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While moderating a panel discussion on in-house design last
month at “Make/Think: AIGA DesignConference,” I was struck by how the word “service” generated a
heated exchange—not between members of the audience, but among the
panel of in-house experts.
For many in-house design teams, service has come to be perceived
as an expletive and not as a valued behavior or mindset, as some of
the panelists rightly argued. The connotation, in this view,
equates the meaning of service with such uses as “cleaning service”
or “administrative services”—a decidedly tactical and non-strategic
definition. This meaning and perception, of course, is the bane of
all in-house designers who are trying to elevate themselves to a
more strategic role within their companies. Rather than remain
order-takers who are viewed by their clients as mere production
artists incapable of functioning as strategic partners with
powerful insights, most internal creatives are fighting hard to
shed the epithet of “service provider.”
In addition to this lack of opportunity to participate in
higher-level corporate meetings is the even more upsetting fact
that clients and upper managers who hold the view that their
in-house teams are service providers often use it as an excuse to
marginalize, denigrate and even abuse internal creatives. As a
result, most in-house designers say that a lack of respect is the
primary challenge they face at their jobs.
While no designer wants to be a servant, there is a critical
danger inherent in fixating on this justified abhorrence of the “S”
word. This preoccupation could be just as destructive to an
internal design team as being perceived as merely the “creative
services” department. Designers are already predisposed to be
independent-minded—especially in a rigid corporate environment. If
in-house creatives look at service as a dirty word and then spend
most of their time and energy on avoiding the appearance of
servitude, they risk alienating their clients, peers and
I've seen internal groups disdainfully dismiss service—as in
customer service—as being beneath their calling. This mindset, with
its accompanying behaviors, subverts any possibility of in-house
teams establishing a true partnership with their clients—not to
mention that it makes the prospect of working with external firms,
which understand the value of customer service in the
client/designer relationship, much more appealing to internal
In-house design teams might consider adopting a more positive
approach to dealing with the whole service conundrum by placing the
word service into the larger context of “in service to society or
an organization.” Embracing this broader view would help keep
designers focused on their true objective, which is to support the
entire corporation rather than a specific client. To truly make
good on this commitment, internal creatives would be forced to be
more proactive and assertive in participating in the strategic
discourse occurring in their companies. Adoption of this approach
would mean not waiting to be asked to take a seat at the table, but
just walking in and sitting down (respectfully, of course). By
taking this position even further, in-house designers would
proactively begin to look for areas where they could truly make a
difference and positively impact and support other teams, not just
reactively execute on client requests. Serving the company might
even place in-house designers in the uncomfortable position of
having to challenge their clients if their clients' objectives are
personal and territorial rather than global and in the best
interests of the organization. This level of assertiveness
establishes designers as partners not order takers, peers not
There's no doubt that internal teams should avoid publicly
adopting the service moniker because of the perceptions and biases
that already exist in the corporate sphere. But in doing so, it's
equally important that in-house designers not throw the baby out
with the bath water and make sure to honor the word “service” in
its higher meaning—the selfless act for the greater good.
In-house designers are confronted daily with individuals who
perceive them as staff who merely execute the orders and ideas of
others. This reality may result in a knee-jerk reaction to push
back hard on this misguided assumption. But service is not
servitude, and it's dangerous to confuse the two. Only when
corporate creatives become clear about this distinction will they
respond appropriately to the inappropriate perceptions and
behaviors of others and, more importantly, find a path that takes
them to a place where they will have a true and positive impact on
their companies. That is when in-house designers will achieve the
respect they desire.
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
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