Why In-House Designers Need Contracts Too

By Andy Epstein

December 07, 2011

Ed. note: This article was originally published on HOW’s InHOWse blog and has been modified slightly for this forum.

Defining the business relationships that in-house designers have with their companies is an often ignored but absolutely essential exercise for in-house groups. Lack of clarity (and documentation) about an individual designer’s or design manager’s responsibilities, performance, hours, vacation, pay, benefits, opportunities for advancement, etc., can and will quickly lead to frustration, disillusionment and bad morale in a creative team—even if it’s only a team of one.

The clearest way to view the relationship between in-house designers and the companies for which they work is as a contractual agreement. The designer commits to providing agreed-upon services at an agreed-upon level of quality, and the company commits to providing specific benefits and compensation.  This quid pro quo mind-set puts the business relationship in a context that avoids all the emotional mess around the questions of loyalty, fairness and exploitation.

Pretty simple in theory but not so in practice. Often, designers walk into jobs without having been given a position description, a list of performance expectations, a career path or an org chart that shows where they live in the corporate hierarchy. They don’t have a true sense of how much, if any, overtime they’re expected to put in and how they’ll be compensated for that OT. Are there periods when, because of their company’s business cycles, they won’t be allowed to take vacation? What are the metrics their performance will be assessed by? When will they be assessed?

It’s in a designer’s best interest when interviewing for a job at a corporation to have these questions answered. Hopefully the hiring company has done due diligence and can proactively address these issues. If not, the candidate should not be shy about gaining clarity on the business relationship they’ll be entering into. If a designer is already working at a company, and that organization has not provided them with clear documentation on the agreement they've entered into, then they should request it. This way, they will know what is expected of them now and also what they need to do to move up into higher level positions should they desire to do so.

It is also critical for in-house managers to define working agreements for the other designers within their department, and if that hasn’t already happened, to develop those right away. In addition to creating descriptions for all the positions on their team, managers should document salaries associated with those positions, routes for career advancement, reporting structures and performance metrics.

Once the documentation is completed, the in-house manager should review them individually with the entire team so everyone is on the same page. Staff should have an opportunity in these one-on-one reviews of the contract to bring up any concerns and the managers should resolve those concerns quickly.

Whether the in-house team is a department of one or one hundred, clearly defining roles, hierarchies, compensation and career paths will empower all of the organizational players to quickly resolve any conflicts, confusion or upset around responsibilities, expectations and fairness. This will help to create a culture that allows in-house designers to stay focused on providing great design and design strategy to their company.