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In-house designer, agency, or design freelancer?

In-house designer, agency, or design freelancer?

We launched Alpha Design Partners, the unlike design firm, last year to build a design transformation partner for our customers and to become the most desirable workplace for designers. Now, half a year later, we feel both humbled and privileged to have been able to work with a growing number of exciting partners within their diverse domains and markets and to have been able to attract a team of talented design professionals. We’ve elaborated on this design partnership, and our Design-as-a-Service model (DaaS for the acronym-lovers) earlier, so this time we’ll unfold our thinking and learnings from the designers’ perspective.

Built on learnings.

Alpha Design Partners is built from the learnings, both good and bad, from the design industry over the last 20+ years. We’ve been design team members, design team builders, design team leaders, design team coaches, design work sellers, design work buyers, and hiring some hundreds of designers during these years.

Our initial idea was to build Alpha Design Partners to bring together the best elements of in-house design and design agency. In-house designers research their end-users, work in tight collaboration with marketeers and developers, listen to customer feedback, and make the next version of their product or service even better. Agency designers hop in to the next cool project, work within multiple exciting domains, and every once in a while receive prestigious design awards. At the same time, in-house designers often get frustrated with the mundane realities of product development, and agency designers rarely can witness their gorgeous designs in the hands of the fabled end users.

We’ve been flabbergasted by the genuine interest the designer community has shown towards us. We’ve spoken with countless in-house and agency designers, and design freelancers, who have been curious of what we have been talking about. What started as a semi-idealistic idea to bring together the best parts of the in-house design and design agency cultures has actually at this stage on the new company timeline realized itself in a team of design professionals who have made a very deliberate choice of working as design freelancers.

We had obviously known design freelancers exist, we had occasionally hired them in the past for one-off design gigs when our design teams had not been able to meet the demand of design service requests, or when we have needed to rapidly find a very specific domain expert, be it about design for children or visual identity exploration in a corporate brand refresh.

Staffing our newborn design team initially with design freelancers has made us re-think the foundations of our idealistic vision. After this re-calibration we are happy to realize that our ideal still holds — we want to build the best possible design workplace and culture for design professionals, it’s just that there is a third dimension in addition to the classic in-house design and design agency roles, namely the design freelancers.

The design freelancer is a design entrepreneur, a one-person design firm. In addition to the design work she loves, she needs to do also marketing, invoicing, and brand building, to run a sustainable business. What’s maybe even more important, is that despite being legally a one-person entity, she can smoothly work as part of a larger design or multidisciplinary product team, doing design work or leading other designers. The reasons behind the choice of working as a design freelancer vary, some prefer being able to select their clients and projects, some enjoy the entrepreneurial spirit, some want to retain the capability to set their work-life balance flexibly, and some are involuntarily in the freelancing space scouting for the next in-house or agency day job. With entrepreneurship comes broad responsibility.

We currently do design work in projects where design freelancers, in-house designers, and agency designers collaborate. In most cases, you don’t spot any difference in the daily work. The back-office processes are a bit different and may require an additional mug of coffee to beat the bureaucracy, yet the benefits from being able to flexibly assemble talented design teams far outweigh the possible bureaucratic overhead.

One building block in our ideal when shaping the most desirable designer workplace is partnership. We are building a model where designers can become equity partners in Alpha Design Partners the design firm. How to marry the design freelancer model with design firm partnership is one of the positive challenges we will be resolving as the design firm keeps on growing. Ping us if you are curious and want to learn more or join us on this growth path!

Harri Kiljander
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