Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

In Praise of In-House Designers

As part of an internal creative team, the main differences I notice between us and agency designers are environmental. In corporate culture, the in-house design department is the unruly left hand of marketing, and this bias—intentional or not—influences our processes, our creative output and our own expectations.

In a recent e-mail update, an editor of HOW Magazine briefly discussed in-house designers. She writes:

Part of my mission at HOW in the last couple of years has been to reach out to corporate design departments. And I’ve been pretty successful in discovering the many challenges faced by designers on in-house teams.

The challenges facing in-house designers are the same as designers in agencies. Tight deadlines and demanding clients (just replace “clients” with “marketing” or “sales”) are part of everyday headaches. As an in-house designer, the main differences I notice are environmental. Our fellow workers (who are not creative) generally view us with a raised eyebrow. In corporate culture, the in-house design department is the unruly left hand of marketing, and this bias—intentional or not—influences our processes, our creative output and our own expectations.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, I often feel the constant resistance to innovative design helps us produce more effective and functional stuff while still pushing our own embryonic envelope.

After concentrating on one or two brands all day, every day of the week, we become brand experts, and understand marketing initiatives as deeply as the marketing department. This knowledge gives us a huge advantage over outside groups; we can react to creative requests with suggestions and input instead of being push-button robots churning out brochures and websites. I have seen too many companies try to complement their in-house collective with agencies or freelancers, and their efforts invariably fall short of the internal talent. After all, who understands a brand better than the designers who created and nurtured it?

Look no further than Fossil. Everything is produced in-house, and they understand their incredibly complex branding efforts so thoroughly that I can’t imagine any agency delivering work even close in caliber.

I often sense that internal design goes through a more rigorous QA process. For instance, I recently spent six months designing a 24-page brochure. It had to be absolutely perfect. From the moment I copied galleys of text into InDesign to final approval on press check, the piece was reviewed a hundred times, with uncounted copy edits, color tweaks and photography swaps left behind in a trail of four dozen cumulative versions. While some might write this off as obsessive marketing, rest assured it is the most comprehensive, polished and technically accurate collateral the company has produced to date, and better than any market rival’s printed work.

Since we work exclusively for only one master company, our work accumulates in a pile of similar-looking design collateral, where our agency-residing brethren constantly churn out piece after piece of widely disparate designs every month for a variety of clients. This is simply the nature of the positions. In an agency, it is easy for a designer, copywriter or art director to claim responsibility for the brilliance and success of a piece. Results can be measured through client satisfaction, repeat business and referrals. As in-house design, we accept our role as cogs in the greater machine whole. We are not only part of our own creative team, but part of the larger corporate team as well, and this is a responsibility that I gladly welcome.

commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Tuesday December 14, 2004

Agreed. I am in the process of looking for a new job, and was getting a bit depressed that after many years in a corporate culture that I would be no good out in the “real world” where they sexy jobs are. I was told rather rudely yesterday that I could not be used with a particular staffing company because I had no prior agency experience.

Recently I have come to the conclusion that not everybody has the skill to deal with the corporate world, and started really up playing the fact that I do corporate work. I view it as an asset.

I think that it takes a lot of imagination and drive to be creative while chained to rigid corporate standards.

Thanks for writing this, and cheers to HOW for bring it up.


wrote the following on Tuesday December 14, 2004

I agree with tobias. You have to squeeze more creativity out of an inhouse designer then if your dealing with diffrent clients everyday. I work for both corporate and I do freelance. I can be the first to say that at times it’s easier to deal with freelance clients then corporate bosses. But then again on the freelance side you do get that overly picky customer who makes more changes that a growing baby. There are pros and cons but in all I think you can be just as creative in corporate and sometimes more when they want to stick to the conservative nature they are used to. So you have to push the envelope in a conservative business environment which sounds like an oxymoron, right?


wrote the following on Tuesday December 14, 2004

Well, it seems even Communication Arts has something to say about this. In the dimly titled article “Can In-House Design Departments Be Respectable?” the author quotes the following from several in-house groups:

“They express concern about why their opinions are not valued, why they are given very little time to get work done, why the plum jobs get sent to outside boutique shops and why there seems to be little appreciation for what they do.”

Unfortunately, he follows the statement with an inane set of vague “suggestions” to help cultivate respect. They include such things as taking surveys and implementing “chargeback systems.” A few ideas are good, but should be common sense: namely, keep track of time and have a good tracking system, and make your work area more “creative-looking” than the rest of the company.

Well, here are my suggestions for in-house designers:

1. Do good work.
2. If your shit is being sent to boutique shops, make a lot of noise and bid for the project as if you were independent.
3. Turn projects down. A simple “Look, we’re really busy, so we won’t be able to do that 1cm purple starburst by yesterday” will do wonders in cutting out the riffraff. Don’t do it all the time, but its a mercilessly effective tool when “clients” get out of hand.
4. Meet with marketing or sales and understand where they are coming from. As cheesy as it sounds, communication is absolutely your most powerful ally.
5. Designers are generally regarded as arrogant, aloof artists who don’t like to follow rules. Act professional, treat the rest of the company with respect and a certain degree of humbleness (despite the fact that you ARE better than them), and you will see relationships improve ten-fold.
6. Do good work.