On Smaller Firms: Low Pay, But High Value? (Q&A#5)

Got an email last night from Millie, in response to The Internship Guide 1: What Are the 2 Major Kinds of Design Firms?. She has been in the design workforce for well more than the year, and gave some insights I thought would be great to share with everyone. Take the floor, Millie!  

Hello Aldo! :D

I think that as a business model, the Design Studio is only as good as its team. A small team can only be as well-oiled as the assembly line if everyone is hardworking, willing to step up, and takes responsibility. Apprentices should be fast learners and mentors should be generous with time. 

Unfortunately, most small studios don't compensate as well as big companies. Small, young companies are still growing, and all extra money gets invested towards the firm (new software, comfier chairs, etc). The salaries and benefits may be the same, but the perks are limited. Office parties and bonuses are rare, and you are expected to work a lot (even during typhoons, huhuhu). 

Although working in a small design studio is rewarding, I understand it is not for everyone. Cheers! :)

Thanks for the great email.

I think your insights are spot-on. You covered a number of things that young design students would be best served to know in their younger years. Let’s revisit some of the things you said.

I think that as a business model, the Design Studio is only as good as its team.

Indeed – and a team is only as strong as its weakest link. This rings true for any group design plate, and it’s exponentially more true in actual practice – where there’s liability and people are much less forgiving with oversights.

As lovely and organized a system may be, if the people who are tasked to implement it lack drive and dedication, then the end product will be mediocre. (And we have to admit, as design students, we all have experienced being the weakest link at one point or the other.)

All in all, the success of the project is a function of individual performance – which make it so much more important for all of us to commit to honing their craft with proper process.

Unfortunately, most small studios don't compensate as well as big companies.

It’s sad, but true. If you’re a young gun looking to earn a prince’s starting salary, then applying at a small studio should be one of your least-favored options.

But then again, we all know that for most countries, pursuing a high starting salary in our field is, well… *insert laughter here*

Just keeping it real – architects typically aren’t the richest of professionals, wage wise. Unless you’ve dialed-in to being financially literate and investment-committed early-on, you’re just not going to accumulate rapid wealth from your salary, especially in a smaller start-up.

And it’s perfectly understandable that the smaller studios can’t compensate you as well as the assembly-line giants can. Like I mentioned previouslythe intrinsic inefficiencies of a studio are the mistakes, learning curves, teaching sessions and lead times that slow down a project and swell man-hours.

But they are also the mark of great mentorship – something a thousand more pesos per month cannot equal in value. There’s so much value in working for a smaller firm, by nature of how tightly knit and intertwined the team’s work is.

The trade-off tends to be in longer work days that extend into the night (and even early morning). Truth be told, I have a lot of friends that have weeks of burnout due to the limited manpower in a small firm that they have to compensate for. It usually comes with the territory.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

If you’re priorities don’t agree with that, then as Millie said:

Although working in a small design studio is rewarding, I understand it is not for everyone.

caution for those who tend to see only green: you could essentially be sacrificing a lot of learning potential with this mindset.

The rewards of working for a small studio are way  beyond the mere monetary. In a small studio, you feel more intimately responsible for the outcome of a work because of all you put in, so the fulfillment you get is something else. It’s a priceless private victory that you just can’t get from churning out toilet layouts and details each and every day.

This isn’t to say that larger firms aren’t conducive to holistic learning. I work in an office with more than 40 people and the level of training here is great. It might still be a studio, but I’ve seen that a holistic learning environment is still very possible in an “assembly line”.

If the opportunities for learning-sharing are managed really well and the principals really seek to mentor the employees for the long haul, then the size and organizational set-up is only a secondary factor in how much you’ll learn from the daily grind.

In the end, my personal opinion for us young guns is that learning should be the primary focus – and not a slightly higher pay slip.

Knowledge is truly the best long-term compensation. I believe Millie would agree with me. (Thanks again for the email!)

End Sign

If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments, I’m easily reachable by our Facebook and Twitter, or by email at aldo@archistudenthelp.com.

Send me a direct message right here, or feel free to comment publicly below. 🙂

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