David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

Design agencies vs freelance designers

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When a client works with a graphic design agency, instead of a freelance designer, the choice can offer many benefits, but it’s not a one-way street. Here I outline the advantages of relationships with one over the other.

As every freelancer and design agency is different, it’s impossible to cover all the advantages, so if you can add to any of these pointers, please do leave a comment.

It’s also worth noting there’s a certain amount of overlap. For instance, my first reason for choosing an agency is because they’re well-versed in dealing with large accounts. The same can be true of a freelancer.

Reasons to work with a graphic design agency

  • Well versed in dealing with large accounts.
  • The client isn’t reliant on the health of one person for the successful completion of the design project.
  • There is often a group of designers collaborating on ideas, offering a broad range of outcomes.
  • A list of prestigious, trustworthy client testimonials can be offered.

Here are 10 respected graphic design agencies / consultancies.

400

400

Brownjohn

Brownjohn

Chermayeff & Geismar

Chermayeff & Geismar

Futurebrand

FutureBrand

Interbrand

Interbrand

Landor

Landor

Minale Tattersfield

Minale Tattersfield

Pentagram

Pentagram

Siegel Gale

Siegel+Gale

Turner Duckworth

Turner Duckworth

Reasons to work with a freelance graphic designer

  • From start to finish, the client is talking to the top creative designer on the job, so the project specifications don’t need relayed before action is taken.
  • There are no separate account managers, senior creatives or junior designers, each with differing interpretations of the design brief.
  • The client is hiring the person responsible for 100% of the design portfolio
  • Client phone calls go directly to the designer working on the project — not a sales person or account manager.
  • With many freelancers working from home, they can often transfer considerable savings made through low overheads.
  • Design revisions can frequently be made almost immediately after the request.
  • Billing inquiries and delivery time frames can be clarified at the same time as specific design discussions.

“…it must be clearly pointed out that not all freelancers are created equal. There are too many people who label themselves “freelancers,” who in reality are frighteningly uneducated and sorely inexperienced individuals who can do a lot of damage to the creative industry. A company running into one of these designers can easily be burned, either through mediocre creative work, inappropriate and uneducated charging, or just plain bad business practices.”

Quoted from Kevin Potts’ article, Selling yourself: market advantages of a freelancer, published on Creative Latitude.

Making a decision

The aim of this brief post is to look positively upon both agencies and freelancers. The fact that I list more pros for freelancers isn’t purposely because I’m a self-employed designer, but because I believe it can be a more advantageous route for clients to pursue.

Whether or not it’s the most suitable option is another question, and depends upon individual projects and needs.

Some of the worlds most respected graphic designers work in agencies, but that’s not to say you won’t find equally respected creatives working independently. Designers are successful because of a love of the craft, and as fantastic as it would be to experience working at Pentagram or Landor, I’m happy working from my home studio with flexible working hours and the ability to choose my clients.

Should the advantages I’ve listed differ from your own experience, I’d appreciate your input, and if you’re outsourcing a design project, or have plans to do so, here’s an article of mine you may find useful: 10 things to expect from a designer.

Australian orange image credit

My second book on Amazon

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39 comments about “Design agencies vs freelance designers”

  1. “…There is often a group of designers collaborating on ideas, offering a broad range of outcomes…”

    As much as this will likely make a client at ease, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a group of designers means a better design solution (as opposed to a one-designer solution).

    Good post!

  2. Although I work at an agency I’d still recommend going with freelancers, for most of the points you’ve raised above.

    And although “there is often a group of designers collaborating on ideas, offering a broad range of outcomes” within an agency, this can equally restrict ideas and stifle inspiration when egos and bureaucracy get in the way.

    The difficulty, I would imagine, is finding a decent freelancer you can trust to do a good job and treat you well.

    I’d recommend David Airey :p

  3. Good to see you back after the New Year partying!

    Having limited experience in dealing with freelancers and agencies. I have to say that 90% of the time I would go with a freelancer that I knew and trusted. Having that personal relationship is always better for the project in my opinion.

    The only other time I can think of going with an agency is when I would have a project too massive in scale for a single freelancer to complete.

