If the prospect of freelancing fills you with dread, there remain two major options for earning a steady crust from a creative career - both of which are shrouded in misconceptions. The first is working for an ber-cool creative agency, which has a graffiti-festooned reception, offers free beers every Friday and has creative ideas bursting out of its seams. The accounts you work on are household brands, and there's a variety of work and opportunities aplenty to show how much of a dynamo you can be. Congratulations, you're an 'agency-side' designer.
However, if you're a quieter creative, look bad in low-slung jeans and have T-shirts that fail to scream irony, your choice seems simple: slope off to the nearest company offering a position as an in-house designer, then sit behind a PC and churn out uninspired scribbles. You'll have a wonderful time being average and no one will expect anything remotely decent from you. Welcome to life as a 'client-side' designer.
Of course these are exaggerations of the familiar misconceptions for each role. Half-truths and ill-considered opinion - most of which are exacerbated by a level of snobbery and po-faced pouting - plague each area of work. In a tug of war between agency- and client-side creatives, you would find them equally matched in talent and ability, although the common belief is that an agency career offers greater creative challenges.
"I've always perceived that working client-side is a very controlled process, where even before a project commences there is a clear design objective constricting what you can achieve," says designer Anthony Smith, who has produced work for Mobile, Toyota and Visa, and is currently at Saatchi & Saatchi Design. "Through a design agency you can question and engage with the brief from a different perspective."
This is a valid point, but one that shouldn't belittle what an in-house team can achieve. At an agency you still have to work with a client's brief, brand guidelines and bouts of pouting. Being client-side can give you the chance to create, break, update and refresh the guidelines. "Client-side designers genuinely have a lot more power and freedom," says Crab Creative's Alex Harding. This power comes from understanding how a brand functions, as designers live, breathe and are paid monthly by it. In client-side design, you'll also learn a lot about how a business and the teams within it work together.
Tom Kershaw works client-side for BBC Audio & Music Interactive. Summing up some of the benefits of supportive teamwork on a continued project, he says, "You're likely to know the people you're working with, such as account managers, technical staff and product stakeholders. Managing the relationships between these key people can be a major factor in the success or failure of a project."
Generally, an in-house team's demarcation lines are less pronounced. A junior is likely to have more involvement and responsibility on larger projects than their agency counterparts. At larger agencies in particular you'll find juniors 'paying their dues' by spending a lot of time spray-mounting and putting boards together for seniors. It's easier to move up the ranks client-side.
While agencies can vary in size from small, friendly creative powerhouses to huge design factories, if you're comfortable working across multiple brands and projects, agency life is for you. "I've always found working within a design agency more diverse when it comes to the creative agenda, because you're working for multiple brands and, therefore, design diversity is required," says designer Matt Loomis. At agency-side it's a constant challenge to come up with new ideas and stand-out designs within tight deadlines. This is excellent stuff for the CV, but the hours can be long and, much of the time, you'll find yourself putting in more than a 40-hour week. At client-side things are usually more measured, as deadlines can be renegotiated with fellow colleagues if projects are going to take longer. Doing this agency-side risks upsetting delicate agency/client relationships.
Whatever your choice, it doesn't mean you'll have painted yourself into a corner with no chance of jumping from one to the other in the future. There are transferable skills between working client-side and as an agency designer, and if you're a great creative with terrific ideas and an understanding of layout, brand and advertising, you'll be able to apply these skills wherever you work. An agency designer may want to make a name for themselves by jumping client-side so as to specialise in, build and develop one brand.
If being given an hour to think up and produce roughs for three ideas doesn't fill you with relish, look client-side; if you're hungry to fill your folio with big-name clients and are comfortable working quickly and accurately against the ticking clock, go agency-side. Both directions hold their own challenges and prospects for growth, and each will give you an audience for your creative work.