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Should you hire an in-house designer or a contractor?

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Katherine Gustafson

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Editor’s note: This post is a part of our latest initiative to demystify design and find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.

During a decade as the manager of the in-house design team at open-source technology company Red Hat, Chris Grams learned that brand design is best when informed by a company’s culture and community.

He felt a natural push toward an open, collaborative attitude, distinct from how many companies approached design at that time. It was the early 2000s, and most companies saw their interactions with customers as a one-way street. In open source, it was an intersection.

“You almost break down the company and the community of people who surround the brand,” says Grams, currently head of marketing at Tidelift, an open-source software management firm, and author of The Ad-Free Brand. “Now it feels like pretty standard operating procedure for the best brands that have the best relationship with their communities.”

This shift has a large influence on the question of when you should hire an in-house designer versus a contractor to do your branding design.

Three reasons to go in-house

After leaving Red Hat in 2009, Grams helped start New Kind, a branding agency that provides contract design services mostly to tech companies. This new vantage point allowed him to see drawbacks and advantages for companies in outsourcing design versus bringing it in-house.

One of the key benefits of in-housing is the designer’s intimacy with the deeply held values and culture of the company, which makes their branding work feel more authentic.

“The internal agency’s power really reveals itself when people are deeply part of the mission of the company,” says Grams. “It comes through in the work. You get an amazing work product.”

The second benefit, especially for tech companies, is the depth of understanding in-house designers can develop about the company’s products and services. And the third is that a dedicated in-house designer can be directed as needed to respond to pressing priorities.

“You can have them stop on a dime,” says Grams. “Say a competitor comes out with a big launch and you need to have something out within 24 hours. You can work on it right away.”

These are real benefits, but they may not outweigh the advantages of contracting out your design to a high-quality agency.

The benefits of using an agency

A major benefit of an agency is that you can hire people with a level of expertise and variety of skills that would be out of reach for an in-house team. When Grams was at New Kind, for example, “we had a combined 30 years of experience with open-source branding work,” he says.

An agency can also provide the bandwidth to take on non-priority tasks such as a rebrand or a special series that in-house teams are often too work-strapped to take on.

Hiring an agency also has advantages in terms of flexibility and cost. The ability to customize the timing and amount of design work to your needs can be less expensive over time, even if each working hour is more expensive.

“You can ramp down and ramp up with an agency,” says Grams. “It’s impossible to do that with people… You’re paying that extra margin to have that flexibility.”

There’s a lot to think about, but Grams advises prioritizing the need for your design to be authentic to your culture… or not.

“I think the biggest thing is the power of your culture, frankly,” says Grams. “If you have a company where culture is not an asset, I would not build an in-house design team… But if you’re building a mission-driven organization or an organization where culture is super important, that’s where I would take an extra-long look at building an internal agency.”

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