Design-Led or Corporate Firm?


I have been offered two jobs:

1. 100 strong design-led studio doing masterplans, resi, commercial, up to $300m, Pros: Well known practice, director is famous architect, work published in magazines, friendly office culture, Cons: quite likely to be a sweatshop, little opportunity to take projects through construction. 

2. Globally-sized corporate firm active in various sectors, various sized projects $10-200m. Pros: Better package (inc. OT pay), BIM enabled practice, interviewer promised involvement in smaller local projects from inception to construction. Cons: Uninteresting projects, corporate office culture.

My background: 2 years out of school with experience at a A&E firm, where I have the option to stay, planning to get licensed in the next 2-3 years.

I really want to take job 1 and work on some shiny projects that I can then showcase in my portfolio and move upwards, but I am very worried about work life balance. I view firm 2 as a more stable decision, that would make me a more well-rounded professional but if I get to work on small uninteresting projects this could look bad in my portfolio for the future.

Both firms offer roughly the same money.

What do you think?

Jul 9, 18 7:36 pm


Jul 9, 18 8:29 pm  · 

1. You only live once, why not do it stressed out and overworked with underpaid overtime in exchange for "exposure"

Jul 9, 18 8:55 pm  · 

"100 strong design-led studio" - Is this an euphemism? Once the office is that size, its pretty much corporate.

Go for 2. No one gives a flying f about shiny projects later on in your career. School is for that kind of thing.

Jul 9, 18 10:07 pm  · 

the path to advance your career ia limited at 1, you will likely out in 5 years

Jul 10, 18 9:11 pm  · 

Appear to both be variations on the same corporate model.  You likely be pigeon-holed in both firms and likely not get to fully execute the full building design at either firm...if that's what you are looking for.  Getting registered is an admirable goal but if you can't design /detail and execute on the building what good is it. Consider a smaller design firm where you can run and manage a complete series of projects, ideally small and mid size where you learn how to perform all the tasks necessary to become a decent architect.

Jul 11, 18 12:49 pm  · 

If nothing else I'd personally never work in a non-BIM office ever again.

It's 2018. Anyone not in BIM is either a dinosaur or cheap. Neither qualities are something I want to deal with in a boss.

Jul 11, 18 1:56 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

amen... we handle both CAD and BIM jobs, depending on the client... and I've just recently had to switch back to CAD for a few industrial projects and am sad. Our main issue in our area is the stubbornness of the p.engs to adopt BIM. Can't find a p.eng (specially M&E) who can understand the basics of BIM anywhere.


Agree with both tduds and Non. Since moving to BIM, a majority of our staff groans anytime someone mentions a CAD project coming into the office. (Some of our clients don't give you a choice.) We are in between with our consultants. Most of our structural engineers only use CAD (one is currently making the switch though) but our mech engineers use BIM.

Non Sequitur

Option 2.  You can thank me in 6months when you're still employed and working on long term projects.

Jul 11, 18 2:07 pm  · 

1. 100 strong design-led studio doing masterplans, resi, commercial, up to $300m, Pros: Well known practice, director is famous architect, work published in magazines, friendly office culture, Cons: quite likely to be a sweatshop, little opportunity to take projects through construction. 

2. Globally-sized corporate firm active in various sectors, various sized projects $10-200m. Pros: Better package (inc. OT pay), BIM enabled practice, interviewer promised involvement in smaller local projects from inception to construction. Cons: Uninteresting projects, corporate office culture.

CHOOSE #1. Only work for a firm that has uninteresting projects if you want to be an uninteresting designer. Seriously, you will eventually lament the work if it doesn't excite you, and this will happen within the first 3-6 months, then everyday you'll dislike it more and more and will experience #fomo. 

If you want to learn how to change the world with your creative thinking, work for that famous architect. Working in a "sweatshop" is no big deal if you're constantly enthused with the work, because then its actual FUN.

I've had experience in both scenarios. I took Option #1 and would never turn back to #2 unless they offered to make me a Principal.

Jul 11, 18 2:43 pm  · 

You should get paid, preferably a living wage, for the work you do.  You should not work in an office that foster's or tolerates abusive behavior from and toward other employees. If either of these prerequisites can be met at option 1 or 2 then go for the one that might make you happy.  

