Leveraging Our Differences

In-house designers often suffer from an identity crisis and perception/reality gap. We ask ourselves, are we from the same tribe as designers who freelance, work in agencies or have gigs in boutique firms? If not, do we want to be? Are we inferior, hacks or corporate geeks who have sold our souls to “the man”?

At work, are we part of the caste that sits in finance, marketing, HR or the C-suite, and is that what we want? Are we truly the way our non-design coworkers see us (or how we imagine they view us)—weird, emotional, impulsive, nonconformist prima donnas at worst or, at best, a profit-draining department barely relevant to the company’s core business?

We are absolutely not card-carrying members of either culture, and as outsiders we suffer the stigma of being just different enough to be misunderstood, undervalued and marginalized by both the business and design communities—but shame on us if we let that happen.

The reality is that our differences actually add to the value we can bring to both the design and business spheres. The opportunity here is to understand, embrace, articulate and leverage what makes us unique.

We wear many hats.

Design firms and ad agencies generally draw a more distinct line between the various roles and responsibilities that exist within a creative team. There might be account managers, traffic coordinators, project planners, proofreaders, print buyers, production artists and then, of course, the designers. Because of the type and amount of work independent firms and agencies bring in, this structure is appropriate and necessary.

For in-house groups, because of our size, the consistency of our projects, our workload, and our familiarity with our clients and the company’s business, we typically work within a flatter structure and therefore often wear many hats. We liaise with our clients, work with outside printing, illustration and photography vendors and collaborate closely with peers in IT, product development, marketing, sales and even finance.

This way of working affords us a broader perspective about the business world, a greater understanding of how one function can impact another and opportunities to hone our communication and collaboration skills. These real-world experiences and aptitudes, which we’re regularly refining, give us a distinct advantage over our non in-house design peers, especially as multidisciplinary teams become increasingly prevalent.

We work limits to our favor.

There’s an adage in the world of acting that comedians make for great dramatic actors but not the other way around. The premise is that being funny requires more and different types of skills than being serious. The same holds true for in-house design when compared with most agency and design firm projects.

In-house designers encounter more bureaucracy, regulatory restrictions and standardization and less flexibility and creative freedom than those who work outside corporate walls. Having to produce powerful design deliverables in a much smaller and more limited space forces us to exercise and develop creative and strategic muscles that others not facing this adversity do not. Our challenges are greater but so is our achievement when we succeed.

We went to school for this.

Design is not subjective, and it’s our job to let our clients in on that particular fact. Because of their ignorance of the art and science of design, our corporate copilots tend to dominate rather than collaborate. We went to design school for at least four years, just like they did as undergrads for the majors they pursued.

The design choices we make on our assignments are based on a solid understanding, gained from our academic pursuits, of how best to turn abstract direction (hopefully in the form of a creative brief) into visual reality. The sooner and more assertively we articulate this fact to our clients, the better the design artifacts we produce will be.

We solve problems.

A misunderstanding of our expertise can also lead to missed opportunities. To see us as only tactical tools for implementing corporate strategies is a waste of our talent. We’ve been trained to solve problems in powerful and innovative ways. The design thinking process—defining the problem and then researching, designing, prototyping and implementing the solution—can be a much more effective methodology than what normally takes place in corporate environs.

Our colleagues usually default to a linear and oversimplified MO—make a mistake, come up with a solution (usually gleaned from a past project or a competitor), execute. The core opportunity is not defined, nor is there any rigorous process backing up the resolution, which usually ends up being subjective at worst and imitative at best. The result is a quick fix with short-term gains but guaranteed long-term failure.

When we’re involved at the outset of a strategic initiative, which is far too infrequently, we can offer a valid approach to moving it forward. In addition, we can lend our executional expertise to help define the most feasible and cost effective ways to implement the final plan.

The practice of design in an organization whose primary goal is not design is challenging, frustrating, enlightening, fulfilling and certainly different than what our peers in the greater design and business communities do at their jobs. That those distinctions exist is not the relevant fact. How we embrace and leverage those differences is.

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.