  4. Reasons to work with a graphic design agency …There is often a group of designers collaborating on ideas

    That could also be true of Freelancers, but in a different way ― via social networking. Take Jacob Cass for example (justcreativedesign.com). Recently, he had some ideas for a design project, created a blog post about it, and asked their opinion on the best solution. By doing this, he didn’t just gage the opinions of other graphic designers in the field, but in many ways, the end ‘user’.

    I, like you David, think that a Freelancer, or “Contractor” is the best way to go, but if a company a lot of Money to burn, I can see why Agency’s still thrive even in todays economic climate.

  5. Mokokoma,

    A valid point, and one I thought would be mentioned. I’ve had my fair share of ‘design by committee’ experience.

    Nathan,

    I find it interesting that you’d promote freelancers over the agency you work for, as it’s apparent there’s some sterling work coming from your neck of the woods. Regarding your kind recommendation, my tenner’s in the post.

    Mark,

    New year was a relatively quiet one for me, with a few drinks and food with select friends. I enjoyed it though, and hope you had a good one too.

    Andrew,

    That’s a very apt example. I tried something similar back in 2007, when I published logo sketches during a live project, asking for a critique. A word of advice however, is that you need to be very selective with the feedback you take on board, and who’s giving it.

    It may be more beneficial to use design forums, or to ask particular individuals for their thoughts, but I know I could learn from asking my readers again.

    Quick note, I’m not proud of the Circle logo project (linked to above). It was one that was very much client-led, and I’ve learnt a lot since then.

    Thanks for taking a break from work to comment.

  6. A good post to start conversation, David!

    As Mark mentions, the benefit of the agency is that they can handle bigger projects, though I fully agree that just because there are more people working at an agency, it does not necessarily mean the work produced is better than a single designer/freelancer.

  7. “With many freelancers working from home, they can often pass on considerable savings made through low overheads.”

    It’s VERY tempting to use this as a selling point. But I wonder… if the end product has the same VALUE to the client, shouldn’t the fees be the same? I’m defining value in terms of improving the client’s condition — stronger brand recognition, improved perceived value of their products/services, higher sales, looking better than the competition, and so on.

    For example, if Mercedes Benz figured out a way to produce their vehicles for the cost of a Hyundai without compromising quality – wouldn’t, shouldn’t they still charge the same high prices for their exceptional product?

    Seems to me if I can produce the same quality work with lower overhead, then that just means I’m running a better business than the larger firm.

    Something to think about.

  8. I think there are a few more benefits to using an agency that you’ve listed. Collectively, a decent agency can offer a much broader skillset than any freelancer can offer – and by that I mean much more than a group of collaborating designers. For instance in an agency you could find experts from a DM background, SEO experts, branding gurus, technical web geniuses, etc. Whilst it’s plausible a freelance could be an expert in one or more niches, it’s unlikely they can cover all the bases an agency can.

    Another thing an agency offers is a “perceived” level of security – some kind of comeback. An agency can’t really take your money and do a runner, it can’t just stop answering the phone, and if the work they produce isn’t up to scratch then they can be held accountable. I emphasize the word ‘perceived’, but I think it’s fair to say a freelancer probably doesn’t offer this kind of perception.

    Good post, David!

  9. Great post and good valid points from both design agency and freelancers. From the other point of view as a freelancer, I have came across this a couple times, “Design revisions can frequently be made almost immediately after the request” and sometimes I’m not too sure its a good thing for the freelancer atleast, clients sometimes want changes immediately and seems like they want you to drop everything your working on to make that fix right away and other times they request fixes after fixes and expect it to be free and when you tell them otherwise they seem to want to bicker about it, but at a agency you would never have to deal with that part.

  10. Nathan said:

    And although “there is often a group of designers collaborating on ideas, offering a broad range of outcomes” within an agency, this can equally restrict ideas and stifle inspiration when egos and bureaucracy get in the way.

    Interesting and I agree – egos can get in the way, but there are also times when a freelancer’s ego can get in the way – but it is up to the freelancer to know when this rears its head, and to nip it in the bud. The peers I look up to such as Jeff Fisher (of Logomotives) and Von Glitschka, have taught me to know how to deal with this.

    As for Jacob Cass (that Andrew Kelsall mentioned) – he is a great example of reaching out for other eyeballs and to use his community for input – I can name countless others who do this with social media such as Twitter – Especially, Adelle Charles, Graham Smith, Franz Jeitz and Brian Yerkes. What’s amazing about my freelance community is that we all Toot each others horns, give advice freely and recommend each other if the project isn’t right for us.

