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It has been a privilege—and actually an
inspiration—to witness and participate in the thoughtful dialogue in the
design community about if and how we, as designers, can make a
difference in the world.
As an in-house designer working squarely in the business sphere, I
wonder if in addition to the entrepreneurial and philanthropic
initiatives started by designers, there’s also a route within the more
traditional corporate landscape. Could in-house designers act as
internal change agents, influencing the way companies operate and behave
This proposition certainly pushes the idea of what we can contribute
to business well beyond our normal function of creating design artifacts
for our clients, but my initial Pollyannaish response is a heartfelt
yes. And I think we owe it to our communities, and to ourselves, to try.
Good or bad, ethical or unjust, businesses—more so than governments,
religions and academia—affect our personal lives and the global
environment in profound ways. Each of us bears witness to a seemingly
endless barrage of corporate trespasses on our society that can be
angering and upsetting: think of the exploitive behavior of financial
firms and pharmaceutical companies, for instance. It’s enough to turn
even the most optimistic designer and citizen of the world into a
hardened cynic. Yet while I find that all this malfeasance feeds my
righteously indignant ego, I realize, on a deeper level, that it’s a
problem that must be dealt with if we want to improve our lives and
benefit our communities.
As a group, designers possess a powerful set of talents, beliefs and
aptitudes that are often lacking in today’s average corporate culture,
but that are uniquely suited to effecting change for more responsible,
humane, and sustainable business practices. We are innovators, problem
solvers and hard-core implementers. We’re empathetic, focused and keen
observers of our environment, and we put challenges and assignments into
a context that allows for effective, appropriate holistic solutions. We
typically eschew corporate politics, bureaucracy and territoriality.
That said, even if one accepts the premise that “corporate creatives”
possess transformational potential, there’s still the question of
whether we can actually change the behavior of our business-minded
colleagues and clients. Is there a place in the seemingly indestructible
left-brain corporate wall for us to get a toehold? Can we establish the
relationships needed to make positive progress?
I have heard of and experienced evidence that supports this
possibility. An internal design team at a large computer company
successfully fought for an open-office architecture—and the accompanying
collaborative ethic it encourages. Other departments, witnessing the
benefits, soon followed suit. In another example, there was a design
manager working at a software company who became that firm’s first
designer to head the development team for a major software product—a
position that had previously been held exclusively by programmers. And
I’ll never forget the time, while leading a creative department at a
large pharmaceutical company, when my team convinced upper management to
allow us to commit corporate blasphemy, to work with a competitor’s
design team, to share effective proofing and regulatory compliance
practices—an important process that benefited our consumers.
None of these anecdotes signals a great trend, nor are they producing
sweeping changes, but I’d like to believe that, in small incremental
ways, they’ve had a positive impact and point to an unrealized potential
that can be tapped and brought to bear on errant companies. I hope that
one day designers will walk into meetings empowered to shape the focus
of major strategic initiatives, as needed to uphold sustainable and
socially responsible standards.
I am really not sure if it is narcissistic—or worse, unrealistic—of
me to entertain these ideas. I’m extremely curious to hear from other
designers if they believe what I’m proposing is accurate and achievable
or naïve and delusional. Given the paucity of powerful options to better
our world on a global scale, I certainly hope it’s the former.
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
Andy Epstein is the in-house design everyman—looking for recognition from his independent designer peers as well as respect from upper management.
Section: Tools and Resources -
in-house issues, INitiative
Why should in-house designers market themselves? Baker explains the strategic benefits of treating colleagues like the clients they are.
Serving your company’s needs shouldn’t be a bad thing. Epstein urges in-house design teams to adopt a more positive outlook on the “S” word.
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