“Working as a designer” means many many different things, of course, depending on which context you might yourself. Over the last 8 years I’ve had the unique chance to experience a wide range of situations, each embodying a unique character and quality, from large enterprise to a boutique design shop. But there are few major commonplace types of design contexts, as itemized and described briefly below.

1. Centralized standards enforcement group: (corporate)

Refers to a centrally funded and geographically located team comprised of designers (visual, interaction, etc.), usability experts, and design managers focused on standardizing a comprehensive set of interface guidelines, design patterns, components/flows/templates all directed towards ensuring a harmonious consistency across diverse product UI’s in their presentation and behavior, as well as functional integration (as required, for large-scale enterprise systems or consumer packaged suites).

Rigorous processes and methods are employed to ensure accuracy and consistency, including periodic cross-team critiques, score-carding, and executive level reviews. Designers are charged with the duty to enforce the sanctioned design consistency, as well as identify opportunities to create new guidelines/patterns as requirements arise.

2. Embedded within an engineering (or marketing) team: (corporate)

In this model, the designer(s) directly reports to either an engineering manager (ie, development manager/lead) or marketing manager, rather than located within a separate design silo or department. When embedded within the actual engineering team, you are directly responsible for providing design direction and assets corresponding to the product to be built. You are also in direct contact with the product builders, with product-specific demands for implementation immediately imposed upon you. The designer is directly on the product team, not partially distanced by reporting to a separate design team/manager, so the chance for influence and control may increase.

3. Advanced concepts (or research) team: (corporate)

Depending on the team charter, this may be a small team of product developers (PM, Dev, QA, UI, Doc, etc.) recruited to “invent the next generation” product as a limited prototype/concept car, eventually becoming a full-blown product for rollout with rest of the company.

Or this may be a department under a long-term agreement to explore emerging product horizons, technologies, trends, with a focus on continual experimentation in multiple projects across disciplines: animation, eye-tracking, visual querying, touch-screen, etc. Concepts, prototypes, user studies are constantly happening, with product sponsors looking to productize whatever “new ideas” bubble up.

4. Centrally managed/organized but BU-funded: (corporate)

Awkwardly phrased, I admit but basically this refers to a situation whereby the designers, usability, and management are all centralized physically and organizationally…yet the funding for each designer (thus guiding the designers’ product assignments) is done via the business units (BU’s) such as “CRM” or “Dynamic Media BU”, etc. This could cause some awkward tensions if designers are working on multiple projects outside the initial hiring/funding!

5. Internal design consultancy: (agency/corp)

I think this is a bit rare, but I’ve heard Philips does this? Need to re-confirm but the gist is…The designers (along with researchers and managers) are collectively organized into a single team but must bid on internal projects, along with external agencies, thereby setting up an interesting competition! Hmm…

6. External design consultancy: (agency)

There are global design consultancies (ie, frog, IDEO, Pentagram) and smaller boutique studios focused on a specific problem space (etc, Involution, etc.) but either way, the designer works for an outside client. Depending on size and focus (and project parameters/proposal), the agency processes and approaches for engaging with the client may vary. There is camaraderie with fellow studio inhabitants, along with various pressures and deadlines, deliverables, etc. And expect mostly short-term projects of various flavors, dynamics, timelines, thus requiring a great deal of flexibility and adaptation by the designer.

This is by no means a comprehensive listing–only based upon my personal experiences. There are hybrid forms, of course. And many other forms of organizational set-ups exist and function with differing degrees of success. Some may or may not match a designer’s temperament and approaches, so for designers seeking new opportunities its important to consider the context in which you will practice design.