In-house I.D.

Many in-house design departments suffer from an all-too-common personality disorder. As with a low-grade fever, they know something is wrong, but they choose to live with the discomfort because they know it won't kill them. The symptoms? A lack of juicy design projects, but no shortage of production and low-profile jobs. Exclusion from key marketing strategy, but responsibility for implementing design initiatives conceived by outside firms. Budget and staffing freezes or cuts, but rising project requests. The affliction? Corporate design groups are diagnosed with an identity crisis.

The causes range from the way the groups were originally formed, to expanding technology, to complacency, to corporate culture.

Many corporate design groups were formed almost by accident. Some started literally in closets when the internal graphics needs outstripped a secretary's design abilities. Others were born when freelancers, small firms or agencies were doing so much work for a client that they ended up being absorbed into the company. Often there was no long-term strategy accompanying these moves and consequently little thought as to what role the creative team would play within the company, aside from working on a project-by-project basis. No mission, no mandate, no identity.

In-house teams that have the advantage of a more planned mission are not immune from the I.D. crisis either. Though beginning with a more strategic and focused mandate they often find themselves devolving into glorified production houses as expanding technology enables these graphics departments to bring production services inside their companies.

Finally, there's corporate inertia and stagnation—the “we've always done it this way” syndrome that paralyzes growth and quashes any vision a design group might have for moving beyond its current situation.

Without an identity, a well-defined mission, long-term goals and a strategic business plan, in-house groups are destined to remain second-tier design alternatives to independent design firms and ad agencies. To effect change they need to become proactive. What to do? In-house teams should follow the lead of outside creative groups and their envious lifestyles and opportunities.

Most independent design firms and agencies have a clear purpose and identity because their survival depends on it, while an in-house team's continued existence usually does not. Undertaking disciplines that define and communicate an identity are a corporate creative department's only chance to achieve opportunities that independent firms already have.

So, here's the action list. First, get your team together, preferably off-site. Honestly assess your current situation. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Is your company's perception of your team in line with reality? What resources are you willing to devote to your “makeover”? Then imagine yourselves as the department you want to be. Be specific—what type of projects do you want to take on, what do you want your offices to look like, how do you want your relationships with other departments to work? Be precise—the clearer your vision the better defined your plan to get there will be.

Once you've “comped up” your vision, create a plan to get there with assigned responsibilities and deadlines. Again, be specific—who has to do what by when. The plan should include the creation of a mission statement, a visual identity for your department, creation of a capabilities brochure and case studies of your past successes for presentation to upper management. If there are costs involved in any of these initiatives, be clear about what they are and where the money will come from.

You'll also need a marketing plan. Include a self-promotional piece to distribute to department heads; plan for lunches with upper management and enter your work in design competitions. You may even want to create a press release for your group's accomplishments and distribute it to design and business periodicals. For additional ideas read trade publications that advise design firms and freelancers on these issues.

Make sure you stay focused on your vision, because achieving your goals will take time and your successes will be incremental. Be flexible as your circumstances change (partially as a result of your efforts). If you find yourselves wanting to revise or refine your vision, do it—you didn't create the Ten Commandments when you originally defined yourselves. And make sure you have fun. Stop and regroup if you're not. Use your efforts to define and promote yourselves as a means of expressing your creativity in ways your past projects haven't allowed. Actually, that's the whole point of this adventure—to show your company the potential it has not seen. In doing that, you'll become aware of your hidden dreams, talents and strengths and become even more inspired and compelled to expand the creative possibilities for you, your team and your company.

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.