It’s been two years since I received my bachelor’s degree,
and since that time I’ve been working as an in-house designer. I was lucky to get into a
role where I am responsible for meeting many of my company’s needs,
a luxury some designers I went to college with didn’t have going into agencies. Even
though it’s a good gig, I’ve never been one to get completely comfortable with my
surroundings. I’ve always considered it good practice to maintain a degree of outside
perspective about who I am, my professional situation and the things that
influence the world around me.
If you’re an in-house designer, there are days where you
might question the pros and cons of working in-house. It seems natural enough.
Sometimes you might compare yourself to agency creatives or freelancers. However, honing your ability to constructively question your competencies and career path can also help you think ahead and see the big picture.
One night I found myself scanning magazine covers at a
bookstore instead of heading home from work. Worth stood out on the rack—not its delightfully gridded, finely
designed cover, but the headline. “Make / Grow / Live.” Reading the cover
article callouts, I realized that my focus was off. My vision was fine, but I
had lost sight of my professional goals as a designer.
It takes deliberate, conscious action to free yourself from an
uncertain mindset and remain confident in the face of doubt-inducing professional
stressors. If you find that self-questioning is inevitably a catalyst
for self-doubt, why not redirect some of that wasted energy toward a
constructive self-evaluation of your in-house career? For me, this inspiring idea came out of the headline “Make / Grow / Live,” which offered me an unexpected opportunity
to nurture a newfound sense of reassurance and rededication to working in-house. Here’s
a look at my strategy.
This phase is about honest assessment. Rather than focus on what
you aren’t, focus on what you are. It’s often a much easier and more rewarding question
Where do you find
yourself? Write out the details and break it down: age, relationship
status, living situation, job title, professional responsibilities,
compensation, active side projects, involvement in organizations, etc.
Where did you think
you would be right now? Think back to when you were in school or when you were just
starting out in your career. Try and remember the vast sense of possibility that seemed to lie in front of you. Reflect on that excitement, curiosity and sense of openness, and
put it into words. Be creative. Get inspired.
Where would you like
to be in the near future? Now that you’ve established where you are and
compared it to your ideas from the past, recognize that the very same openness
remains before you—only now you’re more experienced. Analyze your professional
surroundings and identify ways to recapture that sense of excitement and
curiosity. Embrace the possibilities, then make a list of what you want for
yourself. Begin by establishing a series of realistic in-house goals that build upon one
another. This exercise will help you establish focus and build accountability, as
the completion of one action helps you reach your next goal.
When you begin to work through the goals you’ve developed,
keep in mind that each action along the way must be considered against the following question: “Does this help me grow?” Every generation of designer brings new skills and
capabilities to the creative table. Without challenges, you would be
professionally stagnant. Although it may feel safe and comfortable now, merely
“maintaining” in-house will ultimately leave you on the outside looking in as the
industry grows and progresses without you.
Documentation is a
visibly rewarding form of growth. Don’t forget to archive, shoot or otherwise
document your projects on a regular basis, even if you think something’s not
worth capturing or that you’ll do better work in the future. These days, there
are many documentation tools to choose from: blogs, social media, Dribbble, Pinterest and Instagram,
to name only a few. I’ve found that documenting my work positively influences my engagement with and commitment to otherwise less-interesting projects.
Steadily building an archive will not only come in handy
when you inevitably need to put together a portfolio, but will prove invaluable
in performing self-assessments of your professional progress. You might
consider conducting annual recaps, assessing the variety, quality and quantity of
your output, and gaining insight into how your skill set is growing.
Learning keeps you sharp.
As in-house designers, we already have to perform a balancing act between our
personal and professional lives, so why not use each as a healthy distraction
from the other? A change in focus challenges the brain, opens up the thought
process and helps us feel creatively refreshed. I’ve found that learning as
much as I can about something completely unrelated to my field is often creatively
rewarding. This is one of the greatest benefits of working in-house.
Freelance. Occasional freelance work is a great way to add variety to a project list without becoming overwhelmed. Remember, money isn’t the key motivator
here. Instead, take on work that you respect—work that differs from whatever you
typically find yourself responsible for at your day job. Be sure to analyze your motivations for taking on specific
projects. Perhaps all you’re looking for is the opportunity to exercise more control over the course of a project. And if freelance simply isn’t your thing,
take on a side project with self-assigned deadlines and benchmarks or a pro
bono project in support of a cause you care about.
When we’re busy with our in-house careers, there’s no
reason that we shouldn’t take our personal lives up a notch. If anything, facing professional challenges should reinforce the importance of doing more on a
Go somewhere new.
Taking a trip means you get to explore. And let’s face it, staying in a hotel
is always fun. Design conferences are happening all over the
country, and they can offer a fresh dose of professional inspiration. Or go
somewhere without a professional purpose and simply recharge your creative battery.
Take up some sort of
physical activity. Channel your energy. Exercise is a nice option because
it provides instant gratification in the form of increased alertness and
stamina. I’ve always enjoyed Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and running, but have plenty
of friends who play kickball, train for triathlons or make weekly trips to the local
Keep regular plans
with friends. There’s no better resource to take your mind away from
responsibilities than the people in your life. Note that friends outside of
work are usually better suited to help you temporarily disconnect from your
professional life. Remember, getting stuck in
the trap of talking about work outside of work is typically more stress-inducing than
Regardless of where you are in your in-house career, it’s important to take perspective into
account. In-house designers such as myself must focus on one client, with
its attendant brand standards restrictions, but those constraints can challenge
the mind and give way to invaluable learning experiences. In my opinion,
restrictions help in-house designers channel their creativity through available
outlets. Strategically putting my creative focus on one single industry has ultimately
helped me develop a “bigger picture” way of looking at things—a viewpoint that is useful in all professional situations.
Although we can’t count on having control over all of the
things that affect our design careers, with the right perspective we can make, grow and live in-house.
Creative at Tether, free-time cartoonist, and sometimes writer living and working in Portland, Oregon.
Other leisure time activities include—but are not limited to—Member of the Chapter Advisory Council (CAC) for AIGA, Avid sketcher of people on buses and in coffee shops, working on a book of comic strips, writing a collection of poetry, regular listener
of Jazz music, owner and caretaker to two small dogs, and husband to lovely and talented Stephanie Ward.
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Chin I Lee
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