Products or Services
Designers often restrict themselves to a medium/pursuit (e.g., print, digital, environments). Increasingly, though, I think such constraints are unnecessary. In fact, I suspect that these sorts of bounds can arrest your growth. This can result in myopic behavior/solutions.
As such, I encourage you to start with a different question. I want you to reflect on what sort of work you are most suited to. Put another way: Are you the sort of person who plants a garden, or the kind who tends to it?
I’d bet that most young designers would pick the first option. New projects are exciting. They bring the possibility of discovery. Additionally, such work helps you build your portfolio. (In spite of arguments to the contrary, this remains a worthwhile pursuit.) For such designers, work at a studio/agency is quite often rewarding.
Completing new exercises—especially those with time-limits—is mentally rigorous. As such, studio projects allow you to work your conceptual muscles. They afford you opportunities to hone your skills/craft. This sort of work can also stave off boredom. At its best, studio work makes the exploration of new ideas, styles, industries, and beliefs compulsory.
However, product-based work (e.g. an internal app, or a startup project) can also be gratifying. These sorts of projects allow for more holistic decision-making. One can collect data, and refine a solution accordingly. Additionally, there’s more room in such projects to shape a design vocabulary that provides lasting value.
I’ve worked in design services for the bulk of my career. I like parts of this work, but feel that certain personal quirks leave me better suited to designing products. I’m a bit of a generalist. I enjoy defining a UX convention one day, scripting a video the next, and toying with an illustration the one following. I’m also a bit of a control freak. I want to build things well. This means I enjoy refining details others might not. But, that’s just me.
The options I present above might seem muddy or clear, depending on your current situation. If you work at an agency where you feel that your work is compromised, producing design for a startup might seem more attractive. Conversely, if you’ve been at a startup for years, having something fresh to work on is likely appealing.
I can’t tell you which one to choose. Odds are you’d likely benefit from trying both settings and seeing which feels best. What works for one designer might not work for you. In any event, the question of products or services is worth asking. In contemplating this question, you might uncover new insight into the kind of work you’ll find most fulfilling.