Managing In-house Departments
By Shel Perkins July 1, 2004
Managing In-house Departments
By Shel Perkins July 1, 2004
Managing In-house Departments
By Shel Perkins July 1, 2004

Many designers work inside corporations rather than for independent consultancies. While the creative challenges may be similar for both, other aspects of the job tend to be quite different. Perhaps the largest difference is that design teams within a large organization face many operational issues that have a political dimension. The name and emphasis of the in-house department may vary, from Creative Services to Marketing Communications or Corporate Communications, but regardless of the particular focus, it's important for the group to clearly see how they fit into the overall design and communications needs of the enterprise.

The big picture

Depending on the particular company and industry, these needs might include such things as identity development, marketing materials, advertising campaigns, product development, Web and interactive design. Each need comes up with varying frequency. For example, basic identities are not redesigned very often, whereas other needs such as advertising, marketing materials and publications come up on a continuing basis. The in-house design manager must have a good understanding of the full scope of needs as well as the relative volume and priorities.

Next comes the question of how those various needs are met. In some corporations, the in-house design department occupies a central role—managing all creative activity, including the work of outside firms. In other corporations, the in-house team is limited to producing just one category of creative work and all other projects pass it by. The management role tends to be at a higher organizational level. It is more involved in strategy and can generate much higher value for the company by keeping all design and communication initiatives “on brand.”

Skill sets

Comprehensive and consistent branding requires a very wide range of skill sets. If you are going to do certain types of creative work in-house, what is it that you are best equipped to handle? Conduct an honest self-assessment of your current capabilities. What skill sets do you have now? Are they a match to the assignments that currently come to you? What experience and skills are not represented in your department? For now, projects requiring such skills must be outsourced. However, you might want to handle them differently in the future. Identify the additional expertise that would be needed if a different mix of projects were to be handled in-house. Of those additional capabilities, assess which ones could be developed through extra training for existing employees and which ones would require new hires. Then think about the best way to approach the political challenges involved in making changes. Any redefinition of your role or negotiation for expanded resources will require careful consideration of the company's core and non-core activities and assets, and each change must be evaluated in terms of potential trade-offs between quality, cost and schedule.

Resource planning

Make a list of your firm's recurring project types. To the right of the list, add several columns—one for each core skill set needed to complete the projects successfully. Then check off which skills are used on which projects. Use this completed matrix as a guide to your optimal staff mix. The skill sets that are needed most frequently should be staff positions to give you greater control, faster turnaround and lower costs. Other skills that are needed only occasionally should be purchased from freelancers or outside firms. Our sample matrix indicates two changes that could be made: custom computer programming seems to be needed so infrequently that it could easily be outsourced. In contrast, a particular type of research is needed frequently enough that it should be brought in-house. Your own matrix will be different. Keep it close at hand and revisit the mix on a regular basis. Project requirements shift and company needs evolve. Constantly re-evaluate your resources and update them as necessary. For outside services, make sure that your list of contacts is up-to-date. Always have more than one source in each category so that you have options for price, availability and the best match to project needs.

Internal marketing

This is an area where almost every in-house creative group can make dramatic improvements. Ask yourself some hard questions: How do you communicate the capabilities of your department to the rest of the company? Do people know what should come to you and what should not? How is your work generally perceived in terms of quality, cost and turnaround? Some of your in-house clients may have other options for creative services. Be aware of your competition—both internal and external. Use this information to guide your internal marketing activities. Promote your services and their value by conducting orientations for new managers from other departments and by sending newsletters and promotional information on a regular basis. Fine-tune your efforts by conducting an annual satisfaction survey of your clients.

Your process

Another important challenge for in-house departments is communicating to clients the fact that design is a problem-solving discipline and that the essential activities at the start of each project are information gathering and analysis. Clients who are not familiar with design often try to short-circuit the process by bringing you into a project too late and asking you to jump directly to form-giving. To avoid this, think about the ideal process that you would like your projects to follow—the phases, steps and milestones that are most appropriate. Then describe this process in a written document. Diagram it and use the diagram as a tool in your internal marketing and client education efforts. This preferred process should be your framework for planning, tracking and managing all projects.

