All posts by Stef Ivanov

In-house Designer vs Freelance Designer vs Agency

I’ve seen many start-ups wondering over the same dilemma. Shall I hire a freelancer or get someone internally? Or perhaps go big and hire an agency to do the work “properly”?

Before weighing the pros and cons of each option, let me be clear – you could have equally good final product with any of the three options. The catch is to pick the professionals that match your vision and expectations without ruling them out simply because they fall in the bucket that you weren’t planning to consider. Never assume that the labels “designer”, “freelance designer” and “design agency” mean more than just a label. Their work should speak for themselves.


I’d say this is the safest option if you’re just starting your business or a specific project you need design help with. Freelancers are best for short-term projects and start-ups, because there’s no commitment and they’re usually very cost-effective, especially when working towards your MVP. You could create a good relationship, because they care for their reputation and they rarely work on more than 2-3 projects at a time. You could use a freelance designer on an ongoing basis for larger projects, as well, without having any problems if they don’t hear from you for a month or so. Also – unlike inhouse designers they have experience with all sorts of projects and industries which means that their contribution could be beyond your expectations. If your budget allows it, you could even work with a few freelance designers as a test to see which approach and style you like the most.

Just like there’s no commitment for you, there’s no commitment for them. Freelancers usually charge per day and they could wave goodbye at anytime if they don’t feel your project or start-up is worth it. Also, because it’s a one-man show, if something happens to this person, your project deadlines might be jeopardized. In some cases, if they’re not very good at time management, you could end up in a situation when they’re always “too busy” for your emails.

Design Agency

Nothing can beat a rich polished portfolio and the name of a reputable agency in your list of business partners. This is of course assuming you’ve chosen a really good professional web design agency. The best thing about agencies is that you can rarely expect nasty surprises and they have big teams of industry specialists which will deliver high-class product. The project/account manager will always be available to help and answer your questions and they’ll guarantee minimum fuss. Easy!

Well, you pay for all the extras. A design agency in the UK would quote you at least a 5 figure sum for a project worth a month of design work, which is usually a lot for start-ups. They’re also less flexible and once you sign off the brief every change will cost you money. It’s also a less personal experience and very often the person you’re communicating with doesn’t actually design your project.

In-house Designer

This will be your cheapest option if you need someone to design for you full time. If you find the right person, an inhouse designer could be your saviour when even you are not sure what exactly your product needs. He will be available at anytime and would rarely question if he needs to stay late to meet deadlines, etc. Another big advantage is that he’ll get to know your company/product inside out and he’ll be getting more efficient over time.

As a business owner you know best what a responsibility is to have an employee. Once he passes probation, it’d be impossible to replace him and initially cost-effective, your web designer might become a burden that you have to keep paying until he leaves. Designers get bored and the quality of their work might decrease drastically if they’re not motivated. Also – in periods of financial difficulties, you can’t send him on an unpaid holiday, right? So it’s still a risk.

Still not sure? Then approach professionals from the three possible options and decide based on their quotes and timeframes.

Hire designers who are believers, not just doers

It’s Friday morning, and I’m at Waterloo station waiting for my train. I’ve just had a meeting with a client. A client with a product I truly believe in. A product that got me excited and inspired. I’ve already started designing it in my head. Earlier this week I had a few other meetings, 2 of which with ambitious start-ups. Good people perhaps, but not necessary good projects. For whatever reason (client’s attitude, lack of vision, unrealistic expectations) I left the meetings feeling down and secretly hoping they would go for someone else. I asked myself “Do I really want to do this in the next few years?” – No, I don’t! I don’t wanna to do it even in the next few days or hours. I want to actually stop now.

“But why was that?” – I was asking myself. I’ve been designing in the last 8 years and it’s been great.

It took me a while to learn a really important lesson – Do not work on something or for someone that you don’t believe in. Do not spend even a day doing something that is not going to make you proud of, something that you do just because someone hired you, something that you don’t feel you belong to. Design and probably any other business is based on 2 main elements – skills and passion.

Having skills but not passion is like having Jaguar XJ 2015, but with an empty reservoir. Passion is what drives us forward. Passion is fuel!

If you are in the creative industry you must have a passion for what you’re doing. You do your best, you usually deliver great results, and at some point in your career you accept that the client is the king, he’s got the final word and you’re there to deliver what he expects. Then comes the next one, and the next one. That’s when you start hating it. I’ve done this mistake several times. Accepting a project just because it delivers money does not bring anything else but extra income. Sometimes that’s what we need, but usually, looking at the bigger picture, this is causing more harm than good. Because we lose focus and inspiration, and web/mobile design becomes just a boring job. And when it gets boring, it gets ugly.

Who needs ugly design?

If you’re falling into the same trap, just stop. Have the strength to say no. Just don’t do it. Stop now. It’s doable and doesn’t take much effort. Hopefully the next exciting project you want to be part of is just around the corner. It might be even more profitable and it’ll surely be more interesting.

And to all of you who are hiring a UX or UI designer for your startup, make sure that the guy who is going to work on your next idea is a believer. Make sure that they’re willing to talk not just about colours and buttons, but also about the core idea and mission of your product. Do they ask you what the bigger picture is? Do they ask for more direction and details? Do they have passion for the industry you’re in? Do they suggest ideas you’ve never thought of? These are all good signs and say much more than sending you the wireframes on time. So always look for this special “click”, not just the skills, then you’re more likely to deliver a successful product.