How “Corporate” Can Coexist with “Creative”

This article is excerpted from the article “Be Our Guest” in HOW Magazine. Find the full issue in MyDesignShop or Subscribe.

Contributed by Theresa Christine
Art provided by David Hartman

You’ve been there. In fact, you might have been there just this week, grabbing groceries, picking out a new dress, or getting some more toothpaste. It’s a store that fulfills shoppers’ every want and need, and whether you pronounce it in English or French, you’ve likely purchased from the store many times. Shopping for groceries? Simply Balanced. Need new furniture? Room Essentials. Getting some personal items? Up & Up. Offering products for any occasion or desire, these trusted in-house brands are available at one place and one place only: Target.

For the last two years, David Hartman has been the creative director for the Brand Design Lab at Target, a specialized team dedicated to the development and management of Target’s owned brands. [Check out Hartman’s session at HOW Design Live this month in Atlanta!] When he began working with the retailer, Target’s leadership agreed with him that the brands had untapped potential. Hartman jumped into the position ready and eager to seize those opportunities.

Corporate graphic design at Target

Creating brands for such a well-known and established company is a job that some designers may only dream of. There are, of course, the expected downsides. For example, Hartman chuckles when I ask the question, “How many people have to sign off on a project?” However, there are many benefits, too, like a family supportive culture that is conducive to a life outside of work.

Still, to many young designers just starting out, work-life balance and time for the kids isn’t exactly a top priority; instead, creativity—however they define it—is at the top of the list. And when it comes to working for a corporation, many shudder at the thought. The commonly accepted idea is that “corporate” cannot coexist with “creative.”

Hartman confidently asserts that this perception is changing. He quickly lists companies that realize the value design plays in a business, such as IBM [check out IBM’s award-winning poster design], Pepsi, and even AirBnB, to name a few. More and more larger businesses now view design as a vital ingredient in differentiating their brand. Because of this shift, Hartman believes that designers must also adjust their vision of success.

“Good creative work doesn’t sell itself; you have to constantly prove the case. The real question for young designers is ‘Where can I go to gain a lot of hands-on design experience?’” he explains. “The ability for a young person to come into a corporation, especially one like Target, allows them a diversity of experience that they won’t necessarily get on the agency side. Anyone who’s worked inside a company such as this will be much smarter and savvier when their next step comes along. An experience of working directly with hyperdisciplined business leaders and understanding exactly how to work and thrive with a powerful corporate culture will make any designer so much stronger in the long term.”

Hartman himself started out with an interest in graphic design, but opted to invent his own major at Oberlin College in 1998. “It was a combination of visual arts and time-based media. Today, that would be akin to a design degree in interactive media, but at the time nothing like that existed.” After a number of years working in design and digital media, Hartman received his MFA. from the School of Visual Arts in 2005. Afterward, he spent time working with various agencies, including Desgrippes Gobe, Arnell, and Ogilvy & Mather as part of the Brand Integration Group. While the agency environment was full of energy and excitement surrounding the projects, there were few opportunities to approach design in a truly holistic fashion.

Corporate graphic design at Target

“When I considered what I wanted to do next, I started to evaluate the advantages and opportunities of working in-house versus working on the agency side. By chance I interviewed at Target and was offered the job. It was almost a coincidence that things worked out the way they did,” he says. “Target was definitely on my radar of brands doing all sorts of best-of-breed work in advertising and design, but this was a unique position that I was excited about. The fact that I was offered the job seemed like a one-of-a-kind opportunity.”

For those who think that living in Minnesota and working a corporate gig is predictable and ho-hum, think again. Hartman’s work with the retailer is both a sprint and a marathon. The pressure is on when deadlines may be as little as five weeks. At the same time, the teams own the ongoing management of their brands, which includes an entirely different phase of work that may last years. During a concept phase, the Brand Design Lab might work on a handful of SKUs for six to eight weeks to receive initial leadership approval, after which the concept is fully brought to life. In the case of a $2 billion brand like Room Essentials, this means applying the concept work of 10-12 SKUs to the remaining 2,000 SKUs in the assortment.

Hartman admits that, although he loves the work, a job in a corporation requires extra effort on the designer’s part. While creativity is clearly free to thrive, learning how to effectively communicate the relevance of design to the business is key. It means doing work you can truly be proud of while also doing the work that needs to be done.

“Even at a company that upholds design as one of its foundational principles, delivering great design requires constant care and tending. You have to balance what you feel is delivering against the brief in a way that feels compelling and relevant and satisfies you personally against the complexities of the organization. There isn’t often a harmonious balance between those two,” he laughs. “So sometimes it feels like one side is beating the other, and depending on where you are in the process you might feel like, ‘Oh wow! This feels like the best project of my life. I’m doing amazing work,’ and sometimes you feel, ‘Oh my God, the process is so long. There’s so many steps before we get to the finish line.’ You just have to figure out a balance between those two to be successful.”