The design oriented firms tend to be lower paying/ less benefits and these firms have an expiration date as the lead designer whose name is often on the door retires, falls out of favor or does something terrible. The small design studios that lean on a single individual tend not to outlast the individual who is the core of the firm's identity.  The larger corporate firms have a system to stay in business for decades and are not dependent on a single individual and are likely to have a ladder that you can climb without having to go to funerals or other unfortunate social functions.  

Over and OUT

Peter N

Jul 11, 18 5:59 pm  · 

Option 2 with out a doubt.  Both places sound like sweat shops, but one pays overtime, gives you an opportunity, and most importantly, doesn't have a potential Howard Roark figure at the helm.  And how friendly is that environment when all the wanna be stars are crucifying themselves for...what?  Get those hum drum projects and do something with them, think for your self. 

 - Good luck

Jul 12, 18 11:54 am  · 

Go for 1. Trust me I've been there. Its worth it. You'll never understand that now. Its easier to take a safer bet. If you want longevity in your career, make sacrifices and seize the opportunities right now. You'll be damn happy that you pulled it off 5 years later.

Think twice. 



Jul 13, 18 4:59 am  · 

100 strong = corporate

Jul 13, 18 8:39 am  · 

I'm assuming you are a woman given your screen name, but my comment applies to all genders. If you are young (you said 2-3 years out of school) now, then choosing a place that will demand longer hours now is IMO better than choosing it later.

Partly because should you choose to have kids eventually, it will be more valuable *then* to be at a firm with a good work/life balance. When you're young and child-free you're still able to work intense, passionate hours relatively easily, and it can be a fun, studio-like experience. That said, *do not work somewhere abusive.* If it's truly a sweatshop, to the point that your physical or mental health suffers, it's not worth it. But if you want to try a few years of intense, starchitecty experience, better to do it now.

There is SO much time to change jobs, pursue other tracks, try different ways of being an architect in this career. 

Jul 13, 18 9:12 am  · 

See this is scary for a person like me. I'll be almost 34 when I finish grad school. I'm looking for the exciting, passionate intriguing work, and don't want to get bogged down in a boring cooperate firm position where my head is down and I look up in 20 years asking myself what I've done...

But at the same time, I do need job security, and a great life-work balance when I'm out of school. Is there much of opportunity out there for that in, not necessarily a starchitect firm, but a one that will provide exciting, real design, and experimentation ect. work beyond unfulfilling tasks for someone who will enter the scene at my age?


I would say yes, but more likely you will find it in a small-to-medium-sized firm than in a large corporate one. In larger firms they tend to track people into specific tasks while at smaller firms you need to be more of a jack of all trades.


Donna's right, go with the passion, if you feel it at the starchitecture place.  If that's the best way to feed what drives your interests in architecture, go with that now.   And if it doesn't work out, you'll get to say, hey, that starchitecture stuff is bs, especially the abusive part that seems to go with large egos.  Either way, you'll learn a lot from every experience if you keep an open mind.  Some of the quietest people are geniuses.

Jul 13, 18 9:54 am  · 

Thanks Thayer! I also thought your comment above was a good one - if the starchitect's office is a highly competitive group of people, they might be fun but also exhausting and even back-stabby. Again, easier to deal with that when you're young and can learn a lot then move on...


You mention that both firms are offering the same approximate salary.  I would go for option #2, but negotiate a higher salary. Smaller firms typically cannot pay what a large, global firm can. 

Jul 13, 18 1:38 pm  · 

Design Vs. Corporate lingo is rather tired. Most firms today are at least a little bit both. And one would guess that you are not comparing a famous starchitect with the most prosaic ho-hum architects of big box stores or tract housing. So probably there is a fair share of ego, hours, design, security, competitiveness and bean counting to be had at either.

Size is also pedantic but the following overview over at Architectural Record could help you: https://www.architecturalrecor...

Also, it takes perhaps 5-10 years out of school to figure out what line of work you are actually most interested in. The difference between firms might come down to your potential exposure to the various roles that architects take on in ANY office and whether you want to place yourself in a role or be placed in one.

Jul 15, 18 8:51 pm  · 

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