I recently had the great pleasure of planning the 2015 HOW Design Live Conference In-house Managers track. I must admit this experience was quite surreal because the first HOW Design Live Conference I ever attended was four years ago in Chicago. The genuine connections made while attending that conference changed my professional life.
Along this journey I’ve met some truly exciting people. One of those is Alex Center, an extremely talented design manager who works for The Coca-Cola Company. Alex was named one of the top 200 package designers in the world by Lürzer’s Archive, one of GDUSA‘s People to Watch in 2014, and was a featured guest on Debbie Millman’s award-winning podcast Design Matters.
At HOW Design Live 2015, Alex shared his insights on the future in-house with those managers attending the conference. Take a few moments to check out my interview with speaker and In-House Design Awards judge Alex Center. Enjoy!
I’m curious, what is your earliest creative memory and how has it manifested into your professional career?
My earliest creative memory has to be drawing with my mother as a kid. Growing up, she and I used to do still life drawings of objects around the house for fun.
My mom was really my first real art teacher. She had an incredible ability to capture things realistically and has real artistic talent. She was always doing calligraphy, painting and a whole bunch of other creative things. When I picked up a pencil and started to draw with her, I realized that I had a similar passion for it. Since then, being creative has been something that I’ve associated with fun. I think that’s what has enabled me to do it for so long professionally without it ever feeling like a job.
For me, the feeling I get from solving problems and being creative in my professional work is the same feeling I had growing up drawing with my mother. I’m fortunate (#blessed, ha) that I get to do something that I’ve always enjoyed doing as my day job.
What one design project do you consider your professional game changer? Describe why you believe it was the catalyst that took your career to another level.
It’s funny because I don’t think that my “professional game changer” was actually a design project at all. It was more a personal project that happened completely outside of my work.
In 2011, after a few years of working at an office as a designer I realized that I was nearly 300 pounds. I drove to and from work everyday, sat in a chair designing for hours, wasn’t really exercising, and I had a bunch of really bad eating habits. I was too busy working that I didn’t realize my weight had crept up slowly over the years.
It’s beyond crazy now to see photos of myself from that time. I decided I needed to make myself a priority and started living a more healthy, active lifestyle carefully considering what was going into my body. I changed pretty much everything I was doing. Over the course of two years I lost about 100 pounds and it changed my life forever.
Everything after that was different both personally and professionally. I was much more confident in my skin, and really started to believe in my work more than I ever had. I was also able to conquer some of my biggest fears. One of them was public speaking. I spoke at my first design conference shortly after the weight loss. After that experience I was invited to be a guest on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast. These things changed my life professionally, but I think it never would’ve happened without my commitment to myself first.
What are you working on right now that’s super exciting?
I’m working on a few super exciting projects that I can’t really get into a ton of detail about; sorry, Coke won’t let me discuss the secret formula either. What I can say is that these projects have a common thread, one that involves our brand connecting with our fans through the power of self-expression.
When “Share A Coke” came to the U.S. this summer and had such an impact, it really opened my eyes. In today’s connected world, our consumers don’t just want to purchase and use our products; they really want to be a part of our brands.
Everyone in 2015 acts as their own personal brand and we need to treat them as collaborators instead of consumers. We need to give them products and content that inspires and enables them to express themselves. It’s no longer simply about our brand and telling our story. It’s more about giving them something so that they can better help tell their story or incorporate into their personal brands.
That’s a dramatic shift in the way we create, but it’s something that I think is really exciting.
There was a time when taking a job in-house was considered career suicide. Over the last ten years that mindset has changed significantly. What’s sparking this shift in perception and why do you choose to work in-house?
Absolutely! There’s been a dramatic shift in the perception of the in-house designer that’s happened over the past 10 years. This is probably my favorite topic to talk about because it’s so personal to me.
When I first entered the field, being an in-house designer wasn’t looked at as a particularly sexy job, certainly not as sexy as working for a prestigious advertising agency or design firm. People looked down on in-house designers as if we were corporate stiffs, who only worked on one brand. I think the perception is changing as more and more companies are putting an emphasis on design, building expansive internal teams and putting designers in positions of power.
