Corporate vs. Freelance vs. Start-Up Product Design Career Paths

Traditionally, when thinking of a Product Design career that spans decades, the “career ladder” comes to mind. This refers to picking an entry-level job at a company and staying there for the majority of your working years, with the goal of progressing into a high-ranking position. This rag-to-riches narrative however does not reflect the current market. 

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If you have just graduated or are about to graduate from a Product Design program, you’re likely already knee-deep in the job search and on your way to a product design career path. 

You’ve spent time picking which openings to apply to, searching through LinkedIn for the perfect company in your dream industry. You may be gearing up to go into business for yourself. 

Or, you may be stuck, wondering which path you should take at all.

This post will discuss the different paths you can take, and some pros and cons of each. 

Debunking The “Career Ladder”

Traditionally, when thinking of a career that spans decades, the “career ladder” comes to mind. This refers to picking an entry-level job at a company and staying there for the majority of your working years, with the goal of progressing into a high-ranking position. This rag-to-riches narrative however does not reflect the current market. 

Gone are the days of a continuous, linear climb to the top. Nowadays, careers are much messier, with people switching jobs, fields, and careers more often than any generation before them. 

When picking where to start your career, don’t get too stuck on the different options – nothing is forever unless you want it to be. What you want today may look completely different in 5, 10, or 20 years as you change – from year to year, you’ll find differences in the work you enjoy, the type of lifestyle you want, your financial situation, and your desire for stability. 

So try not to overthink this, especially for your first job. Just pick a direction, go down that path, and keep going until you don’t like it anymore. If you come to this fork in the road again – you can always start over. 

Now, let’s get into three common career path options for Product Designers – corporate, freelance, and start-up.  

The Corporate Path

This could be called the more ‘traditional’ of the paths included in this article. On the corporate path, you join an already-established organization as an individual contributor. 

Over time, this path leads to roles like ‘Staff Designer’ or Principal Designer’ and may include people management responsibilities. These roles have a continued focus on being a designer, and sometimes include mentoring junior designers.

Pros:

  • Continuously doing hands-on design work
  • Opportunities to build expertise and develop skills
  • Can be well-compensated at senior levels 
  • Contribute to the overall design of a visible organization

Cons:

  • May have little room for creativity or innovation inside of existing brand guidelines
  • Pressure to develop a high quantity of work
  • Lower positions may not be compensated well

The Freelance Path

Designers often come to the freelancer path after building up experience and a network or freelancing on the side of a full-time job. 

Freelance work is often project-based and relies on having a strong network of clients and prospects. This path is suited to those who enjoy being their own boss and choosing their projects.

Pros:

  • High level of control over the type of work you take on
  • Lots of variety and different projects
  • Flexible schedule and control over working hours
  • High earning potential as experience and network grow

Cons:

  • Requires self-discipline to structure workdays and meet deadlines
  • Must perform business tasks including taxes, invoicing, and finding new clients
  • Can be financially unpredictable

If you’re interested in this path but not quite ready to take the risk, a great way to try it out is freelancing on the side of your main source of income. You’ll get to see if you like being a freelancer, without having to give up your stability.

The Start-Up Path

The start-up path broadly refers to starting a business. This can look similar to the freelancing path in the beginning when just starting out, but diverges over time with the progression of hiring others to work for you and scale operations. 

Designers who would like to go into business for themselves can either freelance first to build up a base of clients or drive straight in after working at a company or completing schooling, though this can heavily depend on one’s risk tolerance.

Pros:

  • Opportunity to build something from scratch
  • Very high earning potential if successful
  • Get to wear many hats beyond Product Design

Cons:

  • Financially risky and unpredictable when starting out
  • More time is spent on day-to-day business needs, instead of design
  • Can have high-stress levels with full responsibility and accountability

Remember, Enjoy The Journey!

Over your lifetime you’ll likely have several iterations of your career. These three paths detailed above are just scratching the surface of what you can be, so don’t be afraid to take risks and dare to fail. As cliche as it sounds, it’s about the journey, not the destination. So, try to enjoy it!

If a Product Design career path has piqued your interest, consider an accelerated Product Design program to turbocharge your career. Graduates from Flatiron School develop in-demand skill sets that set them up for success in the industry, no matter the path they decide to take. 

Flatiron School’s Product Design graduates go on to do great things – Apply Now. 

Posted by Anna Johnson  /  October 28, 2022

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