Project planning and agreements

Start each project with a basic requisition, preferably in the form of a questionnaire, then use this initial information as the basis for a personal conversation with the requestor to clarify the context and objectives of the project. Following this conversation, you'll have enough information to write a detailed creative brief that states the scope of work required and the specific objectives to be accomplished. With this in hand, you're ready to draft a budget and schedule. The best method is to use an internal planning worksheet that has your own standard process and default rates built into it. The worksheet will give you suggested totals for the project, which you can then adjust as needed.

At this point, independent consultancies go on to write a separate proposal document for the client to review and sign. As an in-house department, you probably won't be preparing formal proposals, but it's still a very good idea to have your clients sign some form of written agreement to indicate their acceptance of the schedule and budget. A signed agreement formalizes your understanding, leads to better management internally, and projects a stronger image of professionalism to your clients.

Customer service

Now the agreed-upon project begins. You're ready to do the very best creative work possible. At the same time, you must do a great job of taking care of the customer. Inside a large company, it's often easy for this client focus to fall by the wayside. Don't let that happen—apply the same diligence and consideration to client service that an outside supplier would. Excellent customer service involves these essentials:

  • Over the course of each project, you must be proactive in providing updates to the client, both verbal and written. Find the format and the frequency that is best for your organization.
  • You should always be accessible. Clients need to know who the key team members on their projects are. Identify your team lead and how he or she can be reached—even outside of regular office hours.
  • When those inquiries come in, respond promptly. Even on weekends and in the evening, check your messages regularly and acknowledge to the client that you have received them.

All of these are important aspects of professionalism. By providing both great design and great customer service, you will earn the confidence and respect of each of your in-house clients. Strive to convert one-off projects into ongoing relationships by always closing the loop and assessing client satisfaction at the end of a project. Your goal is to become recognized as an important ally and trusted advisor. Ultimately, your involvement should be sought out to the extent that clients wouldn't dream of starting an important project without you.

Team issues

When making decisions about the structure and composition of your internal team, pay special attention to the role of project and program management. Most teams find it indispensable to have someone specifically charged with the coordination of logistics. This person must have a good understand the creative process but their team role is not as a designer. Their primary responsibility is to support the team by taking care of a range of administrative tasks. On a day-to-day basis, they often serve as the primary contact for client inquiries. They arrange any necessary meetings, distribute updated information, document the progress of each assignment, and monitor budgets and deadlines. The usual job title for this role is Project Manager. However, on an interaction design team they may be called a Producer. On teams that do mostly print work, this person may be a Production Manager with special expertise related to print buying. On an advertising team, he or she will be the Traffic Manager, making sure that the right materials are in the right place at the right time. This key skill set is sometimes absent from corporate staffing plans. If you haven't already done so, consider adding a Project Manager to your team. This will free up your designers to spend more time actually designing.

An additional team issue is utilization, which is the comparison of project hours to non-project hours. In an independent consultancy, this is the distinction between billable time and non-billable time. Every team member should be given a target number of project hours. In a corporate environment, the word “billable” may be misleading. Different corporations take very different approaches when it comes to internal budgets and billings-some generate invoices, others have charge-back systems, others have nothing at all. However, billable time is an important management metric. You should track it even if you are not billing for it.

Selecting appropriate tools

No doubt you already have the latest design software. You also need the most appropriate tools for planning and managing your workflow. Start with a basic contact tracking system-this will help you to manage your internal marketing efforts so that you can gain greater control over what comes to you. Use your contact tracking system to maintain information about existing clients, potential clients, informational campaigns, orientation sessions and other activities. Next comes the selection and implementation of an appropriate project tracking system. You need one that is specifically for project-based work, with phases, tasks, scheduling, resource management, time tracking and built-in comparisons of project estimates versus actuals. Within this system, the time-tracking function must distinguish between billable hours and non-billable hours.

