needs.

Meet Marc Vitulli, VP of Marketing at S&S Activewear. At S&S they’ve traditionally hired internally, but Vitulli knew that in order to scale, they needed outside design help. Their design team of three was overwhelmed with work, and they needed a solution to help remove their bottleneck while bringing some expertise and inspiration to the team.

Marc Vitulli, VP of Marketing at S&S Activewear

What he didn’t want to do, though, was rush into signing up with a traditional agency. He was looking for something different — something that was flexible, elastic and could scale up or down with their team's needs. He wanted to "explode the triangle" by finding a company that delivered on all 3 fronts: price-quality-speed. He already understood the pitfalls of agencies, in house designers and even marketplaces, and wondered if there was a better way.

“Honestly, I was looking for agencies for about six months,” says Vitulli. “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.”

Starting with two designs per month to help support their brand work, the S&S team now submits 10+ on average. From email and landing page design, to social media graphics and catalogue refreshers, to motion design and even a brand refresh, working with Superside has allowed their team to get a wide range of design support that would not otherwise be possible.

“From messaging and imagery to actual campaigns, some of our brands needed a revamp. When you look at the same thing all the time, it’s easy to run out of ways to make it look exciting and fresh. But then I’d give it to you guys [Superside] and it just gets this breath of fresh life. It shows our team, ‘Oh, I can do that with a brand that I typically thought didn't have that much potential,’” says Nicci Knouse, graphic and web design manager at S&S. Working with Superside has given her designers the time to really explore their creativity, versus rushing through something to keep up with the demand.

You can read the full S&S Activewear case study here.

Design Solution Comparison Chart

While every team has its own unique set of needs, it’s important that you take the time to evaluate what option is best for you: hiring in house designers, outsourcing to an agency, or working with Superside. We've put together a chart to help showcase the main differences.

Ask yourself these three questions as you start on your quest:

  1. What is the ultimate goal when it comes to hiring for design? Is it leveling up your brand? Delivering quality assets at speed? Having someone/a team to help drive the creative vision? Nail down your WHY for hiring and this will help you make the best decision.
  2. Think about what matters more to your org—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?
  3. What are your main decision makers—price, quality, speed, flexibility? Each option has their own strengths. Use this to guide your decision.

If possible, investigate all options 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 25, 2020
Amrita Mathur
Written by
Amrita Mathur
Amrita is a veteran B2B SaaS marketer and the VP of Marketing at Superside. Her core belief to growth is that great execution is the ultimate differentiator. In her spare time she paints in acrylic and works on feature-films with her husband.

Join our community of 5,000 strong and receive the best design and marketing content, biweekly

No charge. Unsubscribe anytime

Continue reading

Hassle-free design starts here

Superside is an always-on design company that makes design frictionless and hassle-free for marketing, sales, creative and product design teams. This means top quality designs at lightning fast speeds, improved velocity and go-to-market and completely secure and confidential file sharing and collaboration.

In this one-on-one live demo, you’ll see:
- How Superside works
- A first look at the Superside platform
- The most suitable subscription plan for you

Get ready to join 140+ scale-ups and enterprise teams doing good design at scale with Superside’s dedicated team model.

Want to start a design project instead? No problem, get started here

Book a call with us