Building Blocks of In-House Success
Recently, as I was leaving the office for the day, the CEO of the software company I work for ran into me and asked, â€œI guess youâ€™re done drawing pictures for the day.â€ I laughed with him, turned and sighed, then walked out the door.
While â€œdrawing picturesâ€ would be a funny thing for a designer to say to another designer, this man was dead serious. It got me thinking. Maybe non-creatives interpret the design department like looking through a fogged window—they know weâ€™re inside producing something, itâ€™s just not clear exactly what. The whole â€œdesignâ€ thing is a mystery and somewhere, someone really does think I sit around and draw pictures all day. I began to wonder how I could better our departmentâ€™s role and reputation within the company.
The creative departmentâ€™s culture, attitude and work schedules can veer substantially from the corporate norm. Designers become magnets for unflattering reputations. However, with a small amount of effort, we can smooth the road for better interdepartmental relationships. Communication, responsiveness and organization are key to avoiding unnecessary biases and gaining company-wide respect. They are the building blocks of a successful in-house design department.
The absolute cornerstone of successful relationships—business and otherwise—is good communication. This is why kids take as many writing classes as math classes, and why every job posting on Monster.com other than â€œtown drunk for renaissance fairâ€ clearly states â€œmust possess good communication skills.â€ Nowhere is this attribute more mission-critical than design, where a professional must not only communicate well to sell their services, but has to sell services fundamentally rooted in communication.
For in-house design departments, communication is the lifeline to the rest of the company, the eight-lane highway that carries news, ideas, requests, comps and approval signatures back and forth. Too little, people are lost; too much, signals get crossed. There are many ways of keeping the airwaves clear of noise.
Itâ€™s common for a sales team to announce big wins, or for PR to announce momentous press coverage, so itâ€™s no stretch of the imagination to have an active design department produce something similar. Send out regular e-mails that update the company about significant accomplishments—new collateral, website updates, new PowerPoint templates, etc. Itâ€™s a great tool for keeping everyone informed and keep your department on the radar.
The sales and marketing groups are usually the two main pressure points of a creative department. Yours is probably no different. Make it a point to regularly meet with both groups to discuss active assignments, future projects and new ideas. Not only do these constant, face-to-face gatherings produce enlightening discussion and fresh perspectives, but they build a personal rapport between teams.
In addition, make it clear to the whole company that the creative departmentâ€™s door is always open. This policy alleviates the â€œelitist designerâ€ stereotype—as long as youâ€™re truly welcoming when someone knocks.
The â€œopen doorâ€ demands responsiveness. In working with several sales and marketing departments, I have noticed one consistent trend—they want everything yesterday, they want it perfect, and they need 200 copies shipped to their tradeshow this morning. They are, by default, demanding Type A personalities.
Constant, subtle education and not succumbing to unrealistic deadlines can help non-creatives understand how long design and production schedules can take. If your primary function is to design new brochures, make sure those requesting the brochures know how long the process will take, from concepts to proofing to actual press time. This helps avoid the â€œI need this yesterdayâ€ syndrome. (One Creative Director I worked under even drafted a document that listed all the departmentâ€™s capabilities and how long each task took. While not the most elegant or understated solution, it worked.)
Remember, you also have the ability to flat out say â€œno.â€ If they need a whole new section added to the website for a new product launch tomorrow, itâ€™s better to tell them itâ€™s just not possible than promise what simply can not be done.
Of course, sometimes there really are emergency projects, and thatâ€™s when you need to step up. Like when a writer needs a custom illustration for a proposal by the end of the day. Or when a sales guy shows up at your cube at the end of Wednesday and needs a new PowerPoint presentation for a rescheduled client meeting Thursday morning. Extreme deadlines like these are a perfect example of why companies keep in-house designers—an agency or freelancer could never be as responsive.
But staying ahead of the curve can be a daunting task. If designers simply react to every demand, then we become little robots that are constantly behind in production and overwhelmed by the stack of requests in the inbox. This is where solid organization comes into play.
When youâ€™re working in a busy shop, there is no substitute to having the creative machine well oiled, and a common, logical organizational system can help avoid breakdowns and mistakes. Have a set process for incoming work and a â€œgo-toâ€ person for every project so information and project files are available at a momentâ€™s notice.
One process that needs to be defined in any creative department is the management of incoming assignments. In one shop, we had a form that the project requestor was required to fill out. This included every piece of information we needed to get started â€“ name of contact, timeline with due dates, target market, technical specs, copy, etc. This not only let us evaluate and complete projects based on scope and priority, but forced the sales and marketing people to think about what they really needed instead of dumping some arbitrary, half-baked idea into our laps.
Having a central database with all project information is an absolutely essential part of your workflow. Every project is accounted for, and everyone knows what he or she is working on at the glance of a screen. In addition, every project is given a unique ID and the entire operation is completely searchable. Itâ€™s amazing how many times the need to research old project files pops up, and having that information available in seconds is a huge time-saver.
For smaller departments without a traffic manager, itâ€™s critical to assign one â€œgo-toâ€ person for each project. For instance, one designer might â€œownâ€ the latest product brochure, while another might â€œownâ€ a large section of updated web files. Each designer knows everything there is to know about every project they work on, from start to finish.
Itâ€™s also helpful to maintain a catalog of past projects. This is basically a portfolio, organized in chronological order, of everything you produce. When a new copywriter needs to reference an ad someone else wrote six months prior, she doesnâ€™t need to dig around for Word files or a copy of the magazine—she simply flips to the date in the portfolio and finds the information. (The portfolio is also a great tool when some exec starts mumbling about outsourcing creative services; when they want to see what their department has produced, you have a quick and effective response.)
The Corporate Puzzle
In-house designers exist in an entirely different environment than our agency brethren. We are surrounded by left-brained people who are driven by deadlines, enjoy talking about reality television and donâ€™t understand the importance of covering a monitor with stickers and action figures. Sometimes, it can be culture-clash.
But these personality differences needn’t be an excuse for a disconnected corporate environment. You might have to change a few things around, but the constant refinement of departmental processes will only smooth the creative groupâ€™s edges to better fit the greater corporate puzzle. Using the tactics mentioned in this article, as well as others that work well for your circumstances, you can build an in-house team that is creative, organized and productive.