In a large enterprise, you will have to negotiate your software needs with an information technology (IT) department that is managed independently and has its own priorities. It's vital for the IT decision makers to understand that the project tracking needs of your team are quite different from those of the other corporate departments that they support. IT might initially expect you to get by with just a spreadsheet application. At the other extreme, IT might become overly ambitious and attempt to develop a custom solution for you from scratch. However, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are a number of good, design-specific project management systems already available.

Project tracking leads us to the issue of financial management. In-house creative departments often face challenges related to corporate financial reporting. Too often the information flow is strictly one-way-you hand in time sheets and approved vendor invoices but no project reporting ever comes back to you. It's better for you to capture important information within your department first, then export any necessary detail to corporate accounting. Good project tracking systems can handle this without a problem. Good systems are also scalable-choose one that can grow with you. You don't want the frustration and disruption of having to replace it every time your department expands.

Until you have a good system in place, you will be primarily in reactive mode-fighting fires and scrambling to get completed work out the door. This chaotic, seat-of-the-pants approach can easily lead to burnout unless you gradually evolve an appropriate management system for your department. Choosing and implementing the right procedures and tools will make your life a lot easier and facilitate the development of norms and benchmarks. Your ultimate goal should be to become proactive-projecting future activity, anticipating resource needs, setting targets and recognizing trends.


Here are some thoughts about how you might benchmark your activities and begin to measure your impact on the overall organization. The recent economic downturn and general trend toward outsourcing has put increased pressure on in-house teams to justify their existence. Smart corporate decisions about your department and its role need to be based on complete and accurate information. If you are the best source of that information, you will have a better shot at occupying a seat at the decision-making table. The prerequisite for analysis and benchmarking is that you must track everything and capture it in real time. Make information gathering automatic, which is easy if you have selected and implemented the right project management system. Central to this is the fact that you need good timekeeping, whether or not your labor is actually being charged back to clients. Next, make sure that every project has a staff labor budget and a schedule. Then, on a regular basis, recap your completed projects in order to compare the original estimates to the final actuals. This will help you to identify trends.

Here are some specific suggestions for benchmarks that you should consider. They are grouped into four general categories: projects, resources, profitability and ROI.


  • Number of completed projects per year

    the total volume of work produced by your department within the annual budgeting cycle 

  • Number of projects per month
    this will help you to recognize and plan for seasonal cycles 
  • Number of projects per client
    identify the most active, least active (and why), average project size and project turnaround; this is also an indicator of the success of your past PR efforts and a guide to how you need to promote your services in the future 
  • Number of projects per category
    this will allow you to develop the average cost, schedule and turnaround for each recurring job type, and to develop project management templates for each one 


  • Track productivity

    compare project time to non-project time as a percentage of the total hours reported; in a consultancy, this is the split between billable and non-billable time 

  • Set productivity targets
    for each individual and department-again, this means that you need to track actual hours, even if team members are receiving fixed salaries 
  • Analyze outsourcing
    look at the categories, amounts and reasons for outside purchases-constantly re-evaluate your mix of in-house and outside services 


  • Direct cost
    calculate your project labor at payroll rates and your project materials at cost 
  • Comparable outside rate
    calculate what a vendor would charge for the same work using their standard hourly billing rates and their standard markups 
  • Transfer rate
    if you charge back your work to clients at an in-house rate, it is often calculated to be somewhere in between your direct cost and the comparable outside rate 
  • Difference between the above rates
    an analysis of the margins between each of the above rates can be an important indicator of the cost efficiencies that you are creating for the organization 

Value/Return on investment

After your creative services have been performed, the final challenge is to describe the client benefits that you delivered and to quantify those benefits in some way. They must be objective rather than subjective. They must be based on reliable data and you must make a persuasive case that there is a direct, logical relationship between your work and the measurable business results. Some possible ROI indicators might include:

  • Reduced time to market for new products and services
  • Creation of new and valuable intellectual property
  • Competitive advantages of strategic alignment and consistent branding
  • Increased market share and awareness within target segments
  • Improvements to the bottom line through increased revenue and/or reduced costs

At the conclusion of each major project, write and distribute a case study that utilizes some or all of the above indicators in order to show the real impact of your work on the enterprise.

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