My wife and I have become
addicted to the TV series “Lie to Me.” It’s a formulaic
but entertaining show about Dr. Cal Lightman, a man who can read people’s micro-expressions
and determine if they are lying or not—a skill that would come in handy for all
The show has one particular subplot that
caught my attention and struck me as relevant to us in-house
designers who are trying to adapt and integrate ourselves into the culture of our host
organizations. Ben Reynolds, an FBI agent on loan to The Lightman Group, is set
up as having a rather dark past—a former undercover cop who got sucked into
the criminal culture he had received orders to infiltrate. (While on
assignment, he became an addict and even committed a murder before being
dragged out and rescued by his department!)
When, as creatives, we try
to go “undercover” and fit into corporate environments, we are confronted with a similar risk: becoming overly integrated into our places of work. Case in
point, it was only a few months ago that I found myself somewhat dismissively
considering a pair of conservatively groomed executives walking
around with an air of entitlement. I quietly congratulated myself for not being like “them.”
As I thought about this incident more, however, I experienced an almost visceral sense
of fear when I suddenly realized that I may have actually become
someone not too different from them. If they were “The Man,” was I “The Man,”
I don’t mean to imply that
everyone running around the halls of corporate America is a corporate animal,
but there is some truth behind the stereotype. And I wanted nothing to do with
that persona. Yet hadn’t my wife recently mentioned to me that I was using more
and more corporate jargon when I spoke? How about the calculated, politically
motivated emails I was sending to difficult clients and
co-workers? Taking an objective look at my conduct on the job, I identified several instances where I had unconsciously towed the corporate line regardless of its fairness or the harm
it brought to my co-workers.
Truth be told, I may not
have become “The Man” but I had certainly become “the guy who’s an awful lot
like The Man.” It happened slowly and insidiously. And I’d hasten to add that it began
with the best of intentions. Those intentions, which some of you may share, are
for us, as designers, to become so integrated into our host organizations that
we have a complete understanding of the mission, culture, brand, competitors,
products, services, process, policies, procedures, clients and customers. This
level of internalized knowledge affords us the unique opportunity to produce materials
and provide strategic advice that best benefits our companies.
This is all good stuff. The
problem arises when we drink just a little bit too much of the
corporate Kool-Aid. We suddenly find ourselves losing perspective on our
assignments and, more insidiously, on appropriate behaviors and ethics. Maybe we begin to suffer
from what I call brand-blindness—an inability to objectively assess our brands
because we’re seeing them through the filter of the company’s (rather than the
Whatever the manifestations
of dangerous group-think, the best ways I’ve found to keep from getting sucked in include self-awareness, mindfulness, gut-checks and check-ins with trusted friends
and colleagues—along with a dose of courage. Even with these strategies firmly in place,
I’ve still found myself adopting attitudes and behaviors out of sync with whom
I want to be. This is because the transformation can happen so gradually that I
don’t even notice that it’s happening until I find myself in a situation where
I’ve behaved in a way that’s foreign to whom I imagine myself to be, and I’m
shocked into awareness.
The most obvious—and absolute—solution
is to work exclusively for companies whose mission and culture one respects. Frankly,
based on my personal experience and conversations I’ve had with other in-house designers, that’s not always possible.
To maintain my integrity in-house, I do my best to avoid adopting the company culture
wholesale. Instead, I use my creativity and ethical sensibilities to actively work to improve that culture. This, in the end, may be one of
the greatest contributions we in-house designers can make to the companies that
Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund.
He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point
Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.
Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing
support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and
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