How hiring a solo graphic designer compares to a corporate design firm

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Let’s paint a picture shall we? Maybe you have a new business, you’re full of new ideas and you can’t wait to show it off to the masses. But first you need a professional brand and website. Or maybe you’re taking that side hustle full-time, and it’s time to really invest in design that’s truly unique and specific to your business. Or maybe still, you’ve had a business for a while and you’re realizing that it’s beyond time for an updated brands and website refresh.

Regardless of what stage you are in, WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE, or at least those of us who have ventured into entrepreneurship, simply by dipping our toes in or diving in headfirst, we can certainly sympathize with where you are in your journey.

Let’s paint a picture shall we?

Where do you find the designer that’s going to make your ideas Of having an impressive and impactful brand and website come true?

Did you know you have options?

Not just options within the small business community, though there are plenty of incredible designers out there to choose from. But you also have the option of going outside of a small firm and working with a corporate design firm.

Yep, in the graphic design world there are two distinct branches or business entities that you can hire for all your design needs. One being big business or corporate design studios and the other being self-employed, small or freelance graphic design studios. Read this as, when you graduate with a graphic design degree, these are your typical avenues of choice if you want a job in the graphic design field.

But both serve different types of clients and have their own place within the design market, so how do you know which one would be the best fit for YOU?

Typically both entities offer similar services but you’ll start to see differences when looking at the actual deliverables, timeline and especially cost. There are a lot of factors that come into play here and some of them may not be obvious at first glance.

To be totally honest, I’ve never worked in a corporate office, but I do have lots of design friends from school who chose to go that route. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about what it’s like to work in the corporate environment but most of my comparison in this article is simply based off of that second hand knowledge.

So… there are your grains of salt.

Obviously I encourage booking with small business or freelance graphic designers, because, I mean, I am one, but let me break down some of the main reasons you may want to hire a smaller design firm versus a corporate organization.


You want your business to get one-on-one attention

This is such a biggie and something that unfortunately corporate environments just can’t offer. The reality of the situation is that corporate design firms are taking on dozens of clients a year, sometimes over 100. They are able to do this, and actually NEED to do this, because of the number of employees they have working for them. The larger the overhead of a company, the more clients they need in order to make a profit and pay employee salaries. Makes sense.

Now there are some obvious downsides to this.

Sometimes certain projects will be marked as a priority over others, and giving and receiving feedback may have to go through several channels or avenues within the company, usually a customer care representative, then to a manager, then to the design team, and vise versa when they respond back to you, so you rarely, if ever, get to talk to the actual designers that are creating your branding or website.

This also means, when you book with a corporate design firm, you may end up having 3 to 10 different graphic designers working on your branding or website at a time.

This may sound like a plus because you’re getting a LOT more eyes on your project, however as with any sort of group working environment, ideas can get lost in the shuffle, different designers may have different visions for your project, and it can be hard to keep track of each individual client’s style from the beginning of the project till the end, because most of these projects go for weeks or months.

Of course, any good team is going to have something in place to keep the project on track and keep their designers focused, but there’s no denying that at a large firm you are just one of many clients that they are working with at any given time.

Now let’s compare that to a smaller or self-employed designer.

A typical small business graphic design firm takes on less than 10 clients a year, possibly more if they strictly only offer branding and not web design. Web design projects take longer and in turn are a bigger investment. That means that when you book with a freelancer or small business they may only have one or two other clients at the same time or you may in fact be their ONLY client during your entire project. This means they are thinking about your project and only your project every day throughout the week.

How awesome is it to think that you can hire a professional that’s going to devote their ENTIRE 40+ hour week to creating something spectacular just for you?

In my opinion, that’s the kind of attention you deserve!

For my business specifically, there was a point in time where I only took on one client at a time. As I was establishing my own business I wanted to make sure that my clients got my undivided attention for the duration of their project. That way I made sure I was giving them my best work as I figured out the best ways to manage every step of the process. 

Now, as we approach 5 years in business this summer, I have a better process when it comes to onboarding and managing my projects and timeline, but I still space my clients in such a way so that I’m able to give each project the attention it needs.

I stagger my projects so that they are at different stages at different times. Designing and developing are two very different skill sets, and I plan on having an episode on the differences in the two in the future. Designing is obviously more creative and developing, or coding, is much more analytical. Both are problem solving but in different ways. I do my absolute best to make sure I’m not designing webpage concepts for two clients at once. Instead I space my client work so that I can be designing for one while I’m coding for another.

