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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
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...
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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Section: Inspiration -
interview, INitiative, advertising, illustration, branding, graphic design, identity design, in-house design, print design, corporate design
Remember when summer vacation meant three months of care-free days? The AIGA Baltimore board members remember, too, so we’re taking this July off for some much needed R&R. We'll see you in August, though!
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