5 In-House Design Teams on Working, Laughing & Learning

Curious what the day-to-day is like for other in-house teams? Ever wonder what fun and interesting and challenging things they’re dealing with? HOW goes behind the scenes with 5 in-house design teams to see what’s happening.

And hey, if you want to celebrate your own in-house team’s hard work, consider entering your favorite projects into HOW’s In-House Design Awards.

Work & Play At The Houston Zoo

Our first stop is The Houston Zoo, where we talk with creative director Kirsten Ufer and hear all about what keeps the Graphics team busy, laughing and learning.

HOW: What’s the day-to-day like for you and the in-house designers at The Houston Zoo?
Ufer: The day-to-day of what we do at Houston Zoo is probably quite similar to any other design team—we meet with clients, we hold brainstorming sessions, we devise design solutions, and we deal with all the other daily minutia that anyone in an office setting would.

However, in addition to that, we may have a porcupine or baby goat show up at our door (as often small handling animals are walked through office areas to prepare them for public exposure). Or maybe a cheetah is on its morning walk through the employee parking lot as we arrive to work. Sometimes a fairy princess character or a superhero walks down the hall. Other times a movie, TV show or news segment is being filmed on the premises. Many wacky and wonderful things go on here—and that’s the world we live in! So when we say, “This place is a zoo,” we mean it (in more ways than one)!

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How’s the relationship between your department and the rest of The Houston Zoo?
The Graphics team supports all 32 internal departments at The Houston Zoo and assists with all of their visual communication needs. In addition to that, The Houston Zoo supports numerous conservation partners globally, and we also often give design assistance to these projects, as well. So it definitely keeps us busy, and keeps our projects diverse!

What’s the biggest lesson your team has learned this past year?
This year our team has learned the importance of organization and developing standard practices in how we do just about everything. As a team grows, it can become really chaotic when everyone is approaching and presenting projects in a completely different way. It’s confusing to clients, and vendors and certainly new team members, as they come on board. So we saw the need to create standard practices for everything—how we set up quotes, how we present to clients, how we title files, etc. If we take the guess-work out of all the little day-to-day procedures, it sets appropriate expectations and frees up so much time and energy to do what we’re really here to do—create!

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Tell us about a recent success and how you and the team celebrated.
2015 was a big year for the Houston Zoo as it opened a new gorilla habitat—welcoming seven Western Lowland Gorillas to their new home. So much goes into opening a new exhibit from a design standpoint—from the signage in the space and on grounds, to hyping the event through advertising and media, to the special events and fund-raisers to show off the habitat. Needless to say, we had hundreds and hundreds of pieces to design—and this on top of our typical work load. It was exhausting, and seemed never-ending.

But on opening weekend, in May 2015, we welcomed a record-breaking crowd through our gates! So we felt a great sense of accomplishment (and relief!) in completing such a huge task. Unfortunately, because of the timing of the opening, our team was unable to attend the HOW conference in Chicago that year. So in part, to celebrate this completion of such a huge task, we decided to still take the team to Chicago, where we met with design departments from Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, and the Field Museum. It was really fun and also an very inspirational trip for our group—and great reward for a job well done!

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you and/or your fellow in-housers?
Last Fall the Houston Zoo housed a traveling exhibit, called “Scoop On Poop”—based on a popular children’s book by the same name by Dr. Wayne Lynch. Basically, in a fun and educational way, the exhibit explains what poop is and how animals and humans use it. Our internal Graphics team was responsible for creating the marketing and promotional pieces surrounding the opening. I won’t go into details, but as you can imagine, we had lots of jokes about what our designs looked like!

Team of Two at the National Parks Conservation Association

Next we chat with creative director Annie Riker of the National parks Conservation Association in Washington, DC, who shares her experience with a healthy working life, collaborating with outside teams and amusing questions from colleagues.

Annie Riker, creative director of the inhouse design team of 2 at National Parks Conservation Association

Annie Riker, creative director at the National Parks Conservation Association

HOW: What’s the day-to-day like?
Riker: Working as a designer at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is very different than my prior experience working at agencies. The vibe is relaxed in comparison—I ride my bike to work, go to yoga on my lunch break, and work in a nice office with respectful coworkers who share similar values.

Our design “department” is a grand total of two. That’s me and my colleague, Nicole Yin, who does a lot of photo research and helps with design layout and production. We balance our workload with a solid network of freelancers. Because of our tiny team, I wear many hats: I serve as creative director with big-picture strategy, I serve as art director reviewing and approving design and branding, I often step in as project manager, and I also do design and production myself.

How’s the relationship between your department and the rest of the organization?
It’s pretty good as a whole. Over the years, we’ve developed a respect for design within the organization. The challenge is that with only two of us serving a staff of 150+, we often feel bad turning down project requests from our colleagues. Thankfully, they generally accept that we can’t do it all.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned this past year?
In June 2015, my prior supervisor left the organization, and I was promoted to creative director. I appreciated the recognition, but I didn’t like the job. I felt like I inherited my old boss’ to-do list, and was expected to act the way he did.

But later I remembered that we’re different people, with different goals, interests and personality styles. I reminded myself that NPCA didn’t choose me for the position arbitrarily—they knew I did good work and had good ideas, and they wanted to see where I’d take them. So I did some thinking about our processes, which projects I was most excited to move forward, and how my skills could make the best contribution to NPCA. It made me happy to come to work again.

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Tell us about a recent success and how you and the team celebrated.
The redesign of our website came at a time when our office was short-staffed and I had a lot of high-priority projects to juggle. In this collaboration with threespot, a DC–based design agency, I drove the creative direction from start to finish. This included a fresh color palette, photography styling, patterns, illustrations and textures. It was a huge success! There was a bowling party and several “launch lunches” to celebrate.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you at work?
In the beginning of 2012, I was successful in evolving our organization’s logo. One notable feature is that I simplified the logo from containing three bear icons to two. While most fellow staffers fully supported the idea, it also became clear how much emotion some people had for that third bear. I got asked multiple times (often in a state of concern), “What did you do with the other bear?” A few folks even called me “The Bear Killer.” Thankfully, we’ve moved on from that nickname.

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