Confessions of an Undercover Innie

My wife and I have become addicted to the TV series “Lie to Me.” It’s a formulaic but entertaining show about Dr. Cal Lightman, a man who can read people’s micro-expressions and determine if they are lying or not—a skill that would come in handy for all of us. 

The show has one particular subplot that caught my attention and struck me as relevant to us in-house designers who are trying to adapt and integrate ourselves into the culture of our host organizations. Ben Reynolds, an FBI agent on loan to The Lightman Group, is set up as having a rather dark past—a former undercover cop who got sucked into the criminal culture he had received orders to infiltrate. (While on assignment, he became an addict and even committed a murder before being dragged out and rescued by his department!)

When, as creatives, we try to go “undercover” and fit into corporate environments, we are confronted with a similar risk: becoming overly integrated into our places of work. Case in point, it was only a few months ago that I found myself somewhat dismissively considering a pair of conservatively groomed executives walking around with an air of entitlement. I quietly congratulated myself for not being like “them.” As I thought about this incident more, however, I experienced an almost visceral sense of fear when I suddenly realized that I may have actually become someone not too different from them. If they were “The Man,” was I “The Man,” too?

I don’t mean to imply that everyone running around the halls of corporate America is a corporate animal, but there is some truth behind the stereotype. And I wanted nothing to do with that persona. Yet hadn’t my wife recently mentioned to me that I was using more and more corporate jargon when I spoke? How about the calculated, politically motivated emails I was sending to difficult clients and co-workers? Taking an objective look at my conduct on the job, I identified several instances where I had unconsciously towed the corporate line regardless of its fairness or the harm it brought to my co-workers.

Truth be told, I may not have become “The Man” but I had certainly become “the guy who’s an awful lot like The Man.” It happened slowly and insidiously. And I’d hasten to add that it began with the best of intentions. Those intentions, which some of you may share, are for us, as designers, to become so integrated into our host organizations that we have a complete understanding of the mission, culture, brand, competitors, products, services, process, policies, procedures, clients and customers. This level of internalized knowledge affords us the unique opportunity to produce materials and provide strategic advice that best benefits our companies.

This is all good stuff. The problem arises when we drink just a little bit too much of the corporate Kool-Aid. We suddenly find ourselves losing perspective on our assignments and, more insidiously, on appropriate behaviors and ethics. Maybe we begin to suffer from what I call brand-blindness—an inability to objectively assess our brands because we’re seeing them through the filter of the company’s (rather than the public’s) perspective.

Whatever the manifestations of dangerous group-think, the best ways I’ve found to keep from getting sucked in include self-awareness, mindfulness, gut-checks and check-ins with trusted friends and colleagues—along with a dose of courage. Even with these strategies firmly in place, I’ve still found myself adopting attitudes and behaviors out of sync with whom I want to be. This is because the transformation can happen so gradually that I don’t even notice that it’s happening until I find myself in a situation where I’ve behaved in a way that’s foreign to whom I imagine myself to be, and I’m shocked into awareness.

The most obvious—and absolute—solution is to work exclusively for companies whose mission and culture one respects. Frankly, based on my personal experience and conversations I’ve had with other in-house designers, that’s not always possible. To maintain my integrity in-house, I do my best to avoid adopting the company culture wholesale. Instead, I use my creativity and ethical sensibilities to actively work to improve that culture. This, in the end, may be one of the greatest contributions we in-house designers can make to the companies that employ us.

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.