In-house Everyman

My favorite radio DJ, Roy Twig, aka RT, would religiously open his show in his deep-toned, gravelly voice with the sign-on, “This is RT, with music and news—this'er, that'er, chitter-chatter between every cotton-pickin' platter.” As an in-house designer looking for recognition from independent designers and respect from upper management, while balancing a slew of seemingly contradictory mind-sets and skills, this serves as an appropriate tagline to my career. A little creative—a little bottom line, a little job security—a little conformity, a little inspiration—a little grunt work. Trade-offs and opportunities—good, bad and otherwise.

Growing up as an urbane, art hungry Jewish boy in RT country, the eastern shore of Maryland, I was prescient of my “accepted outsider” experience as an in-house designer in both the business world and the design community. My childhood was peppered with realizations of being different from the group. Yet this was not necessarily a bad thing. I was a curiosity at worst, a hip artist at best, never quite sure which of my qualities would be perceived as cool or uncool.

My experience as a corporate designer isn't much different. At design conferences I stick out as one of the few clad in khakis and button-down collars in a sea of black jeans and tees. My peers hold me at arm's length when judging my design chops: it's interesting that I work for a well-known brand, but don't I just design order forms and company picnic invites all day? However, I can hold my own with the group on hard-core design discussions, and since I can mean more work for a design firm or ad agency as a client, I have a free pass to rub elbows with the “in crowd.” That's as far as the acknowledgement goes. Trying to find a seminar or book relevant to my experience practicing design in the corporate environment is a real chore.

At work, my corporate business peers serve up a mirror image of the design community's reaction. I'm the dress-down guy who plays with crayons all day. My department has the Ikea desks, certainly not the vintage Eames chairs sported by countless design firms, but much more fashionable than the office-supply-catalog fare. No one in upper management completely understands what I do all day, although they can see and touch the final result of my mysterious labors at my CPU. Therefore I can easily get a sign-off on a purchase order for a slew of G5s with a memo chock full of digital graphics mumbo jumbo, but I can't get money for freelance support in my budget: “Don't you just push a button and out pops my annual report?”

The skills I acquired as an adolescent that allowed me, as an outsider, to navigate freely between the jocks, nerds and potheads, have served me well in my career. I can talk budget with our CFO over a burger and fries at the local diner (I'm talking New Jersey now) as well as dance the brand boogie with our marketing team. And I'm just as comfortable reminiscing about stat cameras and strippers (as in the film terminology) with the Collucci brothers in their West Paterson studio as I am meeting with the VPs in a corporate procedural drill-down session (can anybody say win-win?).

While we curse Sales and Marketing for always waiting until the last minute to give us their incomplete job reqs, we secretly love pulling the completed PowerPoint, tradeshow poster or product brochure—on time and under budget—seemingly out of thin air. This, though, is the curse of either ego or an intense need to please because we end up needing to meet even higher expectations next time on annually reduced budgets.

More in-house designers have families than those on the agency side. We like our 401(k)s, dental insurance and vacation packages. Schizophrenically, we bounce back and forth between wanting to wear our Lands End pullover with the company logo embroidered on it and fantasizing about showing up on Monday morning with a mohawk and a nose ring.

Lest anyone think this piece is a one-person proclamation or diatribe, I can vouch that I'm the in-house everyman. When I meet with other innies, we swoon in the realization we're not alone and lament that designers outside of our community just don't get it.

What they don't get is that in spite of the deadening bureaucracies we deal with, we still manage to stay inspired. Despite the upturned noses of our design firm counterparts, we believe in our grasp of design as a business solution. And while the career choices we've made won't put us on Communication Art's list of the top 100 sexiest designers, we are the critical bridge between the design and business communities, which qualifies us for at least a few Purple Hearts and honorable mentions.

We're finally figuring out that when we shake hands as a design representative of a $50 million-plus company with a like-minded design representative from a $500,000 design firm, we should square our shoulders, muster our best bass-booming DJ voice and sound out like RT (to paraphrase): “Design may make the world go round, but, honey, it's in-house that greases the wheel.”

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.