Recently I was reading a fascinating
article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times that explored the reasons behind Bell Labs’ success during
the twentieth century, and I was struck by their relevance to the in-house
In the piece, the author, Jon Gertner, lists six fundamental
practices that Mervin Kelly, president of Bell Labs from 1951–1959, implemented
that were the drivers of the organization’s breathtaking innovations.
They included recruiting the best and the brightest (the people who “wrote the
book” in their fields of study), creating multidisciplinary teams, forcing
chance encounters, mixing theory with implementation, granting autonomy and,
most importantly, providing staff the time necessary for true innovation to
Here’s how I see each of those elements relating to
There are several challenges that in-house teams face when recruiting talent—some forced on the team, some self-imposed. The most obvious hurdle is the perception within the design community that in-house design jobs are not as rewarding as similar positions at independent design firms, consultancies and agencies. These are myths that can and should be debunked.
Myth No. 1: Having one client (the parent organization where in-house designers work) limits creative opportunities. This is a simplistic and inaccurate portrayal of the reality of in-house life. In actuality, most organizations where creative teams reside have multiple brands, products, services, departments and functions that require design solutions. In-house groups may be tasked with designing intranets for HR, creating a product pitch for sales or implementing e-learning modules for manufacturing. They often have photographers, videographers, programmers, interactive and print designers, and writers all working together to meet the company’s creative needs. As a matter of fact, at a time when independent design firms are looking at ways to succeed by becoming specialists and thus restricting their employees’ creative opportunities, it’s actually in-house that offers a broader range of career options.
Myth No. 2: In-house design teams are strictly order takers and are not strategic.This may have been true as recently as five years ago but is no longer the case for many corporate creative departments. The outlets for dialogue, training and support that have been provided to in-house leaders has empowered many of them to shift how they operate within their companies and gain that coveted “seat at the table.” A quick review of the exceptional in-house presentations at last year’s “Pivot: AIGA Design Conference” should put to rest any doubts about the shift toward a strategic partner mind-set that has occurred within the in-house community.
A quick note: Rebecca Gimenez points out in her presentation how her in-house team chose NOT to compete with outside firms for the Whitney Museum’s rebrand in order to play a higher-level more strategic role in the process that would never have been available to an outside firm.
Myth No. 3: In-house design teams’ work is not as creative as the work of independent design firms. All one needs to do is look at the multitude and caliber of in-house design competition winners to bust this misperception.
Putting the myths aside, the biggest challenge to securing star talent is in-house design department heads’ poor recruiting practices. The single most important function department directors have is hiring great staff, yet often they don’t prepare for this opportunity by networking and promoting their groups within the greater design community to entice top talent. Worse, they can rush through the hiring process to meet immediate workload needs and then find themselves stuck with mediocre staff because of their reactionary mind-set. Unless this changes, the persistence of mediocre teams will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More than ever before, in-house designers are being offered the chance to participate at a higher level in their organizations through inclusion on multidisciplinary teams—a growing practice in the corporate world. It’s probably a good bet that designers are best positioned to hit the ground running in this “new” model because of design’s focus on collaboration and problem-solving practices.
Not only are designers being invited to contribute to these teams—because of their holistic perspective, they are being tapped to lead these teams. A good example of this phenomenon is the assignment of Brad Weed at Microsoft to head a product development group there, a position traditionally reserved for software engineers.
The most notable continuation of Mervin Kelly’s belief in and practice of creating chance encounters to foster innovation is Steve Jobs’s design of Pixar’s headquarters. But in-house design groups have been carrying this baton for a number of years before it became fashionable for other departments to do the same.
When confronted with the cube, in-house departments have consistently pushed back, made compelling cases for more open loft-like studios and had their areas redesigned. The value has been so obvious that there have been instances where other departments have insisted on eliminating their cube farms, illustrating how in-house design teams can become cultural change agents within their organizations.
In the next issue of INform, I’ll discuss how the in-house design community has embraced the remaining three innovative practices detailed in Gertner’s piece: mixing theory with implementation, granting autonomy and providing staff the time necessary for true innovation to occur.
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
Learn new skills, get career advice from design leaders, and learn how to manage effectively with webinars, workshops, and more from AIGA.
Section: Tools and Resources -
Professional Development, professional development, design educators, students
What does it take to support a community that sold more than $500 million in handmade and vintage products in 2011? Sixteen iPhone pics taken by the Etsy in-house design team capture the love for design and spirit of making that’s built into the company’s DNA and culture.
Section: Inspiration -
INitiative, in-house design, culture, students
Bob Sutton, business management guru, Stanford professor and author of Weird Ideas That Work, The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, pulls from his considerable body of business research, analysis and well-informed common sense to advise in-house designers.
Section: Inspiration -
INitiative, in-house design, advice, collaboration, design educators
At Pentagram Julia Hoffmann designed for renowned clients including The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Then as art director for Crispin Porter + Bogusky, she worked for powerhouses like Burger King. Still, since joining MoMA in 2008, she believes that “in-house design studios are the future of successful branding.” In this interview, learn why.
Section: Inspiration -
INitiative, branding, in-house design
Design Jobs is an exclusive job board for AIGA members. Look here to find your next design job—or design hire!
Section: Tools and Resources -
"Tucson has a very strong creative community," said Susan Seeley Roe. "AIGA's events are the glue that keep us connected."
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Kennesaw, GeorgiaJanuary 7 2016