Simple answer – a design studio has 10 or fewer team members and an agency has greater than 10 (Source: Australian Graphic Design Association).
Longer answer – an agency normally has team members with very specific skill sets which may render them harder to employ by smaller studios. An agency will generally have a number of human resources that are responsible for sales, administration, management and then niche fields of design such as conceptual artist, junior, mid-weight and senior designers, creative directors and finished artist/s.
As an example, in a studio, a graphic designer may need to be able to handle print, digital, web or sign projects and take them from concept through to finished art. A studio may also have a smaller team working on your collateral which can create consistency across your different projects.
In an agency, a project concept may be prepared by a graphic designer/s and then sent through to the finished artist who may check layouts, spelling & grammar, image resolution and then prepare for print or digital use. Turnaround times in an Agency are generally longer as there are more hands and processes for each project to go through. For example, quoting & estimating, taking a brief, contracts and terms & conditions sign offs, scheduling, then design concepts, proofs, revisions, final art, final approval, output etc.
Another example is in a website project. In a studio, the designer may come up with the concept and then build the site including SEO. In an agency, the designer may come up with the concept and then pass over to a developer/s who writes the code for the site. It may then be passed over to a specialist in SEO who then makes all the necessary adjustments.
When selecting whether to use a design studio or agency for your business or organisation there are some key differences to take into account.
Do you prepare your marketing well in advance or last minute?
Businesses who prepare their marketing materials well in advance, can easily choose either option. Agencies will need more time to execute a project than a studio due to the many hands that are involved in the process. Studios are smaller and can generally turn projects around much quicker.
Do you often require small projects, or are they far larger?
If you often need smaller projects completed, a studio is a great fit. The output is consistent due to not having large teams of different designers working on your business.
For projects requiring extensive work in a very tight timeframe including national campaigns with television commercials, photo shoots, retouching, print advertisements, multiple newspaper advertisements going out concurrently, billboards (and everything else), then an agency with teams of designers is probably the best solution. Saying that, studios may also be able to handle the workload in a short timeframe with freelancers and additional contracted team members should they be required.
Are you happy to work with multiple staff, or would you prefer to deal with one contact?
Clients who have worked with large agencies have often said that the only time they speak with the creative director is when they engage the agency and when they fire the agency. The rest of the time you deal with either a agency manager or the junior designer who has been assigned your account. Whilst working with a junior designer may often (but not all the time) mean you get reduced hourly rates for your design work, it may also come at the cost of efficiency, speed and additional revisions to get it right compared to a more experienced designer.
Dealing with a large agency will often mean you work with multiple people. Working with a studio often means you may deal directly with the business owners.
Essentially, as any design studio grows in size, design positions become more specific to each team member’s strengths and, due to the increased volume of projects that come through a larger firm, they will then specialise into their niche area. Studios generally use a designer that will work on your materials from start to finish.
As a business, you should identify which option is best for you and your goals.
(Revised 28.03.2023, originally published 06.04.2020)