Building Your In-house: 10 Ways to Grow and Sustain an In-house Career

Not every creative is cut out for—or wants to work in—a corporate environment. It takes a special right-brain/left-brain blend of interests, skills and aptitudes to succeed as an in-house designer. But if you are one of those individuals who enjoys the unique challenges of this type of work, check out these recommended strategies to develop your expertise, strengthen your reputation and ultimately build a successful career in the “in-house neighborhood.”

Internal strategies: Hone your skills

1. Polish your communication abilities. Written and verbal communication is the currency for success in the left-brain corporate world. To succeed, you absolutely must hone your writing and speaking skills. Practice makes perfect.

2. Consider an M.B.A. or design business degree. Even though the M.F.A. is now considered the new M.B.A., there are many business skills, perspectives and leadership insights that you weren’t taught in design school. Without mastery of these, you’re handicapped. To advance within an organization, you need to have a foundation in economics, project management, people management, marketing and business strategy. Now more than ever there are a multitude of opportunities in business education, from full-time degree programs to continuing ed courses.

3. Know your numbers. Make peace with Excel. If you can’t articulate the value you or your in-house team bring to your organization with hard numbers, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. And if you want to grow your group, it’s critical that you have the ability to craft and sell budgets to upper management.

4. Teach. Nothing develops your skills and marketability like teaching at the college level as an adjunct professor. It enhances your street cred and forces you to use communication and organizational skills that will be valuable—and highly valued—in the world of business.

5. Read the trades and then some. It’s the “then some” you should focus on. Business leadership and management websites and blogs, books and videos relevant to in-house concerns should be part of your daily information diet. You need to know much more than what a ligature or .swf file is to become a strategic partner.

External strategies: Build your rep

6. Join industry organizations and then volunteer and network. At one time or another, almost everyone has joined a design-related group. But expecting that alone to get you noticed and valued by peers and colleagues is a bit naïve. You’ve got to have some skin in the game so that others know you exist and are (eventually) willing to help you grow in your career.

7. Write and speak. Contribute articles on design and design business to industry blogs, and work your way up to getting published in the top-notch publications. Speak at local events and parlay that experience into getting onto the national stage. It’s good for networking, and it’s good for your resume and credibility.

8. Proactively look for both operational and creative ways to contribute to your organization. Sans the corporate speak, this is about sniffing out problems in your team’s day-to-day operations and proposing solutions. This also includes seeking out new business and expanding services. Remember, you’re not just a designer anymore.

9. Make friends with recruiters (like The Creative Group). Shop yourself around with the people who will eventually shop you around, whether you’re actively looking or not. When you eventually decide to make a career change, it won’t be as if you’ll say, “Here I am. Now get me a job,” and they’ll all come running. You need to have established relationships with recruiters if you expect to be able to hit the ground running when you decide to make a move.

10. Plan your path and act on it. While it’s great to be adaptable and go with the flow, there’s value in setting a general direction for your career—and avoiding a “How did I get here?” moment down the road. Go online and take a free career interest assessment. Then start targeting industries, and even companies, that would be a good fit for your skills and professional aspirations. And even though you’ve been given this type of advice twenty times over in the past and ignored it, really do it this time. The process will open your eyes to opportunities that could have a significant impact on your professional and personal happiness.

About the Author:

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 business communities.