Thriving as an In-House Digital Designer

w5970_500px_72dpiEditor’s Note: This article is excerpted from The Digital Creative Survival Guide by Paul Wyatt, to be published in May by HOW Books. Find more books on web and interactive design at MyDesignShop.com.

Peter Knapp, executive creative director at Landor London—one of the biggest creative powerhouses in the world—started his career client-side at Dixons, the UK electrical retailer, in their in-house design studio. There he learned about the hard school of retail on main street. “It was a great lesson to never forget the end user, as we’re not doing this for self-indulgence; we’re doing it for a commercial value. So it taught me to think about what the motivations of the customer are.”

Understanding the end user and their needs and wants in any brief is an essential and transferable skill. Working in-house is a great grounding for learning the practicalities of business, as you’re right there in the firing line. If something isn’t working with the business—if sales are low and if the ads on the website aren’t performing—you’ll be one of the first to hear about it. In an agency, you’re a little more buffered from this. It’s like the old game of Telephone, to see how feedback comes down the line. At client-side you get to see how all the cogs of the business work and the immediate impact your work has on them. This helps keep in mind how and why people are interacting with your product or service, and you’ll learn an awful lot about the mechanics of a brand and the business as a whole. These skills are essential and transferable to your interactive design career, for making the leap to running your own creative setup or moving across to an agency.

Shutterstock office building

photo from Shutterstock

“I’d say it can be a good start doing client-side stuff for a bit,” says Paul Davis of Overthrow Productions Limited. “But I wouldn’t stick around in an environment where creatively you’re just churning out the same old stuff year after year for too long.”

That’s sound advice, but if you’re creatively restless and have taken an in-house job because no agency was hiring and you want to jump across in the future, then you should make the most of the opportunity at hand. Creatively restless people don’t ever just “churn out” work. If they do so then it’s their own fault. Author Ruth Burke once said, “Only boring people get bored,” and it works the same way with creatives who say the work they’re given is creatively uninspiring. Designers who find themselves in a creative rut need to look for challenges within that constraint. If you can demonstrate that ability, you’ll do well in a digital design agency, in house or even when setting up your own business as a freelancer or in a collective.

Working as an in-house digital designer, you’ll have a flatter structure; whatever your level in the company, you should be able to look for ways of making the work more exciting. You’re the guardian of the brand guidelines, so break them where you can. The in-house designer probably has much more creative freedom than their agency counterpart. It’s all a matter of how you apply and push yourself. Look at using downtime to work on self-initiated projects that will creatively enhance the brand (and your time spent there), and present these to your marketing or creative manager. Don’t be a drone. If you are, you’re probably in the wrong business. Make a difference to the brand and stamp your mark. It will prove to be invaluable experience further along your career.

I spent part of the dot-com boom working client-side at a large internet portal. Everything was going digital, and at the time it was easier to find an in-house “digital department” (or “e-division” as they were sometimes questionably called) than a digital creative agency. There were very few of these in Britain at the time. The environment felt like I was working in accounting, and every few weeks I’d be summoned to the managing director’s office to justify the existence of the creative team. But the collaborative work and experience I gained there has shaped my career significantly.

Rather than having worked with “failed” creatives, as the in-house myth would have you believe, I worked with some of Britain’s best designers. None of us wanted to be stuck making animated banners or updating web pages. It was duller than dish-water, but we knew the way around it was to use downtime to develop new skills.

We pooled this skill set together, and whenever a design request would come in, we’d turn it on its head and present back a much more creatively challenging brief. You have to remember that in some corporate design departments, the internal clients giving you project briefs you spend most of the day absorbed in spreadsheets. They’re a bit fearful of creative types and usually say such things as, “Don’t be too creative” or “I don’t care what it sounds or looks like as long as it gets done.”

Breaking that cycle takes confidence in your abilities and a desire to produce interesting work. It also takes assurances to the person briefing you that it won’t take any more time, cost any more money or make them look silly. If you’re making those promises, then make sure you make them stick—else you’ll never be able to convince them again.

“There seems to be opinion floating around that working in-house is the kiss of death for a designer. Don’t assume ‘in-house’ means working for a big brand; there are hundreds of start-ups out there doing interesting things in need of good designers,” advises Tom Harding, interaction designer at the innovative products and services agency Made by Many. “When I worked for a start-up, I gained a lot of experience that set me up for the future. I learned a lot about agile and lean development and gained important understandings of how a business works. All these are transferable skills that agencies should be looking for in a good designer.”

Oh, and if you’re still of the opinion that working in-house can be creatively stifling, Ben Curzon reminds me that Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iMac, iPhone, PowerBook G4 and a host of other Apple products, is indeed an in-house designer.

In an internal design department, it’s important to communicate the value creative adds to the business. If that’s not communicated, the creative team will always be on the chopping block for resources. In an agency, everyone knows the value of creative, as it’s the lifeblood of the business that pays everybody’s wages.

The way to deal with this value issue is to produce a quarterly, visuals-only presentation of work. This should be presented in a companywide meeting, making it clear what was produced and for which department. This creates transparency about the work produced and its overall value. If possible, have each member of the team present their own work, which will raise their profile and ensure everyone knows what they do for the company.

Cram this presentation with visuals to make clear the value this creative team has given to all the departments that have used it as a resource. This pretty much makes the team bulletproof. Presenting your team’s work puts everyone on the same page and stops wagging tongues asking, “What exactly do they do?”

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