For my onboarding, I start my initial creative direction for one client and we work our way to the concept designing phase before I start the creative direction for my next client. Staggering my onboarding means each area of my process is staggered as well. That way I’m not getting burned out and I’m able to put all of my creativity towards each client project at a time.

I feel that to give my clients the best possible experience, they deserve that one-on-one attention that they wouldn’t get from a larger firm.

They are hiring me to pour my creative energy into their business and they deserve my very best.


You want more personal customer care and feedback

Like I mentioned up above, corporate design firms usually have teams, whether that’s a large design team of 100+ people or a small design team of around 5 people. Regardless of the size of the team, almost certainly the person you will be in direct communication with while working with a firm is going to be some sort of customer care specialist or one of the members on the design team.

However, they won’t always be the person that is directly handling the actual designing of your branding or website.

For all our clients, I’m the person that they talk to from start to finish. From the moment they inquire they get emails written by me, usually proofread by Mike, and during the process they can ask me any questions, voice concerns, give their feedback, all directly TO ME.

There is no filter or person that their messages go through and there are no ideas or pain points that get lost along the way in the process. 

This is true of almost all small businesses, though the occasional designer may have a project manager that checks in on things like invoicing and keeping the project on track.

More often than not, you’ll be in direct communication with the designer or owner themselves during your entire project.

Not only is this so important in my opinion during the designing stage of things, but it’s also a game changer for the preliminary work and the development work for websites.

I LOVE sending off branding questionnaires and getting to learn about my clients firsthand. I feel like reading their answers, I get to understand them and what they love in terms of design before I ever create something for them. Because I’m the one that created the questionnaires in the first place, I make sure to ask the questions that I think will be most beneficial or enlightening during the design process.

Now a LOT of web designers hire out for their web development, which again needs it’s own episode, and there’s NOTHING wrong with that! It’s perfectly reasonable to hire a designer that isn’t also a developer.

BUT I have to say that it makes things so much easier for us and our clientele. Since I’m the one that designs everything in the first place, I also know exactly how everything should work and any suggestions the client has made or special coding tricks I need to implement to make their website perfectly match the design concepts. I don’t have to prepare my files in a different format for third party developers, I don’t have to try and explain my ideas and how sections should function to another developer, I don’t have to hope my client sites work on mobile, and I don’t have to hope the developers are doing a good job and writing clean code for my clients. I KNOW all these things are taken care of because I do them myself for every single one of our clients!

It’s also especially helpful in the long term, if any tech or coding question or issue comes up for our clients, we can fix it for them usually the same day. They send us an email and we can log into their site and update whatever needs updating.

No back and forth with another developer, no wondering if the code is up to our standards, and no making our clients wonder what’s going on while we wait to get an email back from a developer. It’s all just us, writing code we know inside and out, and it gives both us and our clients major peace of mind.


You want the benefit of true connection and friendship

I’ve kind of touched on this already but since I am the main person that my clients are in contact with for the duration of their project, I pride myself in becoming their go-to person, that they feel comfortable coming to with questions, for all things design related.

The design industry can be super intimidating, especially for people who have never worked with a graphic designer before. Then when you bring in coding terminology, or any new processes that need to be learned, it can be downright overwhelming.

I think about what it must be like to sign up with a design firm and how intimidating that would be for a small business or a solo entrepreneur. I know for me I would have a hard time really asking for what I want and standing my ground if I was going up against the opinion of an entire team of people.

Now obviously I know that corporate design firms do a beautiful job for their clients and I’m not discrediting that AT ALL. But even the idea of a corporate environment doesn’t exactly fill me with ideas of true bonding and connection. And I personally think the most meaningful design comes from getting to know your client on a very intimate and personal level and becoming friends with them.

So I make it my mission with every project to make sure that my clients feel so comfortable and enjoy every single step of the way.

Most branding projects take around 5 to 6 weeks and most website projects take around 10 to 15 weeks and clients usually get at least one email from me a week during that time, so I spent a lot of time talking with and getting to know my clients.

I’m proud to say that I form a LOT of dear friendships this way. I’ve had some incredible people come to me through the years for branding and web design and we form such a friendship during the weeks or months that we work together that we keep in touch both on a business and personal level.

