The Ins and Outs of Working In-house
I started my career at the in-house design department of a Fort Lauderdale–based construction company. It was a terrible experience that lasted all of seven days. After that I swore to never work in-house anywhere, ever again. For four jobs (and about as many years) I kept that promise. Then I moved to New York City.
In other cities, I never had any trouble finding work. I would decide I hated my job one week, only to have another one lined up the next. I got unsolicited job offers and was the subject of a few hostile take-over attempts. I ignorantly assumed that New York would be the same. As one of the capitals of design, it must have thousands of jobs to offer, no? As you can all imagine, I quickly discovered it was quite the opposite.
New York may be home to the Mad Men and Pentagrams of the world, but also to an awful lot of in-house design departments, which I guess comes with the proliferation of Corporate Headquarters. In the midst of what was starting to become desperation, a hiring manager for the in-house creative department of a major entertainment company called me, I interviewed more times than I ever had for anything, and was offered the job. With the construction company experience in the back of my mind, I deliberated my decision. Maybe I just had an isolated unfortunate experience? Maybe working in-house wasn't always so bad? I would soon confirm that there are indeed downsides (OUTs), but I also discovered upsides (INs)—good things that are usually not found at design firms. I accepted the position. The fact that I was on my last hundred-dollar bill certainly helped me make that decision. Here are the INs and OUTs of what I've learned from working in-house.
Most big companies are fairly loyal to their employees, and perhaps a bit afraid to get sued if they would ever mistreat workers. That means that you have a much lesser chance of being laid off without notice or apparent reason. You have health insurance, the good kind. Your paycheck is handled by people who actually know finance and arrives, on time, deposited right into your bank account. I had a previous job where I was paid by personal check (who has time to go to the bank?), always delivered at least two days late—not appreciated when you have bills to pay. Maybe most people do not choose a design career because they are looking for stability, but that's a whole other matter.
Often, companies have an established style already, which a new designer can do very little to affect. “It doesn't look like us.” is something that you will hear uttered frequently by those reviewing your work—creatives and non-creatives alike. In a way, it is a good challenge to keep pushing the envelope within a certain set of boundaries, but let's face it, you are very limited and that's not how any designer wants to work.
Your clients are all working under the same roof as you, which means that you have constant access and can walk down a flight of stairs to ask a question that you would have to have passed along several lines of communication in an agency. And no one will think it's weird that you do this, because you do work for the same company after all. There is a bad side though...
OUT: Having to answer to Higher-ups
You know those people that sit one or two floors above you and have offices with terraces? These are Higher-ups and they are way more important than you. They also have all the design sensibility they could ever want, just by virtue of their (non-design-related) titles. Therefore, their word is truth and law and shall never be debated. Even grammatical copy errors are OK, if they wrote the copy. They also make way more money than you could ever dream of. Unfair? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Counterintuitive to anything we have learned about the creative process? Yes. They will also never know your name or understand what you actually do. Deal with it.
IN: Tech support
If you have an issue, just pick up the phone, dial a four-digit extension and you will be helped. Usually right away, because lost productivity is not looked upon kindly in Corporate America. This means no more figuring out work-arounds, like InDesign-will-unfreeze-if-I-click-the-Finder-icon-twice-quit-and-restart-iChat-and-deactivate-Futura-in-Fontbook. As much as I enjoy the tremendous creativity it requires to come to those kinds of solutions, they suck, and not having to deal with them is awesome. However, in order to do this the tech people sometimes take control of your screen remotely, which is freaky, and you know that they can do this any time they like just to check in on you (and Facebook is not considered work). You also will not have a password to your computer and probably not be allowed to have iChat on there. They will install all the newest programs on your laptop too, though, which is good now that they have become impossible to steal (not that I ever would).
Previously, I honestly thought those “greige” cubicle landscapes only existed as parodies on TV, but they are real, very real. They are also ugly, dreary, depressing and unwelcoming to any form of creativity. I know some in-house creative departments have managed to convince the Higher-ups that they need a different kind of environment in order to be able to create anything remotely creative, but that is not the case where I work. In Escape From Cubicle Nation (yes, I read it) author Pamela Slim refers to studies that have proven that the particular color of cubicles (greige) actually promotes degeneration of brain cells. They make you dumb! I have plastered my office with colorful posters in hopes that it will counterbalance this effect.
IN: Name recognition
When vendors, especially printers, hear the name of the large Corporation you work for, they practically start salivating. To think that there is oodles of money to be spend on creative, simply because the business itself makes huge profits, is foolish. In my experience, there is, in fact, less of a willingness to spend money on printing and such extravagances. It does get you plenty of promos and other small perks, and everyone will want to talk to you and offer you a deal, just so they can put your name on the list of clients.
