One of the unique challenges in-house designers face, and one that’s rarely addressed, is when they’re brought together to work with designers from outside agencies for identity and branding projects. Take the now iconic packaging for Saks Fifth Avenue, designed not by the department store’s in-house team, but by Michael Bierut’s at Pentagram. The black-and-white checkered bags that have become a regular fixture on the streets of New York City are the result of Bierut’s outsider eye and Saks’ flexible application of the designer’s shrewd system. But just how well does the relationship between in-house and agency work?
Jesse Reed, associate partner for Bierut at Pentagram, worked on the Saks account for two years and headed a number of the store’s branding projects and campaigns. As a designer who’s worked at Pentagram since 2012 and previously as an in-house designer at MoMA, Reed is uniquely positioned to appreciate and understand the challenges that both kinds of design teams face when they’re brought together to collaborate.
For Reed in his capacity as advising design specialist at Pentagram, one of the most complex challenges he deals with when it comes to working with in-house teams—whether at a department store like Saks or with another client—is that after he and his team create a concept, they don’t remain part of the process for the entirety of its execution. They simply have to hope that their ideas will be used as stated in the guidelines they deliver along with the finished work. This can be a problem if small details that matter to Reed get overlooked by another designer to whom they don’t matter as much. The only solution, he says, is “to give the best guidance possible” and accept the fact that your ideas might not be followed as precisely as you’d like.
For Bierut, when he was working on his iconic identity system for Saks, the biggest challenge as an out-sourced agency wasn’t related with the in-house team at all. “Most challenging was building up the consensus and understanding among the rest of the leadership there,” he explains. “This required, as it often does, patience, tact, and wisdom.”
What about the other perspective, though? What’s the biggest challenge for in-house teams working with outside agencies? “No one likes to be told what to do,” Reed says. At their worst, big agencies come to in-house departments with a set of restrictive guidelines that don’t allow for any creative involvement, which, more often than not, leads to stale, uninspired results. On the other hand, an open, flexible set of guidelines allows for creative license on the part of the in-house team.
Reed finds that the best guidelines are basic. When kept to a minimum, in-house teams that arguably understand their brand best can mold them into something more than the initial concept; they can add to and become inspired by an idea, not merely follow suit, allowing the agency’s concept to live, breathe, and evolve. Reed recalls MoMA’s in-house creative director Julia Hoffmann assert that it’s not how good the concept is, it’s how good the in-house designers are. They’re the ones that need to actually turn an idea into a reality.
For the Saks LOOK campaign that Reed led, an easy collaboration between the store’s in-house team and Pentagram was vital to ensure that guidelines weren’t viewed as too narrow or limiting, but were tailored to the Saks team’s skill set, thereby ensuring a better, more creative result. “It’s best when in-house teams are involved with the process during the creation,” says Reed, who’s emphatic about the fact that in-house teams should always have a sense of ownership.
“For in-house designers, simply maintaining things as they are isn’t fun,” he continues. “What’s exciting is figuring out how to breathe new life into a brand every year.” For Saks, every year means a new season, new bags, new clothes, new catalogues—and it all has to look consistent but feel fresh and new at the same time. That’s where the most invigorating creative potential for department store in-house teams lies, says Reed. Strong branding is about maintaining a visual language, but it’s also about growing and developing that language into something different and surprising to keep the brand alive and appealing.
Like Bierut’s iconic black-and-white shopping bags, the LOOK campaign makes use of a system comprised of four letters that can be used in a variety of ways, allowing the in-house designers to reimagine the identity in new ways each season. Reed himself recalls creating 10 different catalogues, each with completely different configurations of the letters L O O K.
This simple, crucial restriction of having to reimagine how these letters can be organized is a puzzle, and whether it’s an in-house or outside designer working on it, it’s extremely challenging and incredibly rewarding when unlocked. For Reed, this reinventing and re-energizing is one of the most exciting, complex tests for a designer. When you’re working in-house in this way, “you never say never,” says Reed. “You can always do more with anything. There is always some other, new way.”
“The most important thing is to remember that what any of us admire about a brand identity is the quality of its execution over the long team,” concludes Beirut. “A great solution can get a splashy launch, but it will amount to nothing if it isn’t applied with imagination and skill. When this work is the responsibility of an in-house team, it won’t do to simply give them standards and tell them to follow the rules. Instead, what you want is the work to get better and better over time.”
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