    Do agencies have the community that freelancers do? I don’t know, but I would doubt it. I have yet to see an agency on any social media or forum ask for peers to take a look at what they are working on.

    In the end – it all comes down to what works for the client. I do think that big companies are probably more comfortable with an agency, and medium to small companies are more apt to go with freelancers.

  11. @ Aaron

    “Another thing an agency offers is a “perceived” level of security – some kind of comeback.”

    You hit the nail on the head with the number one reason I started a company rather than promoted myself as a freelancer.

    I just recently had a meeting with one of the biggest companies in my entire area, and there main questions all involved “size of your programming team, response time, different people to contact if one isn’t available etc”.

    If I was a freelancer, they would not have even called me. They are a huge client, and so they contacted us thru my company’s site, because they got this feeling of security from the site.

    There are definitely advantages to being a freelancer. You can really concentrate on one single expertise and still acquire big clients solely on that expert knowledge and single skill you have.

  12. Great topic and discussion. It’s been over 20 years since I worked in a traditional office situation. I think one of the reasons I have been so successful as an independent designer is because I don’t refer to myself as a “freelancer.” When addressing audiences of design professionals and/or students I always tell them:

    “‘Freelance’ is a nasty little word. It seems to imply an individual doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, can’t get a job, isn’t truly professional in their field, and is willing to work for ‘free.’”

    I choose to tell potential clients that I have “my own design firm” or that I am an “independent contractor.” Even though I’ve always felt it is very clear that I am a one-person operation on my web presence, and in my marketing materials, many potential clients immediately assume that Jeff Fisher LogoMotives is a larger firm – and that certainly works to my advantage.

    Many times, after being named a finalist for a large scale design project with agency competitors, I am asked how many of my team will be attending initially strategy meetings. Sometimes the clients are a bit stunned that it will just be me attending. If I truly need a team, I am able to put together a group of individuals with the best skills and talents needed. I’m never locked into working with the same team for each job.

    The independent designer can often provide exactly the same quality (and quantity) of works as that of a larger agency. The quality of a “contract” designers previously work, and their marketing materials, is often all it takes to put their business on the same level as the “big boys” for serious consideration by a traditionally agency client.

  13. Although being able to work in your shorts from the freedom of your own home is attractive through freelancing, and I mean in terms of employment, I’ve always imagined myself going for an agency while I’m without kids, then moving to freelancing to ensure I got that connection of home going.

    On the other hand, I did a work experience at a local graphic design agency, and I loved observing the creative flow of ideas between each of the creatives in the company, plus the social connection was something you don’t get when working alone as a freelancer.

    I have to agree with the fact that an agency can provide a more unique and diverse pool of ideas when looking at a project, but then again, freelancing has a more cut to the chase approach.

    Excellent article though dude, provides a really good argument. :)

  14. The agencies you profile above are excellent, no doubt.

    I agree with Jeff Fisher, wholeheartedly. I’ve been at the helm of my own company for 8 years and do not consider myself a “freelancer”… I am a company!

    In this changing economic and business environment there are pros and cons for working with either. Do you require the resources for a multi billion dollar campaign with ad purchases across several media outlets? Do you require a fresh approach to brand development?

    Cost of services may not always be the primary decision-maker; but rather quality of service delivered that meets client(s) needs.

    Joann

  15. @Jeff Fisher,

    Interesting views! it’s amazing how much difference (both negative+positive) a ‘title’ can make, along with perceptions it carries.

    ‘freelancer’ is a nasty word indeed!

  16. Aaron brought up a very good point stating that, “Whilst it’s plausible a freelance could be an expert in one or more niches, it’s unlikely they can cover all the bases an agency can.” I agree with him whole heartedly when you’re talking about one freelancer but I actually think the opposite is true when you look at the broader picture. An individual does tend to excel in a specific niche but there are thousands of freelancers. A client can asses their needs/goals and match that up with a freelancer that excels in those areas. I believe that if they can find a right fit, the client experience is almost always more enjoyable with a freelancer.

    But I also think that agencies have the edge when it comes to large projects. I’m currently subcontracting for a local agency who landed a big contract with a university. We’re in the middle of rebranding the entire institution from the ground up which is an absolute impossibility for a freelancer do to in a timely manner.

