In-House Designer vs. Agency: Advantages and Disadvantages
Design, Product, Startup
Dec 30, 2023
Providing intuitive, pleasing digital experiences is make-or-break for how people perceive your product. Get it right? Customers keep coming back. Mess it up? You’ve immediately lost their trust and respect. The stakes couldn’t be higher for UI/UX design.
So, who actually takes charge of perfecting that customer journey and bringing concepts to life? Companies weigh two classic options — going in-house by hiring dedicated designers or partnering with an external digital agency.
In this article, we highlight each approach’s core advantages and disadvantages and some key factors to consider when deciding between building an in-house design team or partnering with an agency.
What Is an In-House Designer?
Hiring an in-house UI/UX designer or building up an internal design team is a major investment for any company. But it can pay dividends through deeper product expertise, brand consistency, and cost savings relative to large, recurring agency fees.
The advantages of hiring an in-house designer include the following.
+ Deep knowledge of the brand and product
In-house designers focus all their time on a single product suite. This way, they can immerse themselves in complex customer journeys, pain points, and business goals. Over time, they cultivate specialized product expertise and historical knowledge.
+ Close collaboration and optimized communication
Being embedded directly within a company also facilitates closer cross-functional collaboration. Instead of waiting on scheduled client calls or meetings, in-house designers can connect with developers, marketers, and leadership on short notice.
+ Compliance with company culture and values
When designers frequently interact with colleagues, they assimilate deeper into the company culture. In-house teams naturally align more closely with stylistic preferences and ways of working preferred internally.
+ Potential cost-effectiveness in the long-term
While employee salaries impose fixed costs, agencies charge variable recurring fees linked to projects. Companies with sufficient design needs to sustain full-time hires can realize substantial long-term savings after investing in workspace and tools.
Still, relying on in-house expertise only may come with particular drawbacks, like the following.
– Limited design experience and perspective
The focused domain expertise of an in-house designer also has its downsides. A single designer or small team may be limited to emerging design trends, tools, and best practices. Their concepts can become myopic over time unless they proactively source inspiration from outside.
– Workload and burnout potential
As more product groups and business units compete to leverage the designer’s specialized knowledge, it may lead to overcommitted schedules and double priorities. Thus, designers may struggle to balance delivering on current requests while also finding time to nurture their skills and draw inspiration for future innovations.
– Difficulties in scaling resources for large projects
While external agencies can scale up staff and divide overlapping workstreams, in-house teams lack the same elasticity for large initiatives. Significant delays can occur if the design scope expands without the ability to add more designers.
– Potential lack of objective feedback and fresh ideas
In-house designers working alongside the same product teams can become accustomed to specific approaches. Without periodic external perspectives, they may overlook more innovative directions or issues needing objective critique.
Companies often turn toward external design agency partnerships to address some of the potential limitations of in-house teams. Agencies offer versatile teams whose tailored expertise, objectivity, and capacity combinations can transform projects. The advantages of opting for third-party design services are the following.
+ Access to a diverse team of specialists
Where solo designers have restricted competencies, agencies combine groups of professionals with skills spanning research, interaction, and visual and development design. They understand how to coordinate experts across specialties for a coherent outcome.
+ Fresh design thinking and innovative approaches
The variety of client experiences brings new inspirations and objective views. Agencies stay updated on the latest design, technology, and methodology trends that they blend with proven best practices.
+ Experience in project management and resource allocation
The multitude of client initiatives also equips agencies with project management potential. They become well-versed in scoping deliverables, estimating reasonable timelines, and task prioritization. This experience allows efficient budgeting and staffing of design resources according to project needs.
+ Scalable to meet project requirements
Agencies maintain a broad talent pool that facilitates rapidly spinning up designers to match workflow demands. They can allocate additional user researchers for initial discovery phases or visual designers for high-fidelity deliverables closer to launch.
However, you should consider the following disadvantages that may come with external design teams.
– Higher initial costs compared to employee salaries
Agencies offset their project versatility and scalability with steeper hourly rates billed directly to clients. While in-house salaries concentrate costs upfront, agency fees accumulate rapidly against ongoing time and materials across various engagement phases.
– Communication problems and inconsistencies
The periodic touchpoints mean details can get misinterpreted or lost in translation. When agency teams juggle multiple accounts simultaneously, maintaining priorities and contextual nuances poses challenges. Plus, these gaps may be amplified by staff turnover between projects.
– Less in-depth understanding of your specific brand and product
External design agencies may not develop as deep of a knowledge of your company’s unique brand identity and products compared to an in-house design team. While agencies have design expertise, they serve multiple clients and may not be fully immersed in the intricacies and nuances of your brand story and product line.
– Dependencies out of internal control
Client initiatives get deprioritized if agency teams downshift focus onto other contracts. Deadlines and deliverables ultimately hinge on agreements rather than direct oversight of designer time.
While both options carry pros and cons, practical examples demonstrate how the optimal balance depends strongly on context. Certain partnerships have unlocked innovation despite potential culture clashes or communication barriers across organizations. Analyzing such successes helps showcase how hybrid teams attract complementary strengths.
