How useful is corporate experience early in your career?

I’m a pretty recent graduate (2011). Since graduating I did a few internships at various product design consultancies. Now I am a full time industrial designer at a large tech corporation. I made the jump from consultancies to corporate because I wanted to experience working in a larger team, learning from many different experts and resources available in the corporation, and also to get deeper into the whole process of product development. The products that the corporation makes isn’t as sexy or exciting as what I was working on before, but I thought I could learn a lot professionally. I consulted many of my friends and professional contacts in making this choice, and most seemed to think it would be a useful experience.

Now that I’m here (and I’ve only been here for <1 month), I find myself really missing the fast paced nature and exciting projects of my time in consulting. I miss the large amount of responsibility I was given, and the level of interaction with the clients I had. I also miss just being busy all the time, and getting things done. I miss working with people who are super excited about what they’re doing.

Since I’ve gone corporate, I haven’t really done much. There are minor tasks that I’ve helped on here and there, but compared to before of course my level of influence and responsibility is much less. I feel like a very low rung on a long ladder. The amount of bureaucracy and the culture here is also starting to put me off a bit. I am aware that there is a transitional period, and the team here needs time to know what to do with me, but in my gut I think I know that I want to go back to a more dynamic and youthful consultancy environment.

I accept that perhaps I made the wrong choice to begin with, taking this job even though I wasn’t fully sure, but now I have to decide how to deal with this situation. The way I see it I have these options:

  • Quit now/soon (unlikely, because I do need income and I am still learning stuff despite my qualms about the work environment)
  • Stick it out for 6 months - a year and learn what I can while looking for other opportunities
  • Just keep going, and hope that I get used to it/it gets better

My questions:
-how important is corporate experience at the beginning of your career?
-Is it something that will help me a lot/be attractive to consultancy employers down the line?
-Will it actually put consultancies off if I stay here too long?
-Will it reflect badly on my resume if I leave a company less than 2 years after joining?

Plus any other advice would be appreciated!

Quitting just because you’re unhappy is a terrible idea, so cross off option 1.

Option 2 and 3 are ultimately the same thing - so that is your answer.

In general it takes more than a month just to fill out the hiring paperwork at a corporate job, so if you feel bored and missing responsibility it’s because no one even knows your name yet.

You are absolutely right - you are the bottom rung on a ladder. But how quickly you can move up that ladder is ultimately up to you.

Quitting very shortly after getting hired is a bad move, and will look poorly on a resume - especially if your first gig was also for less than a year. Most places want to see you as an investment, not someone who is going to jump ship on them in another 6 months.

Ultimately your level of responsibility of involvement is a reflection on you. If you don’t have enough work, go to your boss and say “I have free time, what can I help with?” If he says there’s nothing immediate you need to work on, then find a project on your own that you think would be beneficial and start it. I can guarantee after 3 weeks there is probably a lot more you can learn about your customers, your own teams, and your current/future products that would make you more valuable. You should be soaking up every available piece of knowledge, because if you aren’t you’re twiddling your thumbs. I can guarantee no matter how good you are, you probably have room to improve your skillsets whether or not it’s learning about the production workflows, CAD systems, or all the corporate processes, there’s a lot more hands on work in the corporate realm than there is in the consulting world where most work gets handed off, never to be seen again.

You need to look at opportunities to educate yourself. Even just the world of corporate politics is incredibly important to learn and understand - learning to manage people and how to deal with them is a skill you’ll need anywhere in life, especially in the corporate world.

Stick around for at least a year, and actively push to try and learn as much as you can, in the mean time nothing is stopping you from looking for another job. If after a year you’re still miserable, and you see a great opportunity come up go for it.

The best piece of advice I can remember being given about being a designer was “If you’ve stopped learning, it’s time to move on”. Just make sure it’s because you’ve soaked up all their is to learn, not because you aren’t trying.

Agreed, any job is what you make of it. I’ve seen this from both sides as an employee and manager.

My first job (after grad, I had done a 1 yr internship in a consultancy prior) was at a corporate position as a junior designer. When I got there there was lots to to do, but there was lacking a structure and more involved projects. I took it as my own goal to make the best of the opportunity and arranged best practices, started doing marketing and graphics to help sell the products I was designing, redesigned the business cards as the one I had sucked , and convinced my boss to give me my own project within 3 months despite that most new hires didn’t get a full project until working for more than a year. Within 1 year I got more responsibility, a management role and defined my own position and responsibility.

On the flip side I’ve managed new hires who I think perhaps felt as you do. In a busy department it’s hard to keep a new , unproven hire busy though as a manager that should be a key issue. My junior at the the tune was fresh out of school and could feel he wasn’t feeling too productive or busy as key projects weren’t put on his plate due to lack of mentor ship. I worked with the junior, tried to identify his goals and strengths and put him in control to create self directed projects.