I think in the past a traditional graphic designer at a company like Coca-Cola wouldn’t have much influence on the business outside of the aesthetics of the packaging. Nowadays designers are having a major impact on the overall direction of the business and making decisions at the highest level. I think this shift in perception is the result of younger tech startups winning over consumers with their ability to infuse design thinking into everything they do, especially when considering the consumer experience.
Bigger companies realize this is how you ultimately build brand awareness and love. To me, having a real influence on a business as big as Coca-Cola is why I continue to work in-house. Sitting outside, I think, would mean sitting further away from the driver’s seat.
As an in-house design professional, you sometimes may feel like a contortionist alone on a tightrope as you jump through the fire-clad hoops of corporate life. Fortunately, HOW’s in-house design issue is just for you.
What is good design and why is it so important for our employers to embrace it?
I believe that good design is something that helps people make sense of the world around then.
When I evaluate a design, I like to think about why and how people will interact with it by asking the following questions: Is this design going to be valuable to people? Is it going to solve a problem in someone’s life? Will it fulfill a need? If the answer is no, then why are we doing it?
I think it’s ultimately the role of the in-house design team to be the voice of the people. That’s our ultimate strength. Having empathy for people helps us understand their behaviors and design systems and products that they want and need.
As an in-house design manager it is our job to cultivate and discover new ideas for our brands. After that point, our goal is to ensure that it gets to the people, which at a large company isn’t always an easy process. Having strong, visionary leadership is the only way to get an idea or design from concept to reality.
Michael Lee wrote an article that appeared on Forbes.com that ask: Can In-house Agencies Ever Be Great? Take a stab at answering this question.
Absolutely. I think that Michael is spot on with a number of his thoughts. I think that there are a number of in-house design teams that are already doing great work. Look at Target and Nike. These are companies that have robust internal design teams and are doing some of my favorite work. I think that the in-house agency model can be great as long as large companies support and acquire great talent.
I think that an in-house team has the advantage of sitting in the heart of a business and being completely involved in the decisions that happen day-to-day, hour-to-hour. When talking about his approach to agencies, I believe AirBnb founder Brian Chesky once said, “You might be an expert at design, but we are experts at AirBnb.” I think that feeling will only become more and more commonplace.
Give us a little taste of what the future looks like in-house. [Editor’s Note: This was the subject of Center’s talk at HOW Design Live 2015]
I think there’s a real opportunity for us to elevate our role and really be seen as business leaders. That’s a pretty new position for us to be in, and it requires a different way of looking at design. It involves far more strategy, cross-functional teamwork and designing for value. It’s no longer just about about craftsmanship, aesthetics and the visual world.
I think that people who understand business, but have the creative problem solving skills of designers are essential to the success of modern organizations. That’s the future of in-house design.
If you could grab a bite to eat with anyone (alive or dead) within the design industry, who would it be and why?
That’s not an easy question. My heart wants to say Milton Glaser just because he designed two of the most iconic NY brands, but I think I’d have to grab a bite with Jonathan Ive. He has designed so many products that have changed my life, and I just have too many Steve Jobs questions.
I once ran into him on the street in San Francisco and he asked me for directions, believe it or not. I was so shocked that I didn’t even get to say hello or introduce myself. I just thought, “Why in the world are you asking me for directions? You literally designed the iPhone. We don’t need directions anymore because of your work.”
If not Jonathan, then I’d love to eat dinner with the person who designed the Sriracha packaging. That man or woman is my hero!
HOW’s In-House Design Awards‘ organization by category leads to the ultimate leveled playing field. In this competition, in-house design teams are up against other in-house design teams that are producing incredible work while facing a unique set of issues their respective industries—and the great work rises to the top.
This competition is perfect for not only showcasing talent in an in-house group but also elevating the team’s status within your company.
Will YOUR in-house team be among next year’s winners? Follow these three simple steps:
Please allow us to elaborate on how to celebrate: Bask in the glory. Enjoy the prizes. Share the news about your recognition from the judges—White House’s Digital Creative Director Ashleigh Axios, The Coca-Cola Company’s Design Manager Alex Center, and HDL’s In-House Management Programming Partner Ed Roberts. And maybe have a team pizza party (or, let’s get real, an adult beverage party).