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What is the difference between a designer in a product company and a designer in an agency or studio?

It so happened that for 12 years I have been drawing websites, logos, icons, interfaces and so on in my own design studio, Adrenaline studios. And then I started working in product companies, for the last 3.5 years I have been working as a design director at Adrenaline studios. I found that working in-house as a designer in a company that makes its own product is very different from working as a designer in a studio or agency. I tried to describe the main differences and illustrate with my own experience. The article will be useful for designers “on both sides of the barricades” to broaden their horizons and help in overcoming internal barriers.

1. No customer

From the agency’s point of view, design is a premium service. The main goal is to make the client happy. If in the process the client does not get pleasure, you will lose him. The objective result is not that important. I’m exaggerating here, but the scenario is not uncommon. The agency has its own goals, for example, the desire to make a good case out of the project in order to attract other clients in the future. Customers – kings and gods for agencies and studios – everything is done for them.

There are no customers in grocery companies. There are “businesses” that want to be profitable, there are product managers who describe requirements, there are users who want features. But they are not customers. Features can be discussed and requirements can be changed. Thus, it is the designer’s job to understand and solve the problems of “business” and users.

Sometimes in grocery companies you come across managers who, with the best intentions, try to play the role of the customer. They ask, for example, “draw a green button here.” It is easily treated. Ask the manager to move back from the solution area to the problem area. Let him tell you what problem he wants to solve.

2. It is impossible to submit the project

In each agency, the final stage of the project is delivery to the client. If the work is completed and the documents are signed, everyone exhales, rejoices and expects money. Many designers even regard the fact of design acceptance as an indicator of a well-done work.

In the case of a grocery company, it is impossible to hand over a design to someone. You can show it to your colleagues, you can test it, but the decision that “everything is ready” is up to you. And then production, release, users, Eternity … In fact, these decisions are difficult to make and sometimes you want someone to decide everything for you.

3. Mistakes can be made

It is difficult to design well the first time. The realization that the designer has made a mistake can suddenly come when the site or application is already up and running. In the case of an agency: the work is completed, the money is received, the design is in the portfolio, everything is cool. Often times, you won’t even know about the mistake you made. And this is unfortunate because you don’t get feedback and you keep repeating the old mistake over and over again.

You can make mistakes at a grocery company. Of course, few people will be happy about this. But you will be understood and forgiven if you fix everything. After all, the system is characterized not by the fact of error itself, but by the reaction to it.

4. More money

There are almost no risks involved in setting up a studio. We need clients, designers, some money for office and equipment. But you won’t be able to make a lot of money either. Studios operate in a very competitive environment – quality, speed, technology, price. Ideally, you need to make a good design, quickly and not expensive. The cheaper the better. Otherwise, competitors will receive the order.

It is difficult to create a product company, especially a profitable one. Success stories are very different, there is no single recipe. But if it worked out, then, as a rule, the income for each employee is much higher. You can hire more expensive specialists and do cool things.

5. No need to make different designs

The main feature of studios and agencies is unique design solutions. The site or mobile application will be made exclusively for the client, nowhere in the world will there be anything like it. If you’re lucky. Designers have to come up with different solutions for similar tasks. Often times, the new design is no better than the old one – it’s just a little different.

Product companies have different principles – all products and accompanying communication design should be similar. We need a single UX: the user sees the ad, visits the site, installs the product – everywhere there must be the same design, the same patterns, and so on. The task of a product designer is not to come up with a new design if there are already good working solutions.

6. Throw away most of the design

A classic argument for designers is how many options to show to the client? If you make a lot of options, then a lot of time is wasted. Some agencies include several options in the contract in advance, others try to sell rejected options to other clients, and still others make only one design option in principle. But in any case, the design studio should work optimally, which means waste should be minimal.

In grocery companies, the principles are different. Design is a very cheap stage when compared to programming, testing, marketing, and so on. Therefore, the more mistakes can be avoided at the design stage, the better. Designers have to try different approaches, prototype, test, improve over and over again. A strange situation arises: the more designs are thrown away, the better the designers have done their work. More money

There are almost no risks involved in setting up a studio. We need clients, designers, some money for office and equipment. But you won’t be able to make a lot of money either. Studios operate in a very competitive environment – quality, speed, technology, price. Ideally, you need to make a good design, quickly and not expensive. The cheaper the better. Otherwise, competitors will receive the order.

It is difficult to create a product company, especially a profitable one. Success stories are very different, there is no single recipe. But if it worked out, then, as a rule, the income for each employee is much higher. You can hire more expensive specialists and do cool things.

It is always difficult for me to come up with a price for my work. You need to say in advance how much the logo or interface layout will cost. You can negotiate an hourly rate. But the client is also not clear – how many hours will the work take?

We at Turbomilka have come up with an interesting system. Our services (icons, graphics for the interface), as a rule, were needed in the “middle” of the development process. Therefore, it was important to understand in advance how much money and how much time. We came up with a simple but cool solution: for several years we recorded time and money by tasks. Then, on the basis of these data, we made fixed prices for our services, openly published these prices on the site. Thus, clients did not even need to contact us to understand how much, for example, a set of 30 icons in size 32×32 would cost.

7. No need to make different designs

The main feature of studios and agencies is unique design solutions. The site or mobile application will be made exclusively for the client, nowhere in the world will there be anything like it. If you’re lucky. Designers have to come up with different solutions for similar tasks. Often times, the new design is no better than the old one – it’s just a little different.

Product companies have different principles – all products and accompanying communication design should be similar. We need a single UX: the user sees the ad, visits the site, installs the product – everywhere there must be the same design, the same patterns, and so on. The task of a product designer is not to come up with a new design if there are already good working solutions.

Adrenaline studios has a relatively small design team, only 15 people. It was not difficult for us to agree among ourselves on common principles of work. I can’t say that the consistent problem has been completely resolved, but we are close to it.

But another problem arose! Sometimes (now less and less) in our products there are not the most successful design solutions: some old hypotheses that did not work, made in a hurry with crutches, not relevant patterns. Designers, guided by good intentions not to create new entities unnecessarily, take these decisions and use them again. It turns out that striving for uniformity is not only useful, but sometimes harmful.

8. Throw away most of the design

A classic argument for designers is how many options to show to the client? If you make a lot of options, then a lot of time is wasted. Some agencies include several options in the contract in advance, others try to sell rejected options to other clients, and still others make only one design option in principle. But in any case, the design studio should work optimally, which means waste should be minimal.

In grocery companies, the principles are different. Design is a very cheap stage when compared to programming, testing, marketing, and so on. Therefore, the more mistakes can be avoided at the design stage, the better. Designers have to try different approaches, prototype, test, improve over and over again. A strange situation arises: the more designs are thrown away, the better the designers have done their work.

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