Key Differences – Working As A Designer Vs. Running A Design Firm (What’s Best For You?)

What’s the real difference between working as a designer vs. running a design firm? I get messages from many designers who want to start their own businesses, and while I do think entrepreneurship is awesome, I notice that many haven’t quite understood what the difference really is, and what a business owner’s life looks like.

What we cover show

Key Takeaways – The Differences Between Working In Design vs Running A Design Business

  • Creative Focus vs. Business Acumen: Working in design typically involves focusing on creative tasks, such as concept development, visual storytelling, and design execution. Running a design business, however, requires a broader focus that includes business acumen, such as financial management, marketing, and strategic planning.
  • Individual Contribution vs. Team and Project Management: Designers primarily concentrate on their individual contributions to projects, mastering their craft and delivering high-quality designs. On the other hand, running a business necessitates managing a team, coordinating project timelines, and ensuring client satisfaction, which requires leadership and organizational skills.
  • Client Work vs. Client Acquisition: While designers may work directly with clients to understand their needs and receive feedback, business owners also need to focus on client acquisition and retention, networking, and building long-term relationships to sustain and grow the business.
  • Technical Skills vs. Entrepreneurial Skills: Designers enhance their technical skills and stay updated with the latest design trends and tools. Business owners, however, must cultivate entrepreneurial skills, including risk management, negotiation, and decision-making.
  • Artistic Freedom vs. Business Constraints: Designers often have the liberty to experiment and innovate within the scope of a project. Business owners, while they can still be creative, must often make decisions based on business constraints, profitability, and market demands.
  • Project Focus vs. Business Vision: Designers tend to focus on the details and execution of specific projects. In contrast, business owners need to develop and maintain a clear business vision, set long-term goals, and align all projects with the company’s strategic objectives.
  • Feedback and Iteration vs. Performance and Metrics: Designers often engage in a process of feedback and iteration to refine their work. Business owners, while concerned with quality, must also focus on performance metrics, business growth, and financial outcomes to evaluate the company’s success.
Key Differences - Working as a Designer vs. Running A Design Firm
Key Differences – Working as a Designer vs. Running A Design Firm

Working for an Interior Design Studio vs. Your Own Business

If you’re an interior designer who is dissatisfied with your current job or just starting out in the industry, you’ve landed in the right spot. But, it might be difficult to know whether you should run your own firm or work for one.

Let’s figure out the differences between working as a designer and running a design firm, so you can decide what’s best for you!

Working as an Employed Interior Designer

This option is for you who work as a designer in a firm that you don’t own.

Design Focus

As an interior designer, your primary role is to work directly with clients to create interior spaces that meet their needs and aesthetic preferences. You focus on the creative and artistic aspects of design.

Depending on the size of the firm, you might also be involved in project management and procurement. But, design is your main activity!

Key Differences – Working As A Designer Vs Running A Design Firm
Key Differences – Working As A Designer Vs. Running A Design Firm (What’s Best For You?)

Client Interaction

You interact with clients often on a one-on-one basis, understanding their preferences, budgets, and requirements. You’re responsible for translating their vision into design concepts and executing the project. You probably do design presentations and walkthroughs, site measurements, and other onsite activities.

Project Scale

Your projects may vary in size, from residential homes to commercial spaces. You may work in a single room or an entire building, depending on the project scope.

At some point, you might want to specialize in some areas, such as residential or commercial, and further into specific types of commercial design. Again if you work for a boutique firm that does only certain types of projects, or even both private homes and commercial jobs, you probably divide your time among all projects.

Design Execution

You are responsible for creating design plans, selecting materials, sourcing furniture and decor, and overseeing the construction or installation process. Your involvement may vary from project to project.

Earnings

Your income is typically salary-based, and many firms combine a base salary with a project commission.

Skill Set

As an interior designer, you primarily need strong design skills, creativity, knowledge of materials, and the ability to work well with clients and contractors.

You need to know how to do floorplans, design presentations, mood boards, and technical drawings, and where to source your designs.

Career Advancement

Career advancement for an interior designer working in a firm can vary depending on several factors, including the individual’s skills, experience, ambition, and the specific firm structure. Here is a typical career advancement path for an interior designer in a firm:

  1. Entry-Level Interior Designer
  2. Junior Interior Designer
  3. Interior Designer
  4. Senior Interior Designer
  5. Associate or Design Director
  6. Partner or Principal
Read: Interior Designer Career Path – How To Advance In Your Design Career

One of the key differences between working as a designer vs. running a design firm is that when you work as a designer for a firm, you get to do way more design than you do when you own a design firm.