    In short, a freelancer is usually best when a client can find one that suits their needs and is the right fit. However, I feel we need both agencies and freelancers to make the world go round.

  17. Jeff’s made a telling point there, and it’s something which I agree with.

    I’m a freelance designer, however I run a company on my own. This means I’m a director, creative director, head designer, tea-maker and courier all rolled into one. Depending on the situation, depends on which title to use (apart from the tea-maker and courier of course!).

    I’ve not said I was a freelance designer since I left university. It soon dawned on me, as with Jeff, that companies and potential clients seem to stare down their noses at you at the mere mention of you being a freelancer.

  18. An agency is just a roof. Ok maybe I’m simplifying it a bit much, but if you have an extensive network to pull from there is no reason why a freelancer couldn’t include other talents (i.e. SEO experts, brand gurus, etc) within their project. This is partly how I run my own small boutique graphic design firm. I maintain boutique intimacy with big agency excellence.

    And it’s not black and white with pricing. Sure fewer staff and a home office means lower overhead. Some of this should be passed on to the client. This is your edge. If you are best-in-class quality and going up against best-in-class quality… sorry but numbers matter.

  19. I’m a freelancer who loves front-end development (PSD->XHTML/CSS/JS) work, and I always keep an eye out for would-be customers of slicing companies like PSD->HTML, etc. I tell them that those companies are high-volume with probably out-sourced workers, and that it can be difficult if you want to talk to the actual coder working on your project to give them special instructions, ask for changes, or even ask for their advice on something. As a freelancer, I offer much more intimate customer service, with a much greater attention to detail and quality. I’m not just a laborer who’s there to collect my hourly pay, my name and business is on the line.

    @Jim Eaton
    The market will decide our pricing. Feel free to charge as much as you can get away with! Our lower overhead only means that we have the advantage when it comes to competitive pricing, not that we absolutely have to work for cheaper.

  20. David,

    Love your post, very informative. People seem to differ on opinions regarding freelance designers vs Design agencies, from what I can tell on other sites.

    Personally, from a customer perspective, I would want the handholding involved with the 1-on-1 interaction of a freelance designer. Large design agencies tend to loose some of the personalization in the shuffle. I love the small town atmosphere of working with an individual instead of a group of individuals. (I dislike feeling like a number – or a little fish in a big pond).

    There are pro’s and con’s to both sides. This is just my opinion.

    Side note, I always look forward to your stock images within your posts. Nice work.

    Chris
    http://www.webdazzling.com

  21. You’ve contributed some excellent factors in addition to my own, and rather than reply with a comment, I think it’s appropriate to add your thoughts to a future blog post. Stay tuned for that, and thanks very much for the great insights!

  22. Hello, this has nothing to do with this article – I was just wondering which comment component you use. It’s very nice and simple. I just stumbled upon your site and could spend days here. Thank you.

  23. Haha, I would like to know about the comment component as well. Love the “Subscribe to post comments” checkbox

  24. Good article :)

    Just wondering, David, do you miss living and working in the beautiful city of Edinburgh?

    I’m from the slightly less beautiful city of Glasgow :)

  25. Great article again!

    Been reading the site for awhile now and I have found many aspects of great use to me, even more so now that I’m setting out down the self employed route!

    So yeah, thanks for the many, many great posts so far!

  26. Jason, Kevin,

    Apologies if I’m stating the obvious to you, but my website is powered by WordPress, the blog platform with integrated commenting. The little subscription checkbox is a custom addition with the ‘subscribe to comments’ plugin. Both WordPress, and the plugin, are free to download / use. I’d highly recommend them.

    Euan,

    Glasgow, eh? A fine city. I knew I’d miss aspects of life in Edinburgh, having lived there for around nine years, but what really makes a location is the people you share time with, and it’s been great seeing more of my family and old friends.

    Scott,

    You’re very welcome! If you have any suggestions for new articles, or if you think I can help in any way, feel free to get in touch. Good luck with your self-employment.

