Driving Design Innovation In-House: Part One

By Andy Epstein

March 06, 2012

Recently I was reading a fascinating article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times that explored the reasons behind Bell Labs’ success during the twentieth century, and I was struck by their relevance to the in-house design community.

In the piece, the author, Jon Gertner, lists six fundamental practices that Mervin Kelly, president of Bell Labs from 1951–1959, implemented that were the drivers of the organization’s breathtaking innovations. They included recruiting the best and the brightest (the people who “wrote the book” in their fields of study), creating multidisciplinary teams, forcing chance encounters, mixing theory with implementation, granting autonomy and, most importantly, providing staff the time necessary for true innovation to occur.

Here’s how I see each of those elements relating to in-house:

Recruiting the Best and the Brightest

There are several challenges that in-house teams face when recruiting talent—some forced on the team, some self-imposed. The most obvious hurdle is the perception within the design community that in-house design jobs are not as rewarding as similar positions at independent design firms, consultancies and agencies. These are myths that can and should be debunked.

Myth No. 1: Having one client (the parent organization where in-house designers work) limits creative opportunities. This is a simplistic and inaccurate portrayal of the reality of in-house life. In actuality, most organizations where creative teams reside have multiple brands, products, services, departments and functions that require design solutions. In-house groups may be tasked with designing intranets for HR, creating a product pitch for sales or implementing e-learning modules for manufacturing. They often have photographers, videographers, programmers, interactive and print designers, and writers all working together to meet the company’s creative needs. As a matter of fact, at a time when independent design firms are looking at ways to succeed by becoming specialists and thus restricting their employees’ creative opportunities, it’s actually in-house that offers a broader range of career options.

Myth No. 2: In-house design teams are strictly order takers and are not strategic.This may have been true as recently as five years ago but is no longer the case for many corporate creative departments. The outlets for dialogue, training and support that have been provided to in-house leaders has empowered many of them to shift how they operate within their companies and gain that coveted “seat at the table.” A quick review of the exceptional in-house presentations at last year’s “Pivot: AIGA Design Conference” should put to rest any doubts about the shift toward a strategic partner mind-set that has occurred within the in-house community.

A quick note: Rebecca Gimenez points out in her presentation how her in-house team chose NOT to compete with outside firms for the Whitney Museum’s rebrand in order to play a higher-level more strategic role in the process that would never have been available to an outside firm.

Myth No. 3: In-house design teams’ work is not as creative as the work of independent design firms. All one needs to do is look at the multitude and caliber of in-house design competition winners to bust this misperception.

Putting the myths aside, the biggest challenge to securing star talent is in-house design department heads’ poor recruiting practices. The single most important function department directors have is hiring great staff, yet often they don’t prepare for this opportunity by networking and promoting their groups within the greater design community to entice top talent. Worse, they can rush through the hiring process to meet immediate workload needs and then find themselves stuck with mediocre staff because of their reactionary mind-set. Unless this changes, the persistence of mediocre teams will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Creating Multidisciplinary Teams

More than ever before, in-house designers are being offered the chance to participate at a higher level in their organizations through inclusion on multidisciplinary teams—a growing practice in the corporate world. It’s probably a good bet that designers are best positioned to hit the ground running in this “new” model because of design’s focus on collaboration and problem-solving practices.

Not only are designers being invited to contribute to these teams—because of their holistic perspective, they are being tapped to lead these teams. A good example of this phenomenon is the assignment of Brad Weed at Microsoft to head a product development group there, a position traditionally reserved for software engineers.

Forcing Chance Encounters

The most notable continuation of Mervin Kelly’s belief in and practice of creating chance encounters to foster innovation is Steve Jobs’s design of Pixar’s headquarters. But in-house design groups have been carrying this baton for a number of years before it became fashionable for other departments to do the same.

When confronted with the cube, in-house departments have consistently pushed back, made compelling cases for more open loft-like studios and had their areas redesigned. The value has been so obvious that there have been instances where other departments have insisted on eliminating their cube farms, illustrating how in-house design teams can become cultural change agents within their organizations.

In the next issue of INform, I’ll discuss how the in-house design community has embraced the remaining three innovative practices detailed in Gertner’s piece: mixing theory with implementation, granting autonomy and providing staff the time necessary for true innovation to occur.

Driving Design Innovation In-House: Part Two