A David & Goliath story for designers
I recently went from working at IBM (a massive corporation employing nearly 400,000 people) to thirteen23 (16-person design agency). They’re about as different as two companies can be. Surprisingly, one of the biggest insights I experienced was something I had already learned in 8th grade physics class: the more mass an object has, the greater its tendency to resist change in its state of motion.
Likewise, a company’s size can limit its ability to adapt, reposition, move in a different direction, or even get moving in the first place.
Here’s an example to help illustrate: Imagine that you’re on a trip with friends — let’s say you’re in San Francisco — and you find yourselves unable to agree on a restaurant for lunch. Insistent, one of your friends forcefully suggests somewhere authentic in China Town. Well, maybe you have a gluten allergy, and besides, you’re more of a Thai food person anyway. Your husband, meanwhile, is really craving a burger, and your other friend is “down for anything,” but can you really take that at face value? Some debate and negotiation ensues…twenty minutes later, either appeased or exasperated, you land on a solution that everyone can live with, and your friendships and marriage stay in tact.
With some food in your stomach, and thinking more clearly, you might find it silly how difficult that decision was. But imagine how much more difficult it would have been with 10 people, 100 people, what about 400,000 people? We all have our own preferences and opinions, and we’re all always right, of course. Trying to get 400,000 people to share a clear, unified vision and agree on how to move toward that goal is quite the fool’s errand. With all of that internal conflict demanding your attention, when do you get the opportunity to be innovative?
In my experience, what holds a big corporation back the most is its size. It can’t help but get in its own way. Conversely, a small company’s leanness gives it the ability to be flexible and adapt.
There are a lot of differences between large and small companies that I’ve noticed since I started working at thirteen23. I’ve consolidated them into 4 categories in an attempt to understand the impact and origin of these differences.
The first component of my onboarding experience was attending a 3-day orientation in Raleigh, where I received my badge and computer, filled out some paperwork, met my manager and team, and had a full day of learning all about IBM’s history and how to use their email and chat clients.
My first day at the office was a bit lonely. I was working remotely with a few other people, and we couldn’t connect to IBM’s wi-fi, which meant we weren’t able to check our emails or complete Succeeding at IBM (a series of onboarding presentations and videos). With my manager in another state, there wasn’t much he could do to help.
Eventually, IBM launched a much different onboarding process. Before jumping onto their teams and into their roles, they attend a 3-month long Design Camp, where they’re taught IBM Design Thinking and work in teams to solve complex problems that IBM actually faces. I worked at IBM for a year and then moved to Austin, where I worked another year before finally attending a week-long mini Design Camp. I found the camp very valuable, and only wish I could have done it sooner.
When I walked into my new office at thirteen23 for the first time as an employee, my desk and computer were already set up for me. During my first week, I filled out some paperwork, went out to lunch with the design team, was eased on to a project, and met with everyone in the company individually.
My 1-on-1 meetings were all different and were all beneficial. No matter what we ended up talking about or where we ended up talking (one meeting was in a bar during happy hour) I had broken the ice with all my coworkers. I now knew each person’s name, background, and area of expertise. I was walked through some healthcare and animation projects, offered advice and insights about office culture, and tipped off to who the jokesters were. Although, that didn’t help when I was the only one who fell for an April Fool’s prank my second week of work.
Large Corporation vs. Small Company
The differences in culture between large and small companies can seem obvious. Larger corporations can often feel impersonal, as everything revolves around the company’s reputation and financial success. On the other hand, smaller companies often feel friendlier, where things revolve around the people and their work. I’ve also noticed some smaller differences that can make a big impact on company culture:
I knew a lot of people at IBM; however, there were even more people I saw everyday, but never interacted with. I’ve met and talked with everyone at thirteen23, and they have become more than just familiar faces. I also enjoy hanging out with my coworkers at lunches, happy hours, company outings, etc.
No one holds all of the answers at IBM, so when you ask for help, you’re often directed to the company’s complex and cluttered intranet. The employees at thirteen23 all sit in the same open space, so you can ask someone for help any time.
Both IBM locations I’ve worked at were on large campuses in the suburbs. thirteen23 is downtown, located on the second floor of a historic building that’s been renovated.
There were a couple hundred designers on my floor at IBM, so the office was very loud and busy. There are 16 people at thirteen23, making the office a pretty quiet space, except when Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” is blasting. However, if you’re not a Dolly fan, there are plenty of quiet rooms you can work from.
