Getting Into In-House

The HOW Design Live In-House Management program, led by long-time In-House attendees and in-house team managers Andy Brenits and Ed Roberts, was designed with your many roles in mind.

Looking to change things up this year? Getting an in-house design gig could be just what you need. You get to focus on one brand experience, and work with colleagues who are passionate about design. And since there are big-, small-, and medium-sized brands out there, you can find one that fits your appetite.

Working at an agency or studio, or as a freelancer, presents the designer with a myriad of problems to solve, and a variety of clients to solve them for, not to mention many different kinds of media to be used during the creative process. For some, that variety is the best part of their job, but others would prefer more regularity.

In-House Consistency

Working in-house can offer you that consistency, and if you’re currently a freelancer looking for full-time work, getting in-house will get you a regular paycheck. Chasing down payment is something that Matt Fangman doesn’t miss from his days as a self-employed designer. Prior to becoming associate director of user experience design at AT&T, Fangman worked for two universities, two design studios, one fortune 50 company and he spent half of his career being self-employed. There are some things he misses about the freelance life, but chasing down payment isn’t one of them. “I certainly miss the autonomy of self-employment. I could generally move as fast or as slow as I felt necessary on creative problem solving. I also liked the direct accountability of the client/designer relationship. With respect to the agency experience, I’d say I miss the variety of projects.”

Matt Fangman - In-House Design

Matt Fangman, associate director of user experience design at AT&T, photograph by Jennifer Idol

Fangman manages a team of 32 designers and producers, focusing on B2B and consumer merchandising for, and He admits that working in-house offers a degree of predictability, focusing on what he calls that “one brand experience” at all times. But what about the “tunnel vision” that can happen, where you see the same thing, all around you, at all times? Fangman recognizes a silver lining, “…in my opinion, good designers are more apt to use this experience to their advantage rather than detriment.”

Learn more about getting into in-house design with these resources:

But for some, it may not be all tunnel vision, all of the time. Consider the variety of media you may get to work with if you’re in-house. You may find yourself in charge of not just one communication channel, such as printed materials, but everything that’s necessary to push the brand’s message out to its stakeholders. Print, digital, environmental, social media, video, and package design are just some of the items you could find yourself working on day in and day out, whether you’re in-house at a company like AT&T, a non-profit such as a museum, or an educational institution like a university.

The type and size of that brand is also something you’ll want to consider when looking for an in-house design job. Working in-house can mean being part of a communication, design, or marketing team at anything from a bank to a sports team, to a retail chain or start-up, as well as a symphony orchestra or museum, just to name a few opportunities. You could apply to work at a large or small organization, but bigger is something that Fangman had always longed for: “I wanted to work on bigger brands and was looking for a change in my career arc. I was initially dubious about the nature of working on one type of work, but have found that my professional growth has been dramatic inside the in-house environment. Creatively, you can stretch yourself and craft more relevant solutions when you understand the brand/products/services as only in-house designers do.”

Big Brands, Big Surprises

In-house, you’re charged with staying on-brand and producing communication and design for that singular client, all of the time. But sometimes it’s not one thing, one platform, all the time. Sometimes, it can even be a “secret project.” Aaron Rich, who’s a front-end developer at MailChimp, didn’t know what to expect before he began working for them. Initially, he suspected he’d have to work on their flagship product, MailChimp, and perhaps some secondary projects.

MailChimp - In-House Design

MailChimp’s Gather, a “secret project” Aaron Rich had the privilege of working on.

But little did he know that he would be given tasks for departments all over the company, including what Rich calls “a secret skunkworks’ team” that worked on MailChimp’s Gather, a nifty tool for text messaging your MailChimp list subscribers. Rich’s experience at MailChimp has been rewarding so far, and he’s pleased that his co-workers share his enthusiasm and passion for the work. “I think the best thing about my job is that the people I work with are relentless in their thinking for how we can make a better experience for our customers.”

What It Takes

When it comes to getting in-house, just what exactly does it take? Here’s what AT&T’s Fangman looks for: “I generally try to hire designers with agency experience, or a mix of agency and in-house. The agency folks most likely have learned to work fast and under pressure. The in-house folks most likely have learned out to deal with being creative inside bureaucratic environments. Overall, I look for a refined design style, the ability to communicate well verbally and not too much ego. Rock stars don’t really do well in our environment because the ability to work with non-creatives and seemingly silly constraints is essential.”

And what if you get in-house, but then want to do some rockstar work outside of the in-house walls? Or at the very least, just something different than what you do from 9 to 5? You can always take on side projects for personal exploration or you can have your own stable of freelance clients. Nothing’s stopping you from traveling, painting, drawing, sculpting, writing or blogging, or doing any additional creative work, whether it’s for payment or pleasure.

Instagram - Aaron Rich - In-House Design

When he’s not doing 9 to 5 work with MailChimp, Aaron Rich spends time doing other creative activities, such as photography.

On his personal website, Rich includes links to a lot of work that isn’t for MailChimp. “I work on side projects for the purpose of always wanting to learn something new. A lot of my side projects aren’t necessarily code related; I really like to use my time outside of work to challenge myself creatively with other media such as woodworking, writing, and photography. I find that working on various projects outside of work keeps me motivated and excited. If I just worked 9 to 5 and slept, then I’d say my life would be pretty boring!”

Is the grass greener on the other side? Maybe you can have it all: a steady 9 to 5 job with lots of creative challenges and co-workers who share a passion for design, with enough time left in the day for passion projects. When asked about the possibility of leaving self-employment behind and working as an in-house art director or creative director, Rachel Martin of Rachel Martin Design LLC would appreciate how in-house could offer “comfort, stability, a steady paycheck and support of a team.” For Martin, getting in-house is completely hypothetical, especially since she’s managed to carve out a respectable and successful career as a self-employed designer. But she sees the value of getting in-house so “you know what to expect on a day to day basis and you can clock out when you’re done.”

Clocking out? Somehow, I find that hard to believe. If she’s anything like most designers, including Aaron Rich, I have a sneaking suspicion that if Martin went in-house she would find some other creative work to do after her 9 to 5 job. Creativity never sleeps, whether you’re in-house or not.

The Corporate Creative provides incredibly effective strategies to help you really establish yourself (and your team) as a powerful and efficient force within your company. Finally there is a book that speaks to the all too neglected in-house designer. The broad range of skills possessed by an in-house creative team are addressed in countless tutorial books, but The Corporate Creative sets out to help you with the challenges that are unique to the corporate environment. Learn more.