Actually just yesterday a former client of mine DMed me about something I shared in my stories and we ended up talking about the fact that she is due with her first child this summer and I couldn’t be more excited for her and her husband and to see this new direction that her life is heading in.

I want to work with people that I enjoy talking to throughout the week. I want to work with people that I can cheer on for years to come and see their business become a success. Honestly I don’t think that I would be in this business at ALL if it’s some level I wasn’t here for the clients themselves.

It’s a wonderful thing getting to build these friendships, even if we never meet in person, because that’s more fulfilling to me then any design could ever be.


You want a collaborative process

Like I said, the design industry can be SO DANG intimidating, Even, if not more so, for new designers trying to break into the industry.

I was talking to a friend recently, actually a fellow designer, and we were laughing at the idea that designers need to be these ultra cool trendy people, when in reality we aren’t different from anyone else except that we just happen to like spending our time playing with typography and layouts… which actually sounds really nerdy…

I’m NOT here for the exclusionary mentality of the design world.

I personally hate the idea that someone wouldn’t inquire with me or wouldn’t reach out to me because they were intimidated by me.

I’m not here to bully, or belittle someone for not knowing something design related. I’m not here to judge them on the design they currently have and I’m not here to force them into a design style they may not resonate with.

The very fact that they are hiring me is because they know I can help with all of that and be a guide through the process for them.

A couple of weeks ago, during a meeting, a current client of mine called me her brand therapist because she knew I was there to bounce ideas off of and I was more than willing give my feedback without making her doubt herself and I honestly loved that title! That’s exactly what I’m there for!

Actually part of why I started the podcast and why I love blogging is that it allows you guys to see a side of my personality that I otherwise wouldn’t really get to show. I get to sit down every other week and tell you guys what I’m thinking about and you get to hear me talk and see what my personality is like before you ever even inquire.

And yes… I also talk too much in person. 

Like I’ve said about 1 million times now, in a more corporate environment you may not ever get to meet your designer. I also can’t imagine how intimidating it may be to reach out to team of people when you have a simple question that needs answering.

And one of my worst fears for businesses that have worked with a more corporate firm is that the firms themselves may handle their clients more like a business proposition and less like an individual who has a say so in their own design. So often I think businesses can feel detached from their identity when it’s done by a larger firm because the firm designed and decided almost everything for that new brand and website.

But I design something for someone else, I’ve always felt like the best designs came from collaborating with that client. I welcome their opinion and I openly ask for their feedback on every little thing that I sent their way. I’ve just never wanted to be the type of designer they made all the decisions and didn’t give my clients any sort of wiggle room or say so in the concepts that I was designing specifically for them, because after all I’m designing FOR THEM.

Yes, absolutely, I like explaining design terms to my clients and giving them the knowledge on how to use design terminology and lingo confidently, but WAY more than that, I love the excited emails that I get back from clients after they see a concept that they helped tweak that makes them feel like a million bucks. 

After all I’m designing for them and their audience, not for me and my audience. It actually doesn’t matter at the end of the day if it fits my own aesthetic or if it matches my brand or what I personally like. Actually I don’t think it should. It should match their unique aesthetic and create a brand uniquely theirs.

But when I collaborated with client on some thing and they feel such a strong connection with it, that it feels so personal and true to them, that’s when my best work happens.


You connect with their portfolio and style

Now this is not a definite statistic, but I’m willing to bet the 95% of the time when a client hires a designer they’re hiring them because they love their portfolio and style.

Most service-based business centers, just take photographers for instance, make a name for themselves using their portfolio and the work that they’ve done previously. Also similar to photographers, designers will often design personal projects or take on work in a style or industry that they want to work with more in the future. 

I mentioned earlier that design firms work with dozens of clients. if not hundreds. in a year and it can sometimes be hard to nail down a certain style from that design firm simply because of the range and scale of the projects that they work on. Depending on the industry that they most commonly work with, for instance one of my friends works in a design firm that specifically caters to doctors and dentists, occasionally you’ll see similar layouts or design choices made throughout their recent work.

But a quick scroll through Instagram will show you that freelancers, or small design studios, usually have a style that they become known for.

You’ll see some designers that work with incredibly colorful brands, using rainbow color palettes for almost every project. You’ll see some designers that incorporate tons of hand-painted or hand drawn elements throughout their portfolio. You’ll see some designers that create ultra feminine and whimsical designs, regardless of client.

