Like most architecture students, I heard the debate about whether it was better to work at a large or small design firm numerous times during my collegiate career. There are undoubtedly benefits offered by firms of each size, and you’ll find tons of people eager to discuss how the resources of a large firm can compare to the creative flexibility of a small firm and similar such discussions during your student journey. Truthfully, there’s no one best option or preferred path, but, with thousands of students set to head back to architecture or design school this fall, I wanted to share my perspective.
It was just a few years ago that I was in my final year of school and faced with a decision: what size firms should I pursue for my first job? There were numerous aspects of small firms that spoke to me, but ultimately, I chose the large-firm experience. Big offices, big projects, job security, the latest tech, modeling and 3D printed resources—this all sounded great to me. Two years in, I’ve found most of those benefits to ring true, but I’ve also uncovered several benefits I didn’t know I should have been looking for in the first place. These unplanned discoveries have made a significant difference in my day-to-day experience and in helping to kickstart my career. I thought it might be helpful to share them so other students can consider them when making their decision in 2018 and beyond.
1. People as a Resource
Working at a large firm, I expected to have access to an abundance of physical resources—the latest tech, any drawing and modeling tools I might need, an extensive material library, and so on. What I did not realize was how valuable the people I would meet could be for my career. At a large firm, you meet so many people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise who can help you learn and grow in unexpected ways. At our firm (I work for CannonDesign), we have subject matter experts that support our various market practices. These individuals have very specific knowledge that we can access. If I want to learn more about clinical healthcare planning, there’s a resource for that. If I have an interest in construction administration, there’s a resource who can help. If my passion is BIM technology and project integration—you guessed it—there are people who can support me. I imagine there are similar models at other large design firms and new grads should consider how having these minds at their fingertips can provide learning and development opportunities.
2. The Unexpected Ways Large Firms Support Licensure
After graduation, becoming a licensed architect is often the next significant goal in a designer’s journey. I knew large firms typically have strong licensure support programs and I expected to receive support for my study materials and exam fees, but the other resources available have surprised me. I can take exams without using a personal day or my weekends. I have access to study groups, not only in our New York City office but across the firm, that ensures I can strategize with other ARE candidates about the nuances of the exams. Our office even has an ARE mentor who checks in on all of us who are studying to offer support and encouragement. I imagine the depth of these resources may not have been available at a smaller firm, and so far they have really helped me work toward licensure.
3. Multi-Market Experience
Choosing between working for a large or small firm is not the only tough decision young designers face early in their career. Often, they don’t know if they’d like to focus on a specific market like healthcare, civic or science, etc. One of the helpful benefits of working at a larger firm is the variety of opportunities to experience these markets. While I am currently working on a healthcare team, I’ve also explored the world of higher education, science & technology, and corporate commercial projects. If I want to change markets, I have the flexibility to transfer to a different team or project without leaving my office or firm.
This allows me to have a sense of entrepreneurial freedom with room to learn and grow—all in one place.
4. Inter-Office Opportunities
Large firms have multiple offices and this creates an abundance of opportunities for designers. Even in the early stages of my career, I can work on a project in a different state from where I live, work temporarily on a project at a different office and travel to cities across the country or world (I haven’t traveled internationally yet—but the opportunity is there). This multiple-office model means if a large firm wins a massive, multi-phase project in California, designers in New York City may have the chance to help make it a reality. Beyond just researching a firm’s size, young designers should also ask potential employers if they support such a collaborative culture.
I’ve been able to experience the benefit of this model in numerous ways. I was able to transfer from our Chicago office to NYC to live closer to home. By making the move in the same firm, I retained my connections and experiences in Chicago while expanding my network. This kind of freedom helps young designers move and grow without having to take big risks or make undesirable career changes.
5. Best of Both Worlds
One thing I heard frequently during my studies was the idea that large firms do not offer the “tight-knit team feel” you will find at smaller firms. While others may have had this experience, I’ve realized just the opposite. Yes, joining an office with 200+ people can be intimidating and getting lost in the crowd is possible. I took that risk and I’d argue working at a larger firm helped me find the right small group of people as opposed to the only small group of people.
This balance of large firm and small teams provides important flexibility to develop professional relationships in a variety of forms. This is by far the most important benefit I’ve enjoyed in my career. The small-team atmosphere makes my daily work more enjoyable—helping me feel comfortable and confident that I am a key player in the work we do.
There will always be a debate about whether young architects should begin their careers at large of small firms. And it’s possible that, had my career taken me a different path, I’d be writing a piece with a completely different view. But, two years in, I’ve discovered a number of benefits I never considered that assure me a large firm was the right starting point for my career. These “hidden gems” have shaped my experiences beyond what I could have imagined. I hope my story can help others make the right choice for them.
Heather Rosen is an intern architect with two years of experience working at CannonDesign. She has worked on projects in multiple markets and been involved in programming, planning and design efforts.