Hesitant to Say You Work In-house?

Many in-house designers are not proud to say where they work—but why? As an in-house designer, I don’t believe the design industry at large makes us feel this way. I propose this frame of mind is mostly of our own creation. By making a few simple tweaks to the way we talk about and view our work, we in-house designers have the ability to transcend this self-imposed “in-house embarrassment” factor and give ourselves the respect we deserve.

For the past five years, I’ve worked in-house for a Midwestern furniture retailer. Five years is a significant amount of time when you consider that—for the majority of it—I’ve experienced in-house embarrassment and struggled to talk with confidence about where I work. It became my default response to say, “I work as an in-house designer…but it’s really just temporary until [insert clause about perceived more desirable experience here].” How awful! And so pointless.

Over time, as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve come to realize that my sense of shame stemmed from three main delusions. I’ve also learned, through experience, how to overcome each delusion by being honest with myself and shifting my perspective. Here’s how I did it.

Delusion #1: Working in-house is stale and only marginally creative.

The fact is, as a designer and leader within an in-house team, there exists a real opportunity to effect change inside your organization. In reality, the projects I get to work on are varied. They often require travel for research, and they afford me a fair amount of creative freedom. Every day I get to go to work and make design decisions that—little by little—transcend the current aesthetics and brand positioning of the company. Being a driver of this evolution can be pretty invigorating.

It’s sometimes helpful to remember that an organization that chooses to have an in-house design team must inherently value the power of design. Looking at your situation from that perspective can really change things.

Delusion #2: There are some pretty sexy design firms and advertising agencies out there (and working for them would be much, well, sexier).

This is a classic case of “the grass is always greener.” Unless these firms and agencies are designing exclusively for globetrotting “artist-preneur” bloggers with unlimited budgets, offer complete creative freedom and have no deadlines, I sincerely doubt I would be working solely for my dream client 100 percent of the time. In-house, I’ve learned to focus on each project for what it is, and I’ve learned that true creativity can come from working within brand parameters and learning when and how to push the limits.

I’ve also made a simple change in the way I answer when people ask, “Where do you work?” Instead of just mumbling the name of my workplace, I’ll say, “I’m working on [insert exciting project description here] in-house for [insert name of company here].” Not only do I get excited when I talk about something I feel passionate about, but doing so gives people insight into some of the amazing opportunities that working in-house can provide—and instantly dissolves my inferiority complex.

Delusion #3: Passionate designers, design-y designers, don’t work in-house. They have their own practices or occupy top positions at previously mentioned sexy firms.

Because in-house designers are sometimes underrepresented in the spotlight (and even within the membership of AIGA), I think it’s easy to buy into this fallacy. But the truth is that in-house designers represent 60 percent of all designers nationwide. Sixty percent. You’d better believe that there are people within this majority that are every bit as motivated, inspired and talented as anyone else in our industry.

It is, therefore, even more important for us in-house designers to get involved. The sense of community that comes from participating in a professional organization, networking with industry peers and striving for continued education and exposure is what will ultimately keep our personal fires lit—and bring in-house designers to the fore, where we belong.

About the Author:

I am president of the AIGA Detroit chapter. I recently completed an MFA in 2D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art while growing a solo practice under the name Parker Grey. This fall, I'll begin a one-year appointment as Special Lecturer at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit.

I have also taught graphic design and typography at Michigan State University and worked in-house for the largest independent furniture retailer in the US, providing creative direction to a cross-functional team of architects, interior designers and graphic designers in the development of new retail stores and private label branding.