by Dave Weinberg, President AIGA Maine
A native of Brooklyn, NY, I joined the in-house Creative Department at L.L.Bean, Inc. in Freeport, Maine in 1999 to serve as Senior Art Director for their web site. During the previous 5 years I’d been immersing myself in web design and cross- media projects all around the greater Boston area. L.L.Bean was a turning point for me on a couple of levels — a conscious lifestyle choice to take ʻthe boy out of Brooklyn’ and a conscious professional choice to do something I SWORE I would never do in my career – work IN-HOUSE!
I like to say that a corporation is like a big dysfunctional family – only EVERYDAY is Thanksgiving – minus the tryptophan, which is why, I suppose, all the local micro-breweries and sports pubs tend to fill up at around 5:05pm. When you freelance you’re like the cool archetypal aunt or uncle. You show up and its – “Hey, Dave’s here! And he’s gonna art direct us another interactive Flash feature, yippeeeee…” and you do the gig, and then – hey YOU get to LEAVE! No office politics, no unconscious playing out of unresolved childhood issues with allegorical co-workers and bosses that remind your of your siblings and parents!
As any former freelancer knows, going in-house is a trade-off. You trade the (perceived) freedoms of creating your own structure (or lack thereof) to adapting to the rules, culture and structure of the organization. You trade the variety and broad range of project types for figuring out ways to get REALLY creative within a sometimes limited palette. The joke at Beans was we could use ANY colors as long as they were green and tan; we could use ANY typeface as long as it was Cheltenham. Ok, a slight exaggeration – we also got to use Franklin Gothic.
Beans Innie Bennies: More than ‘just’ health insurance…
The benefits of working in-house at L.L.Bean?? As it turns out, MANY:
• opportunity to advance and/or invent the creative web expression of one of the premier iconic outdoor gear and apparel brands (web sales were 17% when I joined the company and in less than 10 years they well surpassed 50%)
• the pleasure of collaborating with some of the most talented world-class professionals in the industry all across the organization on an on-going basis
• the learning opportunities to support a multidisciplinary enterprise operation for both external and internal projects
• the literal benefits – can you say “STEADY (direct deposited) paycheck and health insurance” 5x fast?
• the good fortune of living and working in one of the most beautiful and rustic regions of the northern New England coast
The Downeast Downside
For the first several years it was relatively easy to maintain a fresh outside (or as Downeast Mainer’s like to say ‘from away’) perspective while exploring the Beans ethnography and absorbing the culture and heritage of the company. I felt it was the juxtaposition of these outside/inside sensibilities that helped advance contemporary visual interpretations of the iconic brand – particularly with regards to the web site.
Funny thing can happen though – especially being ‘from away’. The longer you are in a company (not-to-mention the less time you spend in the BIG city) the more you can lose some of that fresh edge and perspective. You can become out of touch with industry advancements, you can find yourself starting to repeat yourself and, at worst, you can become so insulated that you begin to think the company you work for is the center of the universe and of course your customers must be thinking that too, right??
Enter AIGA – In-house
Fortunately, about six years ago a new and in-coming VP of Creative advocated and successfully brought AIGA membership into the organization for the team of approx. 20 art directors. I saw this as an excellent opportunity to get back in touch with my inner boy-Bʼklyn and reconnect with the outside creative community and an opportunity to reengage and advance my creative, communication and leadership skills.
AIGA membership provided an immediate pipeline back into the world that I had lost touch with. No sooner was the AIGA door opened then I began organizing road trips to Boston to attend chapter events and programs. It reconnected me to resources and a larger creative community that was simply not available at the time in the smaller market of southern Maine. I also saw it as an opportunity to branch out of (literally and figuratively) the cube-life with the intention of bringing learnings back into the organization.
A Chapter Grows in Maine
Shortly after Beans joined as a group, I learned that Mira Alden, a local independent designer was interested in starting a Maine chapter. I enthusiastically jumped in and became one of the founding members, taking on the role of Programs Director. My goal was to to start bringing those relevant events and programs I had been attending in Boston, home to Maine.
The greatest benefit to membership as an in-house creative has been access and dialog — access to information and benefit discounts including reduced admission at relevant events and conferences. Perhaps most importantly, becoming an AIGA member has reengaged me with my peers, fostering dialog with the broad and multi-disciplined design and creative community across the country.
My Greatest Learning as a(n in-house) Creative
I can not advocate more strongly, the importance of being an active and engaged member and attending AIGA conferences and events. Perhaps the best conference I’ve attended in my career was the 2006 GAIN conference in NYC. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, gave a presentation called Designing in Hostile Territory. It might as well have been a manifesto about in-house influence. Roger introduced the idea of the ‘Design Challenge’ as being more than turning a blank page (or screen) into a thoughtful visual design solution. Rather, he invited creatives to develop strategies as ‘right-brain’ thinkers on how to influence and persuade ‘left-brain’ business people about the value of design. I returned to Beans after that conference with a newfound view of the organization. The phrase “It’s about THEM” took on a whole new meaning. While I maintained a pride in the practice of my professional craft – I no longer expected or anticipated the business to view it that way. Designing, whether in-house or for your client, plain and simple, is about solving business problems. The secret to influence and persuasion? Active listening about the business’ challenges and producing work that is based on the company’s goals and objectives. Repeat.
In-House to In-School
My engagement with AIGA, while still in-house, became a professional launchpad in my career. Joining the local board in Maine provided supplemental leadership skills that served me well within the company and ultimately helped prepare me for reemergence into my own creative services practice along with teaching graphic communications and cross-media publishing at University of Southern Maine. Moving forward I anticipate a deeper in-house connection across the AIGA community.
Dave Weinberg serves as current President of the Maine Chapter of AIGA. He is also the creator of cellphoneSketchpad – mobile journal. cyber comic. digital rorschach http://cellphoneSketchpad.com