I’ve been lucky enough to work on both sides of the product design fence. My first couple of roles were within in-house design teams, whereas more recently I’ve been running a small product design agency. Whilst I’ve been able to create innovative products in both environments, there are a few key differences between the two.

Hopefully this article proves useful to someone either looking for their first role or looking to experience what’s on the other side of the fence!

In-house Design

Photo by Israel Andrade on Unsplash

When working within a design department that’s part of a wider business, your focus is on developing products for that business. You may be working as part of a futures or NPD team, but you’ll likely still be focusing on the businesses core markets. This focus turns into deep knowledge of your product and category, which will generally result in a more accomplished finished product. Being subject-matter experts, there won’t be much you don’t know about the market you’re designing for, meaning you can create meaningful and useful products.

As part of a wider business, you’ll be working in parallel with all sorts of people from other departments who are all working towards a common goal – getting your product to market. In a smaller business or start-up, you’ll rub shoulders with people from sales, marketing, packaging, operations, finance, logistics and maybe even manufacturing. My advice is to absorb as much of what is going on around you as you can. You’ll be amazed at what you learn in the process – most of which can then be applied into the work you’re doing and make you a much more rounded and knowledgeable designer.

Being part of an in-house team, you’ll also have the pleasure of seeing your designs through to the finish. Not just to the point of a nice 3D print and a sexy Keyshot visual, but to the point where the products are rolling off the production line. In my past roles, almost 90% of everything we ever designed went to mass production. The satisfaction you get from achieving that goal is immense and nothing will replace that feeling of seeing a product you designed in the hands of some stranger on the train.

Agency Design

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

The difference with working for an industrial design agency, is that you’ll be asked to work on projects for a wide variety of brands and businesses. Usually they are from a variety of industries as well (unless you’re part of a niche design agency), which means you’ll get a much broader perspective of product design. It’s also quite common for you to be working on multiple projects at once, which means you’ll need to juggle between quite different industries on any given day.

This broader spectrum of design has its benefits in that you can take ideas from one industry over to another. This cross-pollination of ideas is a great way of bringing innovation to a business, but with all the learnings from a proven project. The business you’re designing for often doesn’t have the visibility that you can bring from other projects you’ve completed. In the past, I’ve been able to take manufacturing techniques and materials from district heating systems and introduce them to aerospace equipment. By doing so, the client made a huge leap forward in terms of technology and did something that none of their competitors were doing.

Agency-led projects are usually a fixed term with fixed deliverables, so you know exactly what you need to do and what the expectations are from everyone involved. This makes it easier to ensure deadlines are met and feature-creep doesn’t enter the project. Feature-creep is essentially not knowing when to stop developing a product, by continually adding features or adjusting the original scope. I’ve seen feature-creep within in-house product developments delay product launches by months, if not years, so it’s a real and valid concern when launching a new product. Whilst it’s obviously important to ensure that the product does what it’s intended to, it’s also equally important to get it to market and stake your claim on that sector.

Hopefully this short summary of the two main approaches to industrial design roles is helpful and helps you decide which might be best for you, but my recommendation is to try both. In my case, I was fairly adamant that after 8+ years working in-house, that I wanted to just work within an agency. However, after experiencing both, I feel my strengths and passions lie within leading an in-house industrial design team.

My thoughts might change in a couple of years, and that’s fine, because you should never be afraid of giving something a go.