Innies and Outies

In my old neighborhood growing up, an important distinguishing feature for us kids was our navels. Specifically, did we have an innie or an outie. Neither was better than the other; it was just a point of distinction.

In the larger design neighborhood, there are innies and outies, too. Designers who work in in-house departments are the innies, and designers who are solo freelancers or who work in independent design firms or ad agencies are the outies. Their differences, of course, go far beyond belly button anatomy.

I've found little statistical information to compare and contrast these groups beyond salaries and benefits, so though I can't vouch for the accuracy of anecdotal observations; for the sake of starting a dialogue, I'm going to use my personal experience and that of designers I know to illustrate the distinctions between them.

Going out on a limb, I'll start with the supposition that innies tend to be older and with families, while outies are generally younger and without children. If you accept this as fact, some conclusions can be drawn about the relationships of these groups to their working environments. In-house departments tend to have more predictable hours, better benefits and an even-paced workflow. With greater financial responsibilities, as well as time and emotional demands at home, the corporate workplace is more appealing to family-oriented designers.

Acknowledging that the opposite working conditions may hold true for design, marketing and ad agencies, there is a different set of advantages for the outie designers that outweigh their longer, less predictable hours and lesser benefits. While it is documented that salaries are higher than those of in-house designers, one can assume that a more creative environment, more varied projects and more opportunity for advancement and acknowledgement by their peers hold appeal for designers working in the studio environment.

So are outies more creative, ambitious risk-takers and innies more mature, conservative family-types? Well, yes and no. There are other factors that temper this truism. Most obvious is the fact that even within the in-house and agency worlds a range of workplace conditions exist. The experience of designers working at Fossil or Gap is much different from that of designers at Pfizer or Merrill Lynch. The former companies market a design-driven product, while the latter provide services whose reliance on design is primarily for informational purposes. The same holds true on the agency side: a design firm focused on government work is going to operate differently from a firm whose clients are in the entertainment industry. Further narrowing the gap between the in-house and agency experience is the business community trend of placing greater emphasis and value on good design, leading to more concessions to in-house teams and the design community's realization that in order to survive in today's marketplace, they have to be more businesslike, which impacts their studio environments as well.

Even taking such issues into consideration, innies work for one client, basically, in a more business-focused environment, with upper management holding different expectations of them than it would for outside agencies, which may allow fewer opportunities for the innies to flex their creative muscles. Their outie counterparts generally work on multiple accounts, with more time devoted to research and concepting.

As far as skill sets are concerned, I believe outies—with their exposure to more varied projects and the higher expectations that are placed on them by their clients to come up with unique solutions—are trained to be more creative problem solvers. In the areas of communication and project management, innies, not having account execs or traffic managers to aid them, tend to be more experienced and possess stronger skills to address those responsibilities.

While anyone could disagree with the specifics of these differences, there should be little argument that differences do exist. The distinctions in skill sets, disposition and motivators don't make one group better than the other—but they should be acknowledged, both by managers doing the hiring for their companies and those being hired. As designers, we all need to take stock of our life situation, our strengths and our priorities, and then invest our time and energy into pursuing a career in one of these worlds. Just staring at your navel may make for good meditation, but taking the next step and determining whether you want to be an innie or an outie will help ensure that you have a successful and fulfilling career.

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.