Sitting around and hoping things come to you won’t help. If you have an inspired manager go to them and let them help explaining your needs. If not, take things into your own control and make it happen.


Are you passionate about the kind of products the company makes and what they stand for in the world?

@Yo I think the products are interesting, and they’re are lots of complexities to learn about. But I wouldn’t say it’s something I’m passionate about and dream of designing. Perhaps once I get more into it I’ll get more excited about it. I already feel that as I’m understanding the products more I’m more into it. As for what they stand for in the world, I’m starting to experience the company culture and see what they value. It all seems very cost driven, and sometimes quality or consistency suffers. Design tends to be lower down in the priorities. But I’m told corporations will tend to be like this. I don’t think I can identify with the values in the long run. But I’m hoping having experienced this culture will be useful in my future work.

@Rkuchinsky I completely agree about taking initiative and I have been doing that. I ask what needs to be done, and talk to my team daily to see what they’re up to and what I can help with or observe. I would love to take all those steps that you described, but this is a very large company and overstepping your boundaries is sometimes frowned upon. Doing what you described might step on a few toes, as much as I’d love to redesign my crappy business cards. I have been making my skillsets known, and offering what I can here and there. This week I already got a few assignments due to my persistence. I will keep trying to increase my involvement though.

In my opinion, experience in a LARGE corporate setting is not just beneficial but necessary for you to be a well rounded industrial designer sensitive to all the various requirements of your discipline. At consultancies, it will be rare for you to develop any relationships with plant engineers or spend time in assembly cells on the line in a factory. Rarely, in that same consultancy situation, will you be the one voice who is tasked with fixing a quick ID related problem once the project data has been released plant-side. The technical nitty-gritty involvement of the corporate designer is the payoff for all that down time - but as those responders above have said, you can use that down time wisely. Most LARGE corporations will have internal courses to sign up for - Chinese customs & relationships, factory QC for designers/engineers, CAD training, etc. Those are like free college classes but better, because each one reflects on your yearly performance review.

Richard may have been at a younger corporation that didn’t yet have a solid brand identity, so business card design might have been welcomed but in a LARGE corporation with history and heritage it is important to buy into the culture and brand awareness that is all around you. Consultancy designers don’t get the privilege of helping to expand and build upon a LARGE company’s brand language on a daily basis - you get to do that on every project in the corporate setting. Become a ‘team player’, that’s what that type of culture demands. I agree that you would be wise not to step on toes (been there, done that!) but instead align yourself with those around you whom you admire.

I would encourage you to develop good relationships with the engineering partners on each project and the marketing folks (who generally run things, even if the project manager tends to be an ex-engineer). Soak up the roles of those folks, help them by being sensitive to what they care most about (the engineers want the stuff you do to click with the ME /EE stuff they do, the marketing folks want to hear your voice in regards to how a target customer is going to like this new product X and the project manager wants your sh*t done on time!) and as projects get to the back end, don’t drop out - interact with the plant-based engineers and provide value to their efforts (define textures for them, ask if they foresee draft or tooling issues, ask for and inspect engineering sample lots, etc.

If your new employer doesn’t have a structured research protocol (VOC or otherwise), ask if you and some other team members on projects can do some impromptu field research to get a better grip on the target consumers. If they don’t have structured texture or color standards for their products, ask if you can help (not initiate, lead or guide) create some for the benefit of the ID & Graphics groups.

Walk around, check out sister groups (Packaging designers / engineers, graphic designers, purchasing & forecasters, etc.) You’re in a rare position of access to all those facets of development and the more you learn while you’re there, the more you will be able to contribute there and later in other places!

AND, just as important, have fun! :slight_smile:

Step on toes. You may piss off people at your level, or even the level above, but the people above that will notice and approve. From my experience there are two kinds of corporate workers. The first group are those who do as their told (in various degrees, some poorly, some very well) and who don’t really learn a ton or move ahead much because they are stuck in their cubicle. The second are a much smaller group of people who take on projects well outside of their “authority” and who don’t do projects given to them that aren’t seen right. This second group seems to do almost everything wrong, and can be chided a bit in the short term, but in the long run it works out because they learn more, connect more, and get noticed.

On your first point, you have to be passionate about the products to be a successful corporate designer in my opinion. To work at a corporation is to potentially severely limit the scope of products you work on vs a consultancy. In a consulting situation, not every product will be as glamorous as the next, but you have the luxury of only working on it for a few weeks or months before moving to the next. In a corporate setting you may be working on the same or similar narrow portfolio of products for years. If you are not excited by that product type, it can lead to burn out or general apathy.

