Business Thought Leader Dan Pink's Advice to In-house Designers

No business thought leader has advocated more for the design profession than Dan Pink. His books have consistently encouraged those in the business community to not only value and nurture their own innovative and creative sides but to seek out and empower the right-brain individuals in their companies. This interview provided INitiative an opportunity to elicit Dan’s insights on issues unique to the in-house design community.

In A Whole New Mind you suggest to left-brain thinkers that they consider adopting a more creative mind-set. What advice could you offer right-brain in-house designers about how to better integrate themselves into a corporate environment and become agents for innovative change?

Learn to speak the language of business—which often involves numbers. The only way to persuade people is to speak to them in their own language. Every time I talk to design students, I tell them, “You're not allowed to run screaming from the room when somebody puts a number on the board. You don’t have to be a math genius. But you need to be numerate.”

Your books have clearly had an impact on the business community and, specifically, many C-suite executives, but what we’re seeing at AIGA is that the your advocacy for design thinking and the innovative culture it embodies doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the level where it would actually be practiced. Have you noticed this disconnect and do you believe corporate culture is evolving and, if so, how?

That's an interesting observation. Part of it might say something about our times. For the last couple of years, people have been so focused on survival—of keeping the company intact and their jobs alive—that design thinking has become a second-order concern. But I’ve generally found people on the front lines, assuming they have a modicum of job security, pretty keen on doing new things new ways.

One of your earlier books, Free Agent Nation, examines the phenomenon of contract workers that has greatly impacted the in-house design community. More and more, corporate creatives are working on-site at companies as full-time freelancers and consultants. Since the publication of the book, what have you noticed about this trend, and could you offer insights about its future implications for in-house designers?

One of the biggest changes that I’ve seen since writing FAN is the blurred boundary between who’s a free agent and who’s an employee. More and more risk is shifting to individuals, even individuals who get W-2s. They’ve got 401ks rather than traditional pensions. They’re paying a much larger share of their health insurance and medical costs. They don’t expect to be with employers forever. They’re in charge of their own professional development. That makes them quite free agent-like in spirit—if not under U.S. labor law and the IRS tax code. What’s more, I see more and more people moving across the borders of Free Agent Nation and Corporate America with considerable ease. It’s almost as if people have become dual citizens. In some ways, that means in-house designers need to treat their company less like a boss and more like a client. Instead of hitching one’s fortunes entirely to a particular job, it’s better to see one’s work as part of a portfolio of assignments. At the same time, employers should offer in-house designers many of the same things they offer freelancers—that is, they should simulate inside the organizations the conditions for what it would be like to work outside the organization.

Designers seem to have always relied on the third intrinsic motivator (working for the sheer pleasure of it) you discuss in your most recent book, Drive, for their professional, and even personal, fulfillment, yet the businesses for which they work often unintentionally sabotage this dynamic. What might corporate creatives do to insulate themselves from and counter corporate disincentives?

They should look for ways to notch up, where possible, their own autonomy. So if they’ve got a chance to have a little more control over when they work, what they work on, and who they work with, they should grab it. Many practices inside of companies demotivate because they’re forms of control. Autonomy is the antidote. Also, the more individuals are able to set their own goals and get their own feedback, the better they’ll usually perform. So don’t wait around for an annual performance review. Instead, do your own performance review. At the beginning of the month, set out your goals. Then at the end of the month, sit down and give yourself an assessment. Where are you making progress? Where are you falling behind? What tools or information are you missing? On a daily level, I’ve also grown fond of, which sends you an email every day that you respond to with, yep, what you got done that day.

Many in the design community are just now exploring the thought leadership you and your like-minded colleagues are offering. What books, magazines and online content would you recommend they explore?

Two of my favorite business books this year are The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer and Great by Choice by Jim Collins. Both offer some excellent insights for designers—but from a very hard-headed empirical perspective. On magazines, I subscribe to maybe 40—but the ones I actually read regularly are The New Yorker, Wired, The Week, Dwell, Macworld and Sports Illustrated. (Conclude from that list what you will!) Online, designers can glean lots of insights from, and

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.