Banking App Visual Redesign
A digital bank aimed to refresh its mobile application’s visual style to feel more clean and modern without alienating long-time customers. Its small in-house team lacked graphic design and branding background, prompting a three-month agency partnership focused purely on the visual layer.
Weekly video calls and in-person creative reviews aligned concepts with internal expectations. This short-term outside perspective afforded fresh aesthetics and custom iconography refined through hands-on learning about complex financial data needs.
Patient Health Portal Redesign
A hospital network wanted ideas to improve patient access and transparency into medical records through its web portal and mobile apps. They chose a ten-month engagement with an agency known for consumer-centric thinking to reimagine portal user flows.
The agency conducted contextual inquiries across patient and provider groups, respecting HIPAA regulations. After sharing qualitative insights, the internal UX team translated ideas into working features compliant with existing infrastructure, like electronic health systems. Blending external research with in-house implementation allowed for engaging designs while upholding data protection requirements.
The above examples demonstrate how the most effective relationships leverage complementary strengths across agency and in-house staff. But what exactly contributed to overcoming the typical weaknesses?
The banking app design harnessed a temporary agency perspective and then aligned it with longer-term in-house ownership. This balanced fresh concepts with fine-tuned refinements attuned to financial data intricacies. Well-framed projects and scheduled collaboration sync points mitigated the risk of miscommunication.
The health portal example emphasized agencies needing unbiased qualitative insights to inspire internal teams to implement compliant solutions. Separating creative research from engineering execution played to each partner’s strengths while upholding security policies and technical details.
In both cases, targeted problem statements, distinct workstreams, and leadership commitment to shared success built mutual trust. Such partnerships underscore recognizing not just cost or resourcing numbers but cultural compatibility and willingness to gain new outlooks.
In-House Designer vs. External Agency Decision Factors
The above case studies also reveal some common considerations for deciding between design partners.
Project size and complexity
For small projects with straightforward requirements, an in-house designer has enough bandwidth to understand the business context and design an intuitive, user-centric product. However, an external agency could be better equipped with specialized experts across UI/UX design for large, multi-phase initiatives involving complex integrations.
Budget constraints and investment plans
Hiring full-time designers entails higher recurring costs but gives long-term ROI as they evolve into integral business stakeholders. A digital product design agency has high upfront costs but saves on future re-hiring and training expenses through knowledge retention.
For well-funded startups and enterprises, building in-house teams signals commitment to design. Outsourcing brings cost optimization and on-demand scaling for early-stage companies with fluctuating priorities. In the growth stage, a hybrid model balances expenses while expanding capacity.
Design experience and special skills
From deep user research to high-fidelity prototyping, software design encompasses a vast set of deliverables. Specialists excel at specific competencies gained through years of focused practice.
While generalist in-house designers cover broad needs, niche agency talent is suited for complex domains like data visualization, animation, illustration graphics, and accessibility. Partnerships fill individual skill gaps with combined expertise.
Corporate culture and work styles
A designer joining an internal team as an employee can adapt to the company’s culture and work style. An external UI/UX design agency has likely developed their own ways of operating and need to adjust each time they begin engagements with new clients. When cultural fit is important or a quick ramp-up is necessary, in-house staff may have an advantage. However, contractors bring fresh perspectives that can benefit companies with stagnant cultures.
Desired level of control
From a process standpoint, in-house designers often make it easier to maintain control and alignment. Stakeholders can be involved throughout, and designers can execute iteratively according to feedback. External teams follow more structured timelines, with certain phases happening internally first. So, if close collaboration and rapid iteration are priorities, that points toward hiring. When autonomy in design decisions takes precedence, external talent may be your best bet.
Choosing between your own designers or outside agencies isn’t black and white. It depends on your goals, budget, and what needs to be done. Both options have something to offer.
Often, combining both is best.
Your designers know your business inside out. However, agencies bring fresh ideas to specific projects. Long-term, your designers own key things. But periodic input from agencies stops things from going stale. Agencies can also help out with extra workload when you scale your project. If you’re unsure about working with agencies, start small. Test it out on a specific challenge. Collaborating gives your team exposure to new thinking, too.
There are always opportunities to complement your designers with outside help. You only need to ensure everyone shares creative values and is on the same page. With good relationships and clear expectations, blended teams can do great work.
What is the difference between an in-house designer and a design agency?
An in-house designer works directly for a company as an employee. A design agency is an external company that provides design services.
What are the advantages of using an in-house designer?
In-house designers know the company well and can work closely with other teams. They are focused only on that company’s work. There are no extra fees beyond their salary.
What are the advantages of using a design agency?
A design agency provides a full team of experts in different areas like branding, UX, web design, etc. They bring fresh ideas from across industries. You pay only for the project, not full-time salaries.
How do I decide between an in-house designer and an agency?
Consider your budget, need for fresh ideas or niche skills, desired communication and approval speed, and predicted design workload. Small, simple projects may suit an in-house designer more, while large, cross-disciplinary branding initiatives are better suited to an agency.
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