Pros And Cons Of Working As An Employed Designer

Pros of Being an Employed Interior DesignerCons of Being an Employed Interior Designer
Focused Design Role: You can concentrate on the creative and artistic aspects of interior design.Limited Earning Potential: Your income is typically salary-based, with fewer opportunities for significant commission earnings.
Direct Client Interaction: You work one-on-one with clients, understanding their needs and preferences.Limited Control: You have less control over project direction and business decisions compared to owning a firm.
Varied Project Scale: You can work on projects of varying sizes, from individual rooms to entire buildings.Limited Freedom: Your creative freedom may be constrained by client preferences and project constraints.
Design Execution: You’re responsible for creating design plans, selecting materials, and overseeing the design process.Less Business Ownership: You do not own the business and do not build equity in a design firm.
Steady Income: You receive a regular salary, providing financial stability.Limited Team Management: You have less involvement in team management and leadership.
Strong Design Focus: You can dedicate a significant portion of your time to design work, including creating floorplans, presentations, mood boards, and technical drawings.Limited Client Acquisition: You’re not responsible for acquiring clients, which may limit your exposure to networking and marketing.
Skills Development: You can focus on enhancing your design skills and creativity.Reduced Business Growth: You have less influence over the growth and expansion of the design firm.
Work-Life Balance: Employment may offer a more predictable work schedule and better work-life balance.Client Dependency: Your client base is determined by your employer, potentially limiting your ability to build long-term client relationships.
Lower Financial Risk: You’re not responsible for the financial stability of the design firm.Less Brand Recognition: Your personal brand and reputation may be less established compared to owning a design firm.
Limited Administrative Tasks: You are generally not responsible for administrative tasks like financial management and paperwork, reducing your administrative workload.Less Networking: You may have fewer networking opportunities compared to design firm owners.

Running a Design Firm

Now, this is something very different…

When you run a design firm, you are not just a designer but also a business owner. You have the responsibility of managing all aspects of the firm, including finances, marketing, hiring, and operations.

Team Management

Managing and leading your team is a significant part of your role. You may employ a team of designers, architects, project managers, and support staff. If you have no team, you will be doing even more administration and other non-design tasks.

Client Acquisition

You are responsible for acquiring clients, building relationships, and securing projects for your firm. Networking and marketing become crucial skills. So become sales and client onboarding. In fact, all the things you don’t quite see happening as an employee, now become things you not only need to do but also need to master.

As a design firm owner, you are responsible for marketing, sales, and everything that has to do with growing your client base. And yes, even if you have a team of marketers and salespeople.

Project Oversight

While you may still be involved in design, your role may shift more towards overseeing multiple projects simultaneously. You ensure that each project is progressing smoothly and meeting client expectations.

Business Administration

As a firm owner, you have to do a lot of administration, even if you have an accountant and other people who can help you. Of course, if you have no team, your time will be spent on administration even more.

Vendor Relationships

A critical path to success in design, particularly if you run a service business, is vendor relationships. You need to establish hundreds, or maybe even thousands of relationships with vendors of furniture, fixtures, technology, and tradespeople. This will take a lot of time, both establishing the connections and maintaining them.

Income Potential Is Bigger, But So Are Your Costs

Running a successful design firm can offer the potential for higher income compared to working as a sole designer. However, it also comes with increased financial risk and the need for effective business management.

Career Path As A Design Business Owner

“What do you mean by career path, I’m already the big boss?”

Well, even entrepreneurs and business owners need to develop in their paths. This could look very different for different business owners, but in my experience, most business owners want to move on to launch new revenue streams, add new brands, and even change direction and do something else.

“But, I love design, I will ALWAYS do design!”

I get it, but more often than not, the experienced business owners whom I meet say this: “I’m no longer excited about this, what’s wrong with me?”

So, in my line of work, I help business owners (re)design their businesses, both the business models and revenue streams, as well as the processes and systems that keep the business growing, and to create a great career advancement for business owners!