Because there are so many people at IBM, the snacks would get eaten immediately. There are enough snacks for everyone at thirteen23.
Public vs. Private…need I say more?
It’s almost unavoidable to work at a company with as much visibility as IBM and not run into some politics. The products they ship and the statements they make are going to be either scrutinized or celebrated by the media, so they have to painstakingly curate their output.
Amidst the layers upon layers of management, all decisions have to be made at the top. Finding anything out is like playing a game of telephone — no one has the whole story. In telephone, you can’t reverse back up the chain to find out where the call came from, so you might never get answers to your questions. Sometimes you don’t know if what you’re asked to make is going to help people, or if it’s just being made to pacify someone’s boss. It’s a futile undertaking to fully understand the elaborate intricacies of corporate politics.
On the other hand, if a large corporation is able to somehow evade such internal conflicts, then they have the power and resources to really impact where technology is headed.
I didn’t know this was possible, but I haven’t experienced any internal politics at my new job. I think smaller companies are better positioned to secure the alignment of goals and values across the team, largely due to the fact that they have complete control over the hiring process. At thirteen23, the entire company gets to meet potential new hires, getting to know them as a candidate and as a person before deciding to offer a position. During my interview process, I presented my portfolio to the designers, answered questions, and ate lunch with the people who would become my future co-workers.
At a small agency, each employee’s performance, positive or negative, has an impact on the company. Ultimately, your company might not be recognized around the world, but everyone in the company recognizes you and appreciates your contribution.
One benefit of being an in-house designer at a company like IBM is that you’re surrounded by experts. If you dig, you can probably find someone with a lot of experience in anything. Furthermore, if enough interest is shown, you can probably get someone to put on a workshop to share their knowledge.
The design process is also more structured at IBM. Going through Design Camp teaches you a specific approach to design thinking and gives you the tools to solve any type of problem. Design Thinking on this scale is still an experiment, but might be even more effective if it were a company-wide effort. Not everyone sees the value in design thinking, so you often spend a lot of time proving your worth internally, when you could have spent that time producing good work.
Because big corporations have so much exposure, your work reaches a lot of people. But before it goes out the door, it is seen by a lot of people internally as well. This means that project managers, researchers, developers, designers, and other stakeholders are all heavily involved in design decisions — that’s just too many cooks. You might get used to hearing “no” and thus, start to suppress your more ambitious ideas, which is a pretty unproductive habit for a designer to have.
Being a designer at a small company is more likely to satisfy your creative appetite for several reasons. First, smaller companies are able to move faster and adapt to what a project requires, adjusting the process as they go along. This momentum gives designers more time to pivot and iterate, which leads to better outcomes.
Second, a smaller design agency is hired by clients who are looking to the agency’s expertise to help them. You might have to educate your clients on the value of your ideas, but if they are paying you for your design abilities, there’s a good chance they are willing to listen to what you have to say. Although the client makes the final decision, you still hold major influence.
Working with clients, rather than being an in-house designer, offers more variety in the types of projects you work on, which helps circumvent burn out. Given time and an enthusiastic client, you might be encouraged to take chances and try something new. On the contrary, your client might be particularly overbearing, not allowing you to flex your design muscles to the best of your ability. Chances are, you’ll have fun clients and difficult clients, but the work you do will be diverse, which is more likely to hold your interest.
Finally, at a small company, a designer’s voice is an important one. Designers are more likely to be involved in strategy and decision-making than they would be at a large corporation. Accountability goes hand-in-hand with that role, and if something doesn’t work, you can’t blame the developer on the other side of the world. If you’re a motivated designer, this is probably more exciting than daunting.
It’s true that the more mass an object has, the more it will resist change in its state of motion. It’s also true that the more mass a moving object has, the more force is required to stop it.
A company’s size can limit its ability to adapt, reposition, move in a different direction, or even get moving in the first place, but once it has momentum, a company’s size can make it an enduring force.
Being a designer at a small agency is quite a divergence from being a designer at a large corporation, as shown by differences in the onboarding process, culture, politics, and approach to design.
Depending on which environment you prefer, and what type of work you feel rewarded by, one might be better for you than the other. The good news is, your experience is always valuable, so if you try one and its not the right fit, you can always take what you learned and apply it to the other.