Trust: How to Get It and Why You Need It

Since graduating college in 1999 I have had three in-house jobs—kind of scary to say out loud, but it's true. During my first two years out of school I worked at a branding studio in San Francisco. I loved every minute of it. Northern California was the place to be during the dot-com boom. I was a designer on the first breakthrough Pottery Barn Kids e-commerce site, which, coincidentally, ended up being the last job that marchFIRST programmed before shutting its doors in 2001. As the dot-com boom came to a screeching halt later that year, I decided to relocate to Chicago to be closer to family and friends.

Though I don't consider myself the sole cause of the dot-com crash, the thought did cross my mind as it followed me from the West Coast to the Midwest for a solid year. In the midst of this economic debacle I landed a few freelance gigs and one solid job that lasted six months. I survived two rounds of pink slips, but being the most recent hires, an enormously talented ex-VSA copywriter and I got the boot. It was embarrassing, but I realized that many others from our community were facing similar challenges all across the country.

After an extended job hunt I landed contract work at a mid-size studio, and later, a permanent position at a 300+ person architectural firm as its in-house graphic designer. I struggled with the idea of “going in-house” again and what it would do to my career in the long run. But my pocketbook was teetering on empty and I felt more comfortable with a permanent position—a big motivator for many in-house designers. And hey, architecture is design, which makes it OK, right?

On my first day at the firm I was given a fresh, one-week-old copy of the “Branding Guidelines.” It was the only copy in existence besides the one the CEO had. The logo, marketing materials, PowerPoint presentation, color palette, even the business cards were being rolled out on my first day by an outside studio. I opened the color palette page and saw five colors; two grays, a green, a yellow and a red. It looked like a traffic light. My boss, the director of marketing, told me that the CEO was satisfied with it and didn't want to change or add a thing.

Our clients need to believe in what we are selling and to believe in us. From a graphic design perspective, the onus is on us to make our visual communications clear, impactful and meaningful.

A side note to studio designers (and I have fallen victim to this at Pottery Barn, Schwab and other companies for which I have developed brand guidelines): the in-house design team needs to use your system on a daily basis. So make it flexible, make it inspirational and make it informative. If we “innies” don't believe in it, we are not going to use it—trust me on this.

So, with a client base of 300+ architects, three colors and two shades of gray, I had a huge consistency issue on my hands. Architects are designers, and I love and appreciate their devotion to design principles, but they are not graphic designers—and that can be a rather difficult concept for them to accept. It soon became clear to me that, in order to maintain the graphic standards that I believed were necessary for the firm's brand to be successful, I had to gain the trust of the CEO and the design leaders of each market and convince them to believe that graphic design comes from a graphic designer—an in-house graphic designer, at that. Our clients need to believe in what we are selling and to believe in us. From a graphic design perspective, the onus is on us to make our visual communications clear, impactful and meaningful.

It took much patience and a few years to build trust among my clients, both in the value of good graphic design and in me. I remember one late night standing in front of three 4 x 8-foot presentation boards intended to sell our healthcare services with their charts, graphs and half-completed renderings, when the design leader quipped to me, “Graphic design is hard to explain.” I shot him a glance and replied, “It is even harder to believe in.”

In a graphic design studio you are awarded jobs based on your experience, reputation, portfolio and salesmanship. Clients want to trust you because they are paying you, and if they don't trust you, they will change your design. With in-house design, though, there exists the unique opportunity to dive deeper into the day-to-day business with the clients and upper management and share their insight and experiences. Most of us have a client-facing job where every day we play the designer, account manager and partner. If we are good at it, we are awarded with the holy grail of trust, and the rapport and support that trust brings.

After my first year at the firm—and the addition of eight more colors (just how is an architect meant to represent trees, a parking lot, directional sunlight, windows and pedestrian walkways with three colors and two shades of gray?)—I was given the opportunity to work with design teams for client projects that included Orbitz, the Chicago Transit Authority and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, among others. It was an exciting and fulfilling time for me, but, after five years, I felt it was time for a new career opportunity. I left the firm in a good place with two part-time graphic designers, one intern and two books in the works with the Architectural Design Leaders and Bruce Mau Design. My daily connection with the C-level partners proved to be an enormous benefit to my career from a design, business and personal perspective. Reflecting back to my initial doubts about “going in-house,” I can say that it's not going to ruin your career and it's not a mistake. In fact, it can be quite rewarding by getting you access to decision makers—sometimes quicker than you may like!