Pros And Cons Of Owning a Design Firm

Pros of Owning a Design FirmCons of Owning a Design Firm
Higher Income Potential: You have the potential to earn more, especially if your firm is successful.Increased Responsibility: Running a firm involves multiple responsibilities, including business management, which can be overwhelming.
Creative Control: You have the freedom to shape your design projects and overall design direction.Financial Risk: There’s a risk of financial instability, especially when starting a new firm or during economic downturns.
Business Ownership: You build equity in your own business and can potentially sell it for a profit in the future.Administrative Tasks: You must handle administrative tasks like bookkeeping, contracts, and paperwork, which can be time-consuming.
Team Leadership: You can lead and manage a team, fostering collaboration and expanding your firm’s capabilities.Client Acquisition: Acquiring clients and maintaining a consistent project flow can be challenging and competitive.
Diverse Services: You can offer a range of services beyond interior design, potentially increasing revenue streams.Reduced Design Focus: As a firm owner, you may spend less time on hands-on design work and more time on management tasks.
Business Growth: Successful firms can expand, take on larger projects, and increase their client base.Time Commitment: Running a firm requires significant time and effort, possibly reducing work-life balance.
Brand Recognition: Over time, you can build a strong brand and reputation in the design industry.Market Competition: The design industry can be highly competitive, with many firms vying for clients.
Networking Opportunities: Owning a firm offers opportunities to network with industry professionals and potential clients.Financial Management: Effective financial management is crucial to maintain profitability and sustainability.
Client Relationships: You can establish long-term relationships with clients, leading to repeat business and referrals.Limited Creative Freedom: While you have creative control, client preferences and project constraints may limit your design freedom.
Legacy Building: You can leave a lasting legacy by creating a successful and reputable design firm.Stress and Pressure: The pressure to meet client expectations and financial goals can be stressful.

Business Ownership Is Not For Everyone, and That’s Fine

You can be a very successful designer without running your own firm too. Business ownership often takes the designer away from the things they love, such as design. Even if there’s greater freedom in running a business than working for one, it’s not even remotely the same thing.

FAQ – The Difference Between Working as a Designer vs. Running A Design Firm

What are the key differences between working as a designer and running a design firm?

The key differences between working as a designer vs. running a design firm include the level of creative focus, client interaction, scale of projects, earnings structure, and the range of responsibilities involved in business ownership.

What is the primary focus of a designer’s role?

A designer primarily focuses on the creative and artistic aspects of interior design, translating client preferences into functional and aesthetically pleasing spaces.

How does client interaction differ between a designer and a design firm owner?

Designers interact directly with clients, understanding their needs and executing projects. Design firm owners are responsible for client acquisition, building relationships, and overseeing client interactions by themselves or through their teams.

Are there differences in the scale of projects undertaken by designers and design firms?

Yes, designers may work on projects of varying scales, from individual rooms to entire buildings. Design firms often handle larger and more complex projects, including commercial spaces and multi-room residential designs.

How do earnings vary between working as a designer and owning a design firm?

Designers typically earn a salary with the possibility of project-based commissions. Design firm owners can earn more, but their income is tied to the success of the business and involves managing expenses and overhead costs.

What skills are essential for success as an interior designer?

Essential skills include strong design abilities, creativity, knowledge of materials, communication skills, and the ability to work well with clients and contractors. Proficiency in tools like floorplans, design presentations, mood boards, technical drawings, and sourcing materials is also crucial.

What responsibilities come with running a design firm?

Running a design firm involves responsibilities such as business management, team leadership, client acquisition, marketing, project oversight, and financial management.

How does team management play a role in running a design firm?

Design firm owners often lead a team of designers, architects, project managers, and support staff. Effective team management is essential to ensure projects are completed successfully and client expectations are met.

What are the main challenges associated with client acquisition as a design firm owner?

Client acquisition involves marketing, sales, and building relationships. The main challenges include competition, finding the right clients, and maintaining a consistent flow of projects.

Can you still be involved in design work when running a design firm?

Yes, design firm owners can still be involved in design work, but their role may shift more towards overseeing multiple projects and ensuring they run smoothly.

What administrative tasks are involved in running a design firm?

Running a design firm entails administrative tasks such as financial management, bookkeeping, budgeting, contract management, and paperwork associated with projects and client interactions.

Is there a significant difference in income potential between a designer and a design firm owner?

Running a successful design firm can offer the potential for higher income compared to working as a designer. However, it also comes with increased financial risk and the need for effective business management.

What are the pros and cons of business ownership in the field of interior design?

Pros include greater income potential and creative control, while cons involve increased responsibilities, financial risk, and reduced time for hands-on design work.

Is it possible to have a successful career as a designer without owning a design firm?

Yes, many designers have successful careers without owning a design firm. They can focus on design work and collaborate with design firms or agencies.

How does business ownership impact a designer’s ability to focus on design work?

Business ownership often requires designers to allocate more time to administrative and managerial tasks, reducing their ability to focus solely on design. However, it provides greater control and opportunities for growth.

Moving from an interior design employee to a design business owner
Moving from an interior design employee to a design business owner can be a great choice, but it’s not easy.

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