It makes sense for the smaller businesses to attract clients based more on style because already they can’t take on as many clients as a corporate firm. When a small business designer only needs to attract around 10 to 20 clients a year, more often than not they can stick with an a style that they’re comfortable with and have clients hire them based on that.

This can be really handy if you’re just not sure what designer would be the best fit for you. There are a lot of us out there, but if you connect with someone’s style and you get excited to see their posts on Instagram each day, chances are you’ll love what they do for you and your business.

Most designers will also know friends in the industry with a similar style, so if they happen to be booked and can’t take your project they can always push you in the direction of other designers you may love to work with as well. 


You need someone that caters to your niche or specialty

Similar to style, there are smaller design firms that cater to specific niches or industries and they usually have different specialties than the corporate niches.

I mentioned that a friend of mine works for a design firm that caters towards doctors and dentists. I also know of some design firms in my area, one of which caters towards tech start ups and another that exclusively works with restaurants. Corporate design firms tend to target clients with bigger overhead, with large staffs, and more invested in their business already as well. It makes sense. It’s one medium to large business catering to another medium to large business.

Smaller design firms, if they niche by industry, usually also cater to smaller businesses, i.e. photographers, jewelers, small boutiques etc.

Now most designers that I know like to keep a wide range of options open for the type of client they want to attract, if you’re in a really specific industry, like blogging, there are several designers that have expertise in this area and that cater specifically to that type of client.

But don’t be discouraged if you don’t find a designer that 100% fits your industry. This can be a deciding factor, but I think the other specifications on this list would MUCH carry more weight than this specifically.

If you love someone style and you find a connection with them, chances are they’ll do a beautiful job for you.


You may have a smaller budget

I left a BIGGIE for one of my last points.

You know how I just said corporate firms tend to target other more corporate businesses? A very big reason why is because those types of clients have bigger budgets and are willing to invest more in their business in the long run.

Now, that’s not to say that you aren’t also willing to invest in your business in big ways, but if you compare your business expenses to those of, say, a restaurant in your town, if you know there’s a difference in expenditures then a corporate design firm may not be the best fit for you.

And never hurts to ask, but there’s really no doubt that working with the larger firm is going to come with a larger price tag as well.

That’s also not to say that working with a smaller design firm will be cheap, because great design takes lots of time and great design will NEVER be cheap. But certainly most small business design firms are not charging six figures a project like some corporate design firms are.

Budget is such a tricky thing and, honestly, every business charges something different. Service-based businesses in general have a REALLY hard time pricing themselves because there are so many factors involved in the pricing of a project like time spent on the project, education or areas of expertise that are bringing value to the project, how many clients they take on it once, if they have a team or staff working with them, etc. 

Two designers with very similar portfolios and similar years of experience could be charging VERY different amounts. The only way to know for sure is to inquire and hear from the designers themselves. 

I’m very aware that budget can make or break whether or not you hire a designer, regardless of if they are a corporate firm or if they are a smaller business, but if you’re on a super tight budget, I would suggest sticking with website themes and premade brands until you’re ready to invest in the expertise of a designer for custom work. 


You want to support a small business

At the end of the day, when you hire a small business owner, you’re making someone’s dreams come true.

I know that sounds so cheesy and I realize that some of you may have just rolled your eyes at me, but I guarantee but even if you take a chance on someone just starting out, you’re giving them the courage to keep pursuing their passion.

I can’t tell you how life-changing it was when I booked my first web design client. I couldn’t believe that someone liked what I was doing that much and they valued what I was bringing to the table to the point of paying me to do something I loved.

I totally get why restaurant owners and other small businesses keep that first dollar and tape it to the wall. It means someone believes in you and it means that you may in fact be able to make it work as a business owner. 

Even those of us that are several years in still get giddy when we get new inquiries and I get so excited at the prospect of working with even more incredible people in the future.

By hiring a small business owner, like myself, you’re allowing us to be our own bosses, to be home with our children while also helping support our families, all while doing something that we are truly passionate about. 

It is both rewarding and exhilarating to get to create every day and call this my job. I get to grow and learn and be a part of my client’s careers and life in a way I never thought was possible 10 years ago.

And I know I’m biased when it comes to working with a small business over a corporation, but I know that whatever choice you make for your business, it can work for you. You know your business needs better than anyone else, so trust your instincts and find a solution that fits you perfectly. I can’t wait to see what you create!

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