As a rule, a novice interface designer (or, as you can hear more often today, a product designer), has two major professional paths. He can start working in the studio or with the product directly. The choice between the two variants is usually random. Meanwhile, at this stage, the choice will greatly affect the formation of professional competencies and, as a result, the future career. Let us see what the difference is and what the pros and cons of each path are.
As a rule, would-be product designers look for a job, not really understanding what exactly they want to do, in which direction to develop, and where they would like to see themselves in five years. If you can relate with all of the above, it is time to think these questions through. Otherwise, the choice – working in the studio or with the product – will not be up to you and will not depend on your professional aspirations, but rather on the first decent employer who will cross your path and offer reasonably tolerable conditions and opportunities for professional development.
It is worthwhile figuring out the difference between the two options since they are fundamentally different and the professional skills you gain after the first couple of years working there will vary. This is the only way to make a choice that will speak to your ideas of beauty and that will line up with your plans.
Strictly speaking, working in a design studio and working with a specific product are two parallel but still very different paths. In the studio, a product designer develops a variety of skills, learns to switch quickly and take on unfamiliar work without hesitation. When it comes to working with the product, designers develop the attention to detail and gain in-depth knowledge of the working tools, which aren’t necessarily large in number. Now, let's take a more thorough look at the two possible paths.
Let's discuss the good stuff first. Working in the studio can be anything, but there is absolutely no chance of boredom. Projects will constantly replace one another, and even if one of them is not to your liking, it won’t take that long, and after this project, the next will sure to follow. The projects are completely different in the terms of content, customer’s demands and character, and the required professional skills. On the bright side, you don’t need to worry about the portfolio – it will be full of projects in no time. Moreover, if one of your projects turns out to be a total failure, just don’t include it into your portfolio, it won’t even make a difference.
The variety of projects can make your professional confidence soar in a heartbeat. Soon enough, you will not hesitate to take on any task, regardless of its complexity, learn to find and properly apply information in the shortest possible time. If something seems incomprehensible or difficult to you, there will always be senior colleagues nearby that can guide you - both in case of difficulties with the project itself or in the case of a difficult customer. Another thing, the designer can usually delegate communication with especially difficult customers to account managers; only those who have never encountered difficult customers in their life consider this advantage insubstantial.
So, working in the studio offers many perks? Mind you, there are two disadvantages, which, from my point of view, outweigh the benefits. One of them is a consequence of the other, and both of them lead to the same disappointing result - the designer, no matter how much he works in the studio, will not learn the most important professional skill which is how to build a product from scratch and to work on it until fully developed.
For the first time, I gave serious thought to this problem when I was working in the studio on an interesting project - an interactive map of the Gulag camps. We had been working on this project for two years, and during this time, I sincerely fell in love with it. It was an exciting, non-trivial task, and we invested a lot of effort in it.
There will be inevitable issues and bugs. We’ll certainly see problems we couldn’t foresee, the problems which only appear in the process of active interaction between the project and the user. When observing the life of a project, a professionally curious designer will certainly have ideas about what can be done better, more efficiently, and more user-friendly. But that's it, your time is over, your next project is already in full swing but you still haven’t learned how to develop the project and work with it after the launch. And the thing is, you won't learn it. At least not while working in the studio.
To understand the second disadvantage, just look at the showreel of almost any studio, especially the ones that like to submit their sites to various professional competitions. It is certainly filled with all sorts of ‘wow-effects’. There are 3d renders of phones from every angle, an incredible amount of animation, and the most ‘spectacular’ typography - all the tricks that will make the next customer say a sacramental “wow”. Yet the customer does not really think whether his website needs these spectacular features that he liked so much. The customer does not care much about it, and the studio will certainly not think about it for him. After all, the task of most studios, as they understand it, is not to solve the client's problems, but to make a beautiful website or application to impress the next business owner and to proceed to the next one. And it's not about some insidiousness of the studios, it’s just the way market works.
The client is just a human being, and his emotions get in the way of sense way too often. After seeing some crazy ‘wow-effect’ on competitors’ websites, he will certainly want to achieve the same. He will turn to designers who are great at ... no, not at making a product … but at selling ‘wow-effects’. Of course, he does not know about the pitfalls hiding behind the scenes, and he wants to get what he wants quickly. He does not want to waste the resources on building and constantly refining the website. Meanwhile, this is the only correct approach to make the website pop. Any site requires constant improvements, unless, of course, it is an online business card. But studio product designers don't take on such projects. They know how to get things done quickly, but they don’t know how to develop a product at all.
In a product company, a designer works on a product from start to finish. The process of analyzing errors and making changes is industrialized here and, one might say, it is the very essence of the work. But it is not difficult to guess that in this case the designer cannot hope for a good portfolio. It will eventually contain one single product. At most, the designer is lucky to develop it from the very beginning. It would be worse if he comes to the company at the final stage of the project and his only task is to fine-tune a certain part of the it. It often happens that a junior designer works in some b2b department, polishing up the admin panel, and in a couple of years he has nothing to show in the portfolio at all, although at the same time, his skills in working with the product are really on top.
There is another pitfall and a rather large one. Working with a product is not the place to learn creative way of thinking. On the contrary, the designer often finds himself restrained with the range of formal rules and restrictions prohibiting to go beyond the permitted boundaries. It is not uncommon for product designers to do aesthetically bad things under the guise of a UX requirement, an existing component library, or legacy. Meanwhile, such an approach can quickly lead to learned professional helplessness and narrow-mindedness. A designer always has many objective reasons for not doing the work as well as he would like. Conflicting requirements, burning deadlines, unprofessional managers ... but who, if not the designers, should struggle for solutions that are good in every sense?
Working with the product also has a number of psychological features that are not suitable for everyone. It is more monotonous and, to be honest, more boring than working in the studio. It is very easy to burn out here, since long and painstaking work does not necessarily lead to a bright, impressive result. And of course, if the designer himself is not enthusiastic about the product, if he does not understand its ultimate goal, does not consider it significant and does not share it, such work will soon become a real nightmare. However, these are the downsides of any large company. Perhaps, in this case, the best way out for the designer is additional work on side projects, which will help him to combine getting product development skills with the generation of new ideas and the positive emotions he gets from his professional achievements.
Aleksandr Kalashnikov, designer