Editor's note: This article was previously published in the
March 2009 issue of Dynamic Graphics+Create Magazine. The
nonprofit organization InSource was founded by the author and AIGA
In-house Design's Andy Epstein.
Whether you have designers on your team with high mileage or
others who just rolled out of the showroom, like your car, you need
to change the spark plugs and rotate the tires on a regular basis
to ensure the team is running at top performance and with a full
Let's face it. Everybody needs a tune-up now and
then—physically, mentally, spiritually, at work, at home and in
relationships. And if you neglect the most precious resources at
work—the designers—you run the risk of burning them out. Repetitive
work assignments, isolation from the mainstream, client abuse, lack
of opportunity, stifling corporate cultures and claustrophobic
workstations are just a few of the things that can lead to low
morale, uninspired design, burnout and poor performance.
So go ahead and take a look under the hood. You might not like
what you see, but I believe the following tips may prevent
overheating and give you better mileage:
Often a designer will take ownership of a particular project
because it provides a certain level of comfort, knowing the
designer can produce quality results very efficiently. But over
time this strategy can lead to boredom and uninspired work because
the designer is no longer challenged.
I found moving projects around the room from designer to
designer gives everyone the opportunity to work on different
project types, including some that may be unfamiliar. It also
pushes creatives to break old habits and try something new. Your
production flow may take a hit until each designer becomes more
familiar with the new work, but in the long run, you'll be adding
horsepower to the team by enabling each of your designers to
enhance creative and technical skills.
A variation on this idea is “tag-team design”— that is, one
designer develops a concept or layout for an ad, for example, then
passes it on to the next designer, who formats and lays out the
type, and then passes it on to the next designer, who chooses and
places the artwork, and so on.
Feeling alone? Neglected? Isolated from the mainstream design
community? You're not alone. Many in-house designers suffer as a
result of the cloistered corporate environment that can sometimes
suck the life out of you. Most affected are designers who are a
one-person department and don't have the opportunity to share and
discuss their work with a colleague.
Fortunately, organizations such as DMI and
conferences that give you and your team the chance to connect with
peers. InSource—a nonprofit
trade organization committed to helping in-house creatives achieve
design excellence and recognition within their companies and the
business community—was established to address the sense of
isolation most in-house designers feel. InSource has built a
community where designers can share strategies and information,
solve problems and network with peers.
It is also a good idea to reach out to your neighbors—you know,
those people in the cubicles down the hall. Come up for air once in
a while. Explore opportunities for collaboration and look for ways
to build new business relationships with groups within the
And don't forget about your other neighbors, too—in those big
buildings outside, across the street, down the block. Hook up with
creatives in the 'hood for coffee, lunch or a beer. And think about
extending a hand to establish a relationship with your outside
design agencies. Networking is a necessary ingredient to building
community; it can also alleviate the isolation and help strengthen
your standing in the creative community.
Nothing can lock the brakes faster than an unorganized,
exploiting client. Because your internal stakeholders are only an
elevator ride or cubicle away, the breathing down your neck may get
a little uncomfortable. The on-site convenience you provide is
invaluable, but overly protective clients with separation anxiety
can prevent you from doing your job by abusing the relationship and
never leaving you alone. And clients who insist on art-directing
projects are the worst.
Design by committee? Never works. What to do? Use your company's
branding guidelines (you do have them, right?) to justify design
decisions. This strategy can be effective and moves the
conversation from a subjective to an objective level, focusing on
whether or not the design complies with corporate standards.
Remember, you're the expert. By showing clients you have experience
and knowledge, they will begin to value your judgment and respect
One item that still resonates with me from my high school
drivers education class is to not only focus on the car in front of
you, but look behind you, to the side and at the oncoming traffic.
Get the “big picture.”
Depending on how your in-house department is structured, there
may not be any opportunity for advancement. Although the agency
hierarchy offers more chances for promotion, most in-house design
departments are flat models with each designer wearing a variety of
hats: customer service rep, art director, designer, production
Look left. Look right. Get out and about. See what's around the
corner and down the hall. Get the big picture. There may be
opportunities with another department or at a different site in
another city or country. Remember, as an in-house designer you have
access to many resources that are unavailable to the agency or
freelance designer: public affairs, human resources, benefits,
marketing, sales, finance, meeting planning.
Know your company, know its products and services, its culture
and brand essence. Understand and live its vision, and learn how
you can support it. Familiarize yourself with the corporate
organizational chart and reporting structure, and find out where
you fit in. Become involved with business strategies your company
is pursuing. Learn more about the business and see how you can
become involved as a business partner. You never know where it
could lead you.
You know the drill, right? Probably all too well: Our daily
routines and habits can often lead to complacency. There are a few
things you can do to stimulate, motivate and shake up your
designers. Have weekly staff meetings in a different room or
outside (weather permitting). Organize an internal design contest
or a show-and-tell. Grab some popcorn and show staff an
inspirational video or screen a movie everyone likes. Go on a field
trip to a local museum or gallery. Go to a paper show together.
Play board games. Share books and articles with the team. Rearrange
your workspace. Try to inject a little friendly subversiveness into
the daily routine.
Many companies have internal training programs that allow
employees to brush up on technical and people skills. Look for ways
to learn and expand your knowledge base—whether it's beefing up
PowerPoint skills or becoming a better writer. Beyond the basic
training class, your company may also have management or leadership
training. These team-building retreats give you the tools for
improving your effectiveness in leading others—showing how
leadership behavior can positively impact on collaboration,
initiative and staff development—and fostering a climate of
learning, performance and pride.
Take the time to recognize the achievements of staff and the
good work your department does. Celebrate birthdays, anniversaries
and other important milestones. Employees want to feel their
efforts are making a difference, and it's your responsibility to
acknowledge team members. And do it as often as possible: at staff
meetings, in front of clients. Display work throughout the
department or in the pages of a company newsletter. Has the staff
been putting in extra time? Give a comp day. I made a collection of
cards modeled after the Monopoly Chance cards that say,
“Congratulations! You Can Leave an Hour Earlier Today” and “This
Card Entitles You to a Complimentary Day Off!” Show your
appreciation and don't forget to say “Thank You.”
These are just a few of the things you can do to keep a team in
good running condition. Watch out, though, there are plenty of
potholes and detours on the road ahead. But with a good preventive
maintenance schedule in place and plenty of fuel, you'll find you
and your team will be stronger and better prepared to take on any
challenge, put the pedal to the metal and deliver the goods.
AIGA members can learn new skills, get advice on careers, hear insights from design leaders, and more through these exclusive webinars, workshops, certificate courses, and conferences.
Section: Tools and Resources -
professional development, design educators, students
Design Jobs is an exclusive job board for AIGA members. Look here to find your next design job—or design hire!
Section: Tools and Resources -
You may not know Bob Baxley by name, but you’re definitely, even intimately, familiar with his work. We talked with Baxley about growing Pinterest’s design team, how it’s stealthily improving the UX design process, and why people in tech are “more like restaurant chefs.”
Section: Inspiration -
INitiative, in-house design, ux design, digital media
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