Should I hire a freelancer, agency, or full-time designer for my startup?

How do you know when time is right to bring on design help at your startup? This guide explains 4 different options you can consider for design at your company and how to make the right decision for your needs.

Design can make or break early-stage startups. A 10x better solution for your customers is only valuable if they understand how to use the product and like the feeling of it. This doesn’t mean that every startup needs a designer on Day 1, but founders that tap into design too late lose out on growth and revenue — you have have one chance to make a first impression. Leveraging design at the right time can make the difference between exponential user growth and slow decay for a startup.

Design needs & requirements vary at every stage of the startup lifecycle. The types of designers you need at a pre-seed can look very different from those of a Seed or Series A company. Other variables that can impact design hiring decisions include the industry, resources available, founder’s experience, urgency, product positioning, growth goals, risk tolerance, product-market fit, and more.

Given the amount of variables and context involved, there’s no easy answer to the question, “Should I hire a freelancer, agency, or full-time designer?” — so we’ll break it down in a tactical way to give you the information to make the best decision for your startup.

When should I NOT invest in design?

The first design solution we’ll consider is…no solution at all. At early stages, this is often a viable answer for startup problems that are not urgent or important.

Are customers still signing up to your product with an ugly landing page? So be it.

Are your first 10 users still finding value from a product that’s difficult to use? That’s okay.

Are you still working on the first draft of your idea? You likely don’t need a designer.

Here are some scenarios in which I would recommend NOT investing money in hiring for design:

  1. You don’t have a functioning product. In most cases, it’s okay if your MVP is ugly.
  2. You don’t have first revenue from B2B customers. In specific use-cases, you might need design to get here, but in most B2B services you should be able to ship and launch a basic product & get early customers without hiring a designer.
  3. You don’t have users (B2C product): Design won’t help address this unless users aren’t able to use your product because of a UX or design problem.
  4. You haven’t validated your startup’s core hypothesis. You don’t need design to validate it in most cases.

When should I hire a freelancer?

Design freelancers or consultants are a great option for founders who don’t have an in-house designer but also don’t feel ready to hire someone full-time for it. You can look into hiring freelancers when:

  • You have a scoped, specific need. Eg: need a quick landing page upgrade
  • You have a clear idea of what needs to be built next. Eg: 3 specific features on the roadmap.
  • You have one-off design needs right now but are unsure about the future. Eg: a pitch deck design, setting up your first design system, etc.
  • You want to keep your core full-time team lean.

Pros of hiring a freelancer

  • Quick hiring process versus the other options
  • Scoped, project-based work
  • Scale hours as needed
  • Often less expensive than agencies & full-time hires
  • Potential to bring the freelancer in-house in the future
  • Address urgent design needs quickly

Cons of hiring a freelancer

  • Finding & vetting high-quality freelancers can be a challenge
  • Not autonomous – they will need specific instructions & direction
  • Not as invested or committed as a full-time hire
  • Often won’t go above and beyond what is asked
  • Time invested in onboarding is wasted when the freelancer decides to leave
  • May lead to design debt that needs to be addressed in the future

If a freelance designer seems right for your needs, DesignBake’s talent network includes high-quality, vetted freelancers apart from full-time designers. Reach out here to learn more and get connected with the right freelancers.

When should I hire a fractional designer?

Fractional designers are similar to freelancers, but their involvement on the team is determined by hours instead of per project. This can be a great option for founders who have recurring design needs, but the work scope isn’t large enough to call for a full-time designer. You should look into hiring fractional designers when:

  • You have low-volume, ongoing design needs. Eg: Building & maintaining a design system
  • You have design needs that are important but not urgent. Eg: Design for upcoming features
  • You need someone to drive design forward autonomously. Eg: Design prioritization
  • You want an embedded designer within your team.

Pros of hiring a fractional designer

  • Invest in building your design function
  • Cheaper than hiring a full-time designer
  • More autonomous than freelancers & agencies
  • Can strike a balance between execution & strategy
  • Get a thought partner for all things design
  • Build out your design foundations

Cons of hiring a fractional designer

  • Can be expensive
  • Difficult & time-consuming to find high quality fractional designers
  • Time spent in onboarding and building context will be wasted when they leave
  • Selective with projects/bandwidth due to time constraints
  • May be spread thin as design requirements grow quickly
  • May or may not join full-time when you need it

When should I hire an agency?

Design agencies can be a good option for founders who may or may not have an in-house designer but need to allocate dedicated resources to a bigger project with a specific outcome in mind. You can look into hiring agencies when:

  • You have a 3-6 month project which needs dedicated resources on it. Eg: A brand re-design
  • You have a one-off project that doesn’t align with the core team’s skillset or bandwidth. Eg: Design collateral for a conference
  • You have an in-house designer who can strategize and lead but need more resources to execute. Eg: A product re-design
  • You’re aiming for a tight deadline, and in-house resources won’t cut it. Eg: a time-bound product launch

Pros of hiring an agency

  • Leverage specialized talent based on project needs
  • Clear, promised outcome based on scope
  • Can be less expensive than full-time hires
  • Add structure to your project & process
  • Execution is project-managed for you
  • Access a proven playbook for specific projects

Cons of hiring an agency

  • Can be expensive, and costs can run up
  • Time-intensive to upload your knowledge and context to them
  • May or may not fully buy into your mission
  • Will take up as much time and space as you give them
  • Hiring an agency is taking a big bet – it may or may not work out
  • Not easy to make updates once the project is over

When should I hire a full-time designer?

A full-time designer is the best way to invest in building out your design function intentionally and sustainably. This is a great option for founders who have design needs that are both immediate and long-term. You can look into hiring full-time designers when:

  • You have a product with initial traction. Eg: Early customers and potential paths to product-market fit
  • You have design needs that are important and urgent. Eg: Design for upcoming features
  • You need someone to drive design forward autonomously. Eg: Design prioritization
  • You want to embed design values and thinking into your company ethos. Eg: Thoughtfully designed products
  • Your user base or team is growing rapidly, and you don’t want to be caught without the resources to move quickly

Pros of hiring a full-time designer

  • Invested and bought into your long-term mission
  • Autonomous and can balance quality + speed
  • Investment in building your design function
  • Pays dividends by saving eng time & improving business metrics
  • Iterate on projects/features before investing in building them
  • Can lead both execution & strategy
  • Invest in continually improving design systems to ship faster & better
  • Build a tight feedback loop as a product team

Cons of hiring a full-time designer

  • Needs to be viewed as a longer-term investment
  • Hard to find high-caliber designers (we can help)
  • Need to filter for specific types of design skills
  • Team needs to be aligned and open to a design hire
  • May be spread thin if design requirements grow exponentially

Figuring out the next step

Overall, hiring a full-time designer at the right point in your startup’s journey can pay immense dividends over time. Imagine the impact on a high-growth startup if you can close X% more customers, ship Y% faster, or save Z% time with effective design systems — the impact of a strong early-stage designer is unparalleled and cannot be overstated.

If you’re unsure about what kind of designer your team needs at the moment, feel free to book a call with us and we’d be happy to advise you on the best next steps at your stage. Our ultimate goal is to help founders better leverage design in order to grow their businesses.

Whether you go the freelancer, fractional, agency, or full-time route — there are plenty of ways to solve for design needs, and an intentional approach here will set you up for success.