Chapter Two The Job
Working for an agency
Working for an agency
I started out designing for the web whilst working for a small agency in Manchester in the UK. It was 1997, the web was gathering pace, and many small communications studios were dabbling – keen to take advantage of a new medium to 'sell' to clients. Like me, many designers naturally gravitate towards working in design agencies. Providing a wide variety of work, the smaller agencies offer the designer an opportunity to spread their creative wings. The larger agencies offer the big accounts. With one, you get to make big decisions, the other, you make decisions for big clients – youre very much a cog in a bigger machine. Ive worked in both environments, for big agencies and small, and being a designer is different in each.
A big fish in a little pond
Being a designer in a small company is fun. You get to see projects through from start to finish and youre generally involved in all aspects of the design process – from initial concepts through to the finished product. But, with that added breadth in the role, comes more involvement in other parts of the business. You should be willing to get stuck in to all sorts of tasks. In my first job, I was making tea, ordering stationery, phoning couriers, raising invoices etc. I was doing all of this, in addition to my design work.
A little fish in a big pond
Ive also worked in a large agency, AGENCY.COM – a large, US–based agency of over 500 staff. At the time (1999 – 2001), I worked on accounts for big blue–chip clients such as British Airways and Intel. I ended up being the Senior Art Director on the redesign of the One 2 One website (now T–Mobile). And during that time, not once did I meet a client face to face. This is the single, biggest difference between a large and small agency that has a direct relationship to the work you do every day. Feedback comes third hand from project managers. You have to second–guess the creative brief. You are provided with signed off, prescriptive wireframes that detail every element on the given design – actually leaving little room for any design problem solving. You are a cog in a machine. A worker bee. For some designers, this is great. The pay–off of working on such accounts far outweighs the disadvantages and frustrations of dealing with account executives, (no offence to account executives intended), and invisible clients. For me, Im far happier in a working environment where I can make a difference, and that means having contact with my clients.
The In–House Designer
Time with auntie.
Following my stint in London working at Agency.com, my wife and I decided that wed had enough of the big city and moved to Wales where we both worked at the BBC in Cardiff. It took me a while to get used to it, but working client–side – inside a company or organisation – is a whole different kettle of fish. I was a member of a small design team, in the end, just two of us would work on the English and Welsh language output of BBC Wales, in addition to some projects for the wider BBC network. There was a lot to do for just two of us. I arrived to the new job, ready to apply what Id learnt in a busy, global design agency. On my first day, I was given mountains of documentation to read – processes, editorial guidelines, technical guidelines, design guidelines, brand documentation, the list went on and on. Immediately I felt as if the brakes had been applied. Hard.
Different pace, different mindset
I think it took about six months to get used to the change in pace. That was one thing. The other, and most important, change is one of projects and products. As a designer in an agency you become very good at moving from one project to another and from one client to another. You begin to relish the challenge of solving the next problem presented by a client. You thrive on a variety of clients; from telecoms to manufacturing, from startups to blue chip organisations. You dont like working on the same project for very long, as you feel yourself getting stale. But working in–house is all about working on the same project. Sure, you can get smaller projects that make up a whole, but generally you have one client; the company you work for. At the BBC, I worked on one project for over two years. During that time, there were a lot of smaller projects under that larger project umbrella, but basically, it was the same thing. This required a shift in thinking. Instead of focussing on the next project to come through the door, I began to focus on the 'product', and improving it through incremental change with the rest of my team. This represented more of a move towards product development than web design. Following my time at the BBC, I feel every designer should, if they can, spend some time working in–house. It has certainly changed the way I approach design.
‘Im not a Designer’
This book isnt just for designers. Im hoping that some of you will be developers, project managers or journalists. How is design part of your job? Maybe you work in–house and dont have a dedicated designer available to work with you. Maybe you run your own website and do everything from the design to the Wordpress theme. Ive worked with loads of great, talented developers over the years. Ive been fortunate to sit next to them, rather than sitting next to designers, and as a result have learnt a lot by osmosis. Most of those developers feel they struggle with the practicalities of design; the craft of design. Sure, theyre incredible problem solvers, they can write complex software that solves complex problems in elegant ways. But when it comes to knowing what colour to use, many of them were stumped. Im hoping this is where this book will be helpful. Graphic design isnt magic. Making typeface choices, knowing what tertiary colour to use with green or how to design a five column grid system. These are all tools. There are general rules you can follow.