  27. very interesting theme to talk, I think there is no one right way as You said already. Nice reading discussions, however I’ll better look here only from aside :))

  28. Hi David, Great site really love your work… I completely agree with both points and their are benefits and disadvantages for each. However as a freelancer myself I have found that so many clients would much prefer he personal attention of a freelancer but the quality of an agency. And I guess they get that too with quality freelancers like yourself. So overall it’s pretty clear to me that the freelancer approach is far more beneficial to the client overall if the designer is up to scratch.

  29. Hi David,

    each options have their pros and bads and honestly, through my experience, I feel that it is more of a needs matter than being an impartial advocate of one or the other. As in the political arena in United States for instance, there’s a time for Democrates and for Republicans depending on circumstances. I would hardly see a single designer taking over BP rebranding exercise as too many ressources are required.

    Even for the smallest accounts, the most important thing I found is bringing the right balance of raw talent and the value of senior experience. I unfortunatelly don’t see it as a one man game. As for a good wine, it is the interaction of multiple elements that brings a rich and mature flavor.

    Cheers!

  30. Hmmm, some interesting points there.

    Now what you didn’t cover are the companies (small, boot-strapped startups, mom and pop) that don’t have the $1000+ that it would cost for a larger agency or one of the more “well known” freelancers to design their logo, their options are usually hiring a not-as-well known designer off of iFreelance or the like, or going with one of the lower priced internet-based logo design companies (think LogoWorks or TheLogoFactory), I have my own thoughts on the subject but it would be great to hear what you think about it.

  31. Wow, what a rip, I wonder where they got their inspiration from for this blog …. and a nice little insult to freelancers in the comments:

    http://www.graphicdesignblog.org/logo-design-agencies-or-freelancers/#comment-932

  32. David,

    Those are some very valid thoughts. I completely agree, and will certainly mention you in my follow-up post.

    George,

    I’d like to know your thoughts on that. Research is always vital when choosing a designer, regardless of budget.

    Amanda,

    Nice catch. I’ve sent them an email asking about it. The ‘logo design team’ commenter has been visiting my blogs lately. I can’t help but wonder if comments are for SEO purposes.

  33. I’ve just stumbled across this blog from the number of people clicking through to our site – and to say that we are extremely flattered to be amongst the other graphic design consultancies listed is an understatement! With only a team of four people, it’s incredible to see our name in a list of mostly very large, some international and highly respected agencies.

    However, in the graphic design consultancy versus freelancer debate – I have an unashamedly biased view in that you can get the best of both worlds with a small niche practice like our own!

    Overall I agree with David – who is best depends greatly on the project, the particular client, and the relationship they have with their designer/design consultancy. As for the small cash-strapped start-ups that George mentioned, I think that good design is an investment and it will provide a bottom line return on that investment (look at the DBA design effectiveness awards). There is always a solution – for example, sometimes designers will exchange their services for equity in that start-up business.

  34. OK. I’m biased. But I would say that the freelancer makes sense on almost every level going into the future and I believe the larger bloated agencies will be slimming down soon and some might even disappear. And the reason is the freelancer can call on a network of other professionals in order to help with a job if it is too big. Obviously there is a limit to the size of that job but, in my opinion, that limit will be increasing as remote working becomes more popular.

  35. Alicia, Rob,

    Thanks very much for leaving your own thoughts on the debate, and Alicia, you’re more than welcome for the mention. Keep up the great work.

  36. For the record, Design agencies do hire out freelancers.

    ME

  37. Their are benefits to being a large design agency and a freelancer, We are a small team of designers and like to work under the name agency, as we provide those types of services. Our team varies from job to job giving us the flexibility of being a freelance but more security

  38. I started as account manager in a big international adv agency and finally worked for the client side as well for many years. I realised that although working with a big agency is very often one main designer that does the job .. therefore why pay such a big structure when you can deal directly with the “talented man” with so many other advantages? I found it and worked with him all the way through my career and never let me down delivering outstanding value and unique piece of work.

    Graziano Mazzucco – brandingbydesign.net

  39. Interesting post. I would argue however that using a Design Agency doesn’t always guarantee that the client will benefit from the input of all the agency’s employees. In fact, from my own experience of working in an agency before going freelance, I used to undertake projects entirely on my own, much as I do now. The only difference being that clients who I worked for at the agency had to pay quadruple the rates I charge now and more often that not, because of poor decisions by my uneducated “superiors” at the time ended up with a far inferior product at the end.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.