A significant percentage of the design community works in-house
at large corporations. The designers, illustrators and
photographers who choose to work in those departments do so for the
opportunity for structure, benefits, predictable hours, career
paths and greater collaboration.
If you doubt that a large percentage of designers are working
for in-house firms, attend a conference at DMI, AIGA, HOW, SEGD or
myriad others, and just look at the attendee list. In spite of
their numbers, they are underserved in some ways. All the design
topics are applicable, but there is very little advice available on
how to run a creative department. How should it be structured? What
systems will ensure good work that is also timely? How should that
department be marketed?
You weren't expecting that last one, were you? “Market an
in-house department?” you ask. They have a built-in customer, don't
they? What would marketing do for them?
Regardless of the setting, marketing is about control, not
growth. It's about controlling the kind of work you get, when you
get it, what they think of you and how valued a partner you are.
And it is precisely for these reasons that in-house departments
must start to take their own branding seriously.
In my consulting experience I know this for a fact. No matter
why they call seeking help, the word “respect” always seems to
creep into the conversation. In-house designers continually express
concern about why their opinions are not valued, why they are given
very little time to get work done, why the plum jobs get sent to
outside boutique shops and why there seems to be little
appreciation for what they do.
What follows, then, are six suggestions to enable in-house
departments to become valuable partners to their internal
You do have clients, right? You must think about them this way,
and part of not taking them for granted means surveying them
regularly to quantify how well you are doing. You might not be
doing this already because you fear the results, but asking for
feedback is actually more important than the feedback you get. In
other words, you get mileage just from asking.
Whether you do it yourself or use an outside consultant, here
are some questions you might ask:
Compare your results each year and watch for trends, using the
information to enhance particular service policies. But in addition
to this yearly written (or web-based) survey, the manager of the
department should check in with each client individually, whether
informally, as they happen to pass in the hallway, or more directly
via a phone call. The bottom line is: are you sending signals that
you take their business for granted or do they fully understand
that you want their business and appreciate the opportunity to make
Have you ever stopped to think about what it is that makes you
valuable to your internal clients? If you are thinking “cheap” and
“handy,” shame on you. CFO types who decide to bring all that work
in-house often justify the decision on that basis, and they even
continue to evaluate your continued existence as a department in
But it's wrong. The most valuable independent creative firms are
those that are specialized, focused and narrow in their approach.
They use category experience or practice areas to highlight their
expertise, and when they are pitching against generalist firms,
they can almost always win because prospective clients want
experts, not generalists with A.D.D.
That positioning should transfer to your department, too. Your
value to internal clients should be primarily this: your
specialization in understanding what that company does. You know
the product or service, you know the buyers of that product or
service, you know the competitors. You are an expert.
And yes, you are also efficient, timely and cost-effective, but
that's a very dangerous positioning on its own. The studies we've
done have not demonstrated that you are cheaper than using an
outside provider, long term. But regardless of that, there will
always be someone willing to do it quicker or cheaper, so start
thinking of yourself instead as a built-in expert. And then protect
that expertise by only doing work that's a good fit for your
skills, finding outside partners for the remainder. You have to
learn to say no while preserving your relationship as a team
While it's not so common to do so, be sure that you pay
appropriate attention to those who interface with your “clients”
and those who do the equivalent of account planning for them.
Account executives, or what I call Deliverers, are very capable
people. They are organized, forthright, helpful and good at
managing relationships. Most importantly, they know exactly what
questions to ask to gather all the information necessary so that
those working on their behalf have everything at their disposal to
do great work. Find good ones and make sure they are trained
Account planners are those who actually guide projects
strategically. Many in-house departments are involved more in
implementation than strategic guidance, but that's a mistake. You
need experts in marketing and branding on your staff, just as
standalone creative service providers have on theirs.
To serve your internal “clients” well, you need to treat them
like real clients. That means having a good timekeeping system,
honest predictions of cost and delivery schedule, frequent updates
initiated by you, a standard intake procedure so that good work is
done out of the gate, and good tracking systems that will mean
real-time updates of your progress.
Money is the currency of respect, and unless you are exchanging
work for money, you aren't garnering the respect you should. In
case you aren't aware of it, many in-house departments have
“charge-back” systems in place in which client departments
establish budgets at the outset of the year, and then transfer
funds from department to department (on paper only) as each project
is complete. Almost every company does this for hard costs (any
outside service like printing, photography, etc.) but some do it
for soft costs, too, based on an hourly rate established at the
While it might be terrifying to consider a charge-back system,
all it does is introduce some accountability on both sides,
resulting in greater respect all around. Consider these
From your own experience and the ideas I've just shared, you
already know if your in-house department has a positioning problem.
Besides the suggestions above, you might think about implementing
your own marketing plan. If your internal clients only assume
they'll be using you, consider yourself taken for granted.
But there are some things you can do about it. First, publish a
quarterly newsletter talking about what you've done, how you did it
and how successful it was for another department. Include a section
with trends in marketing, with particular emphasis on marketing
within the product or service niche served by your company. You
might even feature a different “client” in each issue.
Second, push to be part of the yearly budget planning that each
of your client departments will do. Lend your expertise in helping
them spend their dollars wisely and thus get the most from your
Third, hold company-wide seminars on marketing and design. Make
them fun, interesting and informative.
Fourth, to whatever degree you are allowed, make your own
department an entirely different place, where your creativity is
obvious from the moment someone walks in. Fashion a place where
“clients” will want to come because it looks like an independent
firm: a place to get away from the routine.
In sum, treat your clients as if you had to land them yourself
and as if they were free to use anybody they wanted. If you don't,
they'll eventually end up with that freedom and you'll be looking
for a job.
As the largest professional association
of designers in the world, AIGA is committed to advancing the value and
impact of design, both locally and globally, and working together to
inspire, support and learn from each other, at every stage of our
careers. Whether you're an established designer looking to give back or a
student just starting out, there's a membership level for you.
Section: About AIGA -
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If you feel that your solo in-house design role provides minimal professional development, here are five ways to overcome it and grow your career.
Section: Inspiration -
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