Service or Servitude: The In-house Dilemma

While moderating a panel discussion on in-house design last month at “Make/Think: AIGA DesignConference,” I was struck by how the word “service” generated a heated exchange—not between members of the audience, but among the panel of in-house experts.

For many in-house design teams, service has come to be perceived as an expletive and not as a valued behavior or mindset, as some of the panelists rightly argued. The connotation, in this view, equates the meaning of service with such uses as “cleaning service” or “administrative services”—a decidedly tactical and non-strategic definition. This meaning and perception, of course, is the bane of all in-house designers who are trying to elevate themselves to a more strategic role within their companies. Rather than remain order-takers who are viewed by their clients as mere production artists incapable of functioning as strategic partners with powerful insights, most internal creatives are fighting hard to shed the epithet of “service provider.”

In addition to this lack of opportunity to participate in higher-level corporate meetings is the even more upsetting fact that clients and upper managers who hold the view that their in-house teams are service providers often use it as an excuse to marginalize, denigrate and even abuse internal creatives. As a result, most in-house designers say that a lack of respect is the primary challenge they face at their jobs.

While no designer wants to be a servant, there is a critical danger inherent in fixating on this justified abhorrence of the “S” word. This preoccupation could be just as destructive to an internal design team as being perceived as merely the “creative services” department. Designers are already predisposed to be independent-minded—especially in a rigid corporate environment. If in-house creatives look at service as a dirty word and then spend most of their time and energy on avoiding the appearance of servitude, they risk alienating their clients, peers and managers.

I've seen internal groups disdainfully dismiss service—as in customer service—as being beneath their calling. This mindset, with its accompanying behaviors, subverts any possibility of in-house teams establishing a true partnership with their clients—not to mention that it makes the prospect of working with external firms, which understand the value of customer service in the client/designer relationship, much more appealing to internal clients.

In-house design teams might consider adopting a more positive approach to dealing with the whole service conundrum by placing the word service into the larger context of “in service to society or an organization.” Embracing this broader view would help keep designers focused on their true objective, which is to support the entire corporation rather than a specific client. To truly make good on this commitment, internal creatives would be forced to be more proactive and assertive in participating in the strategic discourse occurring in their companies. Adoption of this approach would mean not waiting to be asked to take a seat at the table, but just walking in and sitting down (respectfully, of course). By taking this position even further, in-house designers would proactively begin to look for areas where they could truly make a difference and positively impact and support other teams, not just reactively execute on client requests. Serving the company might even place in-house designers in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge their clients if their clients' objectives are personal and territorial rather than global and in the best interests of the organization. This level of assertiveness establishes designers as partners not order takers, peers not assistants.

There's no doubt that internal teams should avoid publicly adopting the service moniker because of the perceptions and biases that already exist in the corporate sphere. But in doing so, it's equally important that in-house designers not throw the baby out with the bath water and make sure to honor the word “service” in its higher meaning—the selfless act for the greater good.

In-house designers are confronted daily with individuals who perceive them as staff who merely execute the orders and ideas of others. This reality may result in a knee-jerk reaction to push back hard on this misguided assumption. But service is not servitude, and it's dangerous to confuse the two. Only when corporate creatives become clear about this distinction will they respond appropriately to the inappropriate perceptions and behaviors of others and, more importantly, find a path that takes them to a place where they will have a true and positive impact on their companies. That is when in-house designers will achieve the respect they desire.

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.