Companies always have issues. They focus on cost, timelines, and a host of other things that are important but are not the reason they exist. As a creative in this mix it is part of our roleto help focus the conversation elsewhere. What is important for you is that you feel some sense of alignment with the mission of the company. On a grander scale, what are they trying to do in the next few years and will you feel proud to help them accomplish that?

In sum, if you don’t take control of your job future, who will?


Thanks for all the great advice here guys. I definitely feel that I can find a way forward with the information here. As mentioned, there’s lots to learn even though the product isn’t exactly a designer’s dream.

I have been told though, that it is hard to go back to consulting after going corporate. Is there any truth to this? Of course I will have to keep my skills sharp and my portfolio current in my own time, but will it still be an uphill battle because somehow corporate designers are perceived as not as flexible? I do have consulting experience though.

I think it can be hard to go corporate to consulting but also vice versa. Corporate to consulting might be difficult by range of products but also by perks and benefits. Consulting to corporate may be hard by lack of structure and depth of focus. Freelance to anything is hard by way of flexibility and freedom. I’ve done all 3. You need to find the best fit for you as a person and designer.


I have much less experience that Yo and R, but I may have some helpful advice.

In school, it seemed to me and a lot of my friends that consultancies are the ultimate path to design bliss, but the more experienced I get, I find that the ratio of the cool project that goes to production and that didn’t get neutered to death to the rest of amazing concepts that get killed or lost in the fog of corporate myopic planning is quite low. In the end, much of the amazing stuff a consultancy generates is rejected by someone afraid of design or innovation, or just incapable of executing that vision immediately.

A lot depends on the culture you work in. A corporate gig in a small company means you have a larger role and can build a relationship with top management more easily (which Dieter Rams says is the key to corporate design success). At least in a corporate gig, you have a shot to attempt to change the culture and evangelize the power of design. It may be discouraging at times, and will likely take a few learning experiences where people ignore your initial advice, only to learn that taking time to do things right is better long-term, but it is possible.

For me, I was fortunate to land a gig at a small company making products that I felt deserved to exist and had great upside for improvement and market impact. Both co-presidents of the company know me by name and are intimately familiar with my specific contributions to the company and brand. Almost all the higher ups get design. I have been able to contribute beyond mere product design. In the past year alone, I have picked the brand font, helped our graphic team define the new visual brand direction, given feedback on marketing/naming strategy, and even helped our ID director define our product design language. I also contributed ideas for applying our new branding to POP and master cartons (to help get retail salespeople in the stock room excited about the brand).

Granted, CEOs who get design are still rare, but they are becoming more and more common. Frankly, I’d rather work where I am now than for Jony Ive. At Apple, I’d probably be designing decoy products for a few years before I got to present to Ive four dozen iterations of bezel treatments on the next Mac Mini.

To me, a small company with heads who get design (ie: will invest in it and trust your intuition) or pursuing your own product venture are the two places I’d be most content as a designer. Unless your working environment is more important than what you actually work on that becomes (and even then at a small corporate gig, you can have lots of flexibility).

Thanks for your insight Cameron, it seems like you found a good corporate gig. Also, I remember seeing your work a few times over the years on Core. Good stuff!

I have no doubt that corporate gigs have a lot to offer. I am just concerned about whether THIS particular corporate gig is a good place to be. I try to keep an optimistic view every day, but even the designers here seem tired and apathetic. My team is all seniors, so I’m sure they have been through a lot and maybe just don’t see the point in causing a fuss. At my last gig (consulting), we would fight and push back to get our design decisions through. Here it seems marketing is king, and even if something doesn’t sit right with the designers, if its approved from above then it goes along. Then eventually someone from above throws it all the way back down and asks how the hell it ended up that way.

A senior member of my team admitted to me yesterday that the ID department here isn’t what it used to be, and mostly things are done to get products out the door without much thought as to long term vision. He also admitted that our team has very little influence now and the higher ups don’t really get what we do. Basically he told me the culture here isn’t conducive to design, and he hopes for change but isn’t sure if it’ll come. I wish he had told me that when he interviewed me.

Its not all bad though. I am learning how the different departments interact. And seeing real products and prototypes still excites me.

If in 6 months - a year I decide that this isn’t for me, would it really be so bad on my resume? People in our field jump around so much these days, and if by then I really don’t believe in what I’m doing or the environment I’m in, would it not be better for me and the employer just to part ways?

+1 for Richard Kuchinsky. Any job is what you make of it.

You should talk to your bosses - and be honest with them. Maybe expectations weren’t clear before you started? They will probably have some insight for you about the place and the job. It doesn’t matter where or what work is - if you don’t mesh with the team, you’ll never be happy. It takes a while to identify what you are looking for in a job - and then figuring out how to evaluate a place or team in the limited time of an application or interview process is even more difficult. Trust your gut (blink), if you are already questioning - you’ll need to do something about it - quitting however, may or may not be the answer.