OUT: Internal audit
Big Brother is watching you. From an office just down the hall... The first time I was paid a visit I was very impressed at how these people snuck into my office unnoticed and struck up a conversation. It was all very stealth. I instantly felt guilty (knew I should have put stamps on that package I sent last month!). The matter was not related to me, but I now know that they walk among us, these internal auditors, on a mission to ensure that we all comply with Corporate Policy. Do I say hello in the elevator or does that immediately incriminate me?
IN: A mailroom
The fact that I use the mailroom more for personal stuff than work-related mailings is besides the point (I would like to point out to my friends at HR and Internal Audit that I always buy my own stamps). You will not have to walk to the post office to do anything anymore, and you will not have to drive a half hour to the last FedEx pickup spot at 7:53 in the evening. You can also have all the important stuff you order for yourself (books, handbags, contact lenses, Netflix) delivered to your office by these reliable (and often very nice) people. Comes in handy if you, as I do, happen to live in the ZIP code with the most incompetent and possibly thieving postal workers in the Western Hemisphere.
OUT: Starvation-diet of type
The corporate typeface is a great tool for maintaining consistency across all forms of communication within a company, but it just gets sooo boring after a while. I have almost forgotten how exciting it was to start out a project by doing a typeface study and picking which one would best set the tone for whatever creative challenge lay at hand. Type becomes default, and the choice between light, medium or bold is about as exciting as it gets. For invites and special pieces I have gotten away with a few stray instances of non-corporates like Bodoni Poster and Neutraface, but that's rare.
IN: Corporate outings
These are awesomely awkward instances where you are supposed to socialize casually with the people you know better for their email bylines and suits than their real-life personalities. Such outings usually involve extremely bad food and some type of physical activity, and drinking. The drinking is the best part.
OUT: Dress code
You know that stereotypical designer with dark-rimmed glasses, a graphic T-shirt, plaid shirt, dark-wash jeans and hip sneakers? He/she is not welcome in Corporate America. Well, the glasses are, but when you replace the rest of that image with Corporate-approved attire like khakis, polos, dress shirts, dress pants, below-the-knee skirts and closed-toe shoes, those glasses make you look more like a Corporate drone than the designer you actually are. Identity crisis ensues. The fact is, designers rarely attend business meetings, make deals or engage in any type of other Corporate Activity. So why should we have to dress like we do? It's just a form of disguised mockery. Yes, we do presentations sometimes, and then we know we need to dress the part, but please, Corporate America, give us our jeans back. They make us better designers. Seriously.
I have gotten them at design firms, but they've been pretty symbolic. Once, it was $250 (pre-tax), twice that little white square-ish Color Index book (do I have a bad sense of color or something?). Once I received $1,000 and an orange iPod Shuffle, but no paycheck for the last part of December, which would have been more than $1,079. When confronting my boss, he said, “But, I gave you money before Christmas!” and would not budge when I tried to explain to him that closing the office and giving your employees time off did not mean that you don't have to pay them. My corporate bonus is probably less than a Wall Street banker would spend on a night out with friends—it was also less than it should have been because of the financial crash—but it did buy me a spanking new laptop. I have high hopes for this year. Maybe I can buy some magic pants that turn into denim when I leave the perimeter of the office building?
Fellow in-house designers, I would love to hear your INs and OUTs—let's start a dialogue. We need to protect our brains from deteriorating. Always remember, whatever you do, don't stare at that soft greige semi-wall!
About the Author: Johanna Björk is a designer and brand strategist based in Southern California. Originally from Sweden, she was raised on a steady diet of greens, good stories and great style. Her work has been featured in design annuals and magazines like Print, Marie Claire, Plaza Magazine and Elle. A firm believer in the power of elegant simplicity, she uses her storytelling abilities to get to the essence of a brand and help spread its core message, using both words and visuals. She knows that great work is made from equal parts creative inspiration, impeccable execution and strategic thinking. Björk has worked with everything from small nonprofits to NFL teams to Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Notable brands include The International Living Future Institute, Art Basel Miami Beach, The Miami Design District, W Hotels & Residences, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, The Related Group, The National Football League, Fashion Positive/Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, Patagonia, PACT, Organic India, Manduka, and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. An ardent advocate for sustainability and design thinking, she frequently contributes writings to publications such as Dwell, PSFK, Do More, Coco Eco Magazine, EcoSalon and Goodlifer and has served on the boards of several nonprofits, including AIGA, Fashion Revolution Day and Global Action Through Fashion. What she loves most about the design profession is the opportunity it offers to immerse herself in a wide variety of topics, from sports to luxury hotels to sustainable fashion.