In-house Incites: Competing Thoughts on a Competition


The whole idea that in-house designers need a competition separate from their agency/freelancer/design firm peers denigrates the in-house community and implicitly sets the design bar lower for in-house designers.

The primary distinction between in-house designers and their peers working in agencies is about the environment they work in, not the type of projects they work on nor the skills and talents needed to execute those projects.

It is true that in-house teams may face unique challenges that result from working in a corporation that independent studio teams may not have to deal with, making it harder to produce quality work, but there are 2 equally important points that should be considered to place those challenges into a broader context.

First, though corporate creative teams often have to deal with client biases and prejudices about the quality of their work which often results in those teams being passed over for plum assignments, they do have the advantage of rubbing elbows with those same clients on a daily basis. This affords them the opportunity to form strong working relationships with their clients in ways not available to outside designers. “Innies” also live, eat and breath their company’s brand and culture, positioning them for success and giving them an advantage over outside competition.

This leads into the second point that outside designers have a whole set of challenges that in-house designers don’t face. They include limited access to clients, poor direction without the opportunity to fill gaps in direction that in-house designers have, lack of understanding of corporate review processes, unfamiliarity with key internal project stakeholders and a lack of history with their client’s brand and culture. Design firms also often have to deal with the client-side assumption that, as an outside source, there will be an adversarial relationship based on the fact that the firm is a for-profit enterprise.

Assuming that in-house designers are so handicapped that they need to have their own competition is a subtle implication that they don’t have the same talent, aptitudes and skills as their independent designer colleagues. This perpetuates a disempowering and inaccurate mindset within the design community as a whole that everyone would be better off without.


There are certain difficult design hurdles faced by in-house designers that are so onerous and challenging, that they must be acknowledged by the design community when holding design competitions. Some of these challenges are subtle such as the bias, prevalent among corporate clients, that in-house creatives are not capable of producing the same quality work as outside designers. Others, like purchasing restrictions that limit in-house teams to preferred vendors when going to outside talent for photography, illustration etc., are more concrete and logistical. Additional obstacles include of lack staffing flexibility, time intensive bureaucratic procedures restricting access to resources, inadequate networking infrastructure, restrictive budgets and truncated timelines.

Though no single challenge would justify separating in-house design competitions from other design award events, when taken as a group of ongoing difficulties, there is ample justification for handicapping internal creative teams’ output in a competition.

Finally, an in-house awards event has benefits beyond creating parity with outside designers in a competitive setting. It helps promote solidarity among members of the in-house community and encourages dialogue, two things that are very important to the ongoing success of the profession.

4 thoughts on “In-house Incites: Competing Thoughts on a Competition

  1. Karen


    What often wins design competitions are the “boutique” pieces that offer no-holds-barred creativity or production costs that are completely over-the-top compared to the product being advertised. These “boutique” pieces are usually done by small agencies or by larger agencies doing pro-bono or self-promotion campaigns. The whole purpose of doing these pieces is to enter them as many times in as many shows as possible to win awards. The agencies can afford to devote inordinate time, attention, staffing, and entrance fees because they can justify those costs as marketing expenses. Winning awards becomes a badge of honor to attract more business.

    In-house business models are different. We need to produce pieces that sell our commercial product to a different target audience, the general public. To do that successfully, we stay on message and on or below budget in order to maximize company profits. We are not creating for other creatives in order to win awards. We are creating to sell products to our target market, which is not other creatives. That’s why we don’t have as much of a chance to win awards which are judged solely on aesthetics, not because we aren’t as good designers.

    I also am somewhat offended by the idea that we are looking for some sort of “handicapping” system of awards. I think the reason we would want to have in-house awards is to be able to take into account the *outcome* of the design project or it’s innovation within the field. Did it breakthrough the usual widget advertising and actually sell more, besides just looking clever to another designer? I really appreciate and would like to participate in the usual graphic design awards competitions, but I see nothing demeaning about also having in-house competitions. It’s only about different audiences, not worse design.

  2. Andy Epstein

    Excellent points, Karen!

    I wonder if, during the judging, added emphasis should be placed on the business objectives of submissions and their success in meeting those objectives. Those facts could also be included when the winners are published.

    I’ve heard discussion of this in the past but I’m not sure if it’s ever been integrated into a competition.

    1. Karen

      The CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) design competitions require some information along those lines and supposedly take that information into account when judging. Of course, these competitions would be categorized as “in-house.” In the higher education industry we feel honored, not handicapped, when we win such competitions because we know we are truly being judged by peers who understand our industry.

  3. Mark Hamilton


    PRO – I sometimes get the sense that working in-house is thought of as second-class design citizens…and yet as the individual alludes to above, you can’t always do design just for the sheer sake of design, a criticism of many self-promotions that tend to be one ofs or very small production quantity.

    CON – I relish throwing myself into the fray sometimes to see how I stack up against agencies. But again as the individual stated above, all too often boutique shops are sexier to give an award to than an in-house group.