In-House Insights: Randy Johnson discusses the power of one

Randy Johnson has met every challenge he’s encountered as a solo in-house designer with creativity and positive action, proving that being a department of one can be a rewarding and powerful experience.


After graduating from the University of Akron, Randy started his career as an in-house designer for U-Store-It. He moved onto University Hospitals for 2 years before creating the in-house department at COSE, Council Of Smaller Enterprises where he’s been working as a solo designer since 2007.

Randy has been active in the design community serving as Communications Chair at AIGA Cleveland and contributing regularly to the HOW InHOWse blog.

How did you end up becoming an in-house designer? What is it about being an in-house designer that works for you? What don’t you like?

I have to admit, I became an in-house designer by sheer circumstance. Before I landed my first in-house position in 2004, I was working as a design intern at a local public relations firm. I worked with a number of external clients and I loved it. I was almost positive that it was the direction that I wanted my career to go in. As my internship drew closer to it’s end, I began the “grown-up” job search and was hired as a full time entry-level designer at a Self-Storage company. I was very proud, and grateful for the opportunity, but I went into the experience believing that it would be a temporary stop on my way back to agency life.

After a couple of month of being a self storage innie, I actually found that I absolutely loved it. The challenge of making self storage interesting, was a very stimulating and rewarding task. From then on, my passion for in-house design continued to grow. I enjoy having one client, learning every detail about them and finding ways to keep the look and message fresh while maintaining the integrity of the brand. It really gets me going. I’ve been extremely lucky in my experiences, but the biggest challenge that I’ve faced as an in-house designer is establishing the worth and importance of consistent branding within the organization. Getting co-workers on board can sometimes be a difficult feat.

I imagine you feel pretty isolated in some ways as a solo in-house designer. How have you handled that?

In the beginning, I felt very isolated. I still get a little frustrated sometimes, but I’ve learned to leverage my relationships within the design community for support. Getting involved with AIGA was the most helpful step I took. While serving on my chapter’s board in 2005, I met so many awesome people. I keep in touch with many of them and some have even become great friends and great resources as well. Though I’m no longer on the board, I’ve continued to expand my network by staying involved. When I get stuck on a project or if I need feedback on a piece, I reach out to many of those people for assistance. They’ve gladly helped, and in turn, I’ve willingly been that resource for designers who’ve reached out to me. I believe that by helping one another, we strengthen the viability of our profession. I’m very grateful to have met people who have similar beliefs and are willing to pitch in.

Can you speak to some other challenges you face and how you’ve dealt with them?

When I began at COSE, the design position was new to the organization. With that, there were no protocols or processes in place for me. One of the first things that I created was a “Design Request Form” for my clients. This gave them the opportunity to list the details of each individual project that we’d work on together (project name, size, due date etc.). It has helped keep projects on track and it helps me keep accurate records of my jobs.

Another challenge that I faced was proving my capabilities. I had the desire to work on larger projects that our agency typically handled, but I wasn’t quite sure how to approach my superiors about it. At an AIGA conference, I shared this dilemma with Andy Epstein and he gave me great advice…and I took it. I proposed a fully developed alternative design solution for a project that our agency had created for us. I waged a friendly design war against them and it paid off. My concept was chosen and it saved the company thousands of dollars in design fees. My hope is that this instance has paved the way for more participation on similar projects in the future.

What are the advantages to being a department of one?

Being a department of one has definitely forced me to become more self-sufficient. In a crunch, I have to find the answers on my own and sometimes I have to be my toughest critic, but it has helped me develop as a designer. I push myself a lot harder than I used to (nothing is ever good enough J).

Another perk of being a solo innie is the exposure to a variety of projects. Because I’m the only designer on staff, my services are utilized by the entire organization. Being involved in so many areas certainly keeps things fresh. I also enjoy being responsible for the creative direction on most of my projects. Being able to take projects from concept to completion is very exciting. I’ve learned a lot during that process. Finally, it’s a lot easier to pitch proposals for conferences and new hardware/software when it’s for one person J. Somehow, some of my attempts are still unsuccessful…just sayin’…

Are there any classes, books, conferences or organizations that have helped support you in your career? Could you talk a bit about them?

Joining AIGA was one of the best decisions of my career. It’s given me the opportunity to network with other designers and it has even allowed me to interact with some of my design heroes. I also enjoy the visiting artist lectures. By attending, I’ve gained invaluable insight from some of the world’s leading creatives. In the fall of 2009, I attended my first AIGA conference (Make/Think) and it turned out to be a very rewarding experience. The breakout sessions were great, the speakers were inspiring and the networking opportunities were plentiful. I was even lucky enough to meet two of my idols. I returned to work re-energized and ready to implement new things that I had learned. I’ll definitely be attending more of them in the future and I urge other designers to attend the conference as well.

Two other resources that I’ve found helpful are Linked in and the Behance Network. Both outlets allow you to expand your creative network, receive feedback on design work and even display your portfolio. They have also been great ways to keep up with current events, job postings and phenomenal design work from all over the world.

Finally, what advice would you give to other designers in circumstances similar to yours?

I would absolutely recommend joining organizations and networking with as many people as possible. It has really helped me break out of isolation. Although I’m solo, I never really feel alone. I’ve also befriended the agency that works on some of our larger projects. The relationship has become more of a collaborative effort as opposed to a constant competition. We support one another and they have become a resource that I can tap into as well. Finally, in efforts to keep strong relationships with my internal clients and other co-workers, I took the advice of an article on the In-HOWse blog. I occasionally go to lunch with them and I’ve even taken on a few personal pro-bono projects for people around the office. Doing so has helped me form strong professional bonds and I’ve also gained advocates for creative services.

For a creative outlet or to break up the monotony at work, I’d recommend taking on a personal design project. We all have things that we feel passionately about and a lot of times, those things don’t directly align with our jobs. When I get the itch, I use design to address social issues that interest me. Using design as my vehicle, I’ve tried to positively impact people by spreading various messages of hope. Not only have those experiences provided artistic satisfaction, they’ve been the highest points of my life so far.

7 thoughts on “In-House Insights: Randy Johnson discusses the power of one

  1. Josh

    Wow, this was great. I’m also a solo designer in a company where I’m jokingly referred to as “The Poster Guy”, and where I’ve wondered if I’ve been taken serious enough for them to even keep me on staff. I’ve been here for 3+ years, never thinking it would have lasted this long. The solo thing has been a challenge, but it’s definitely rewarding at the same time. I’m glad to hear there are others who have been there. Thanks for the column and the advice. Hearing your story gives me hope and helps fuel my fire to keep pressing on. It’s not easy, but it’s been worth it. Hopefully I’ll get to meet you at a conference in the future, Randy. Thanks a ton!

  2. Devon

    Thanks for this! As an in-house designer I’ve been frustrated with the monotony of my projects, but Randy’s perspective and enthusiasm has given me fresh wind for my job. I appreciate the insight and priceless advice.

  3. Randy C Johnson

    Josh and Devon, thanks a lot for reading the post! I’m so glad that you were able to get something positive out of it. It would be great to meet you both in the future so lets keep in touch to ensure that it happens. Until then, take care and good luck with everything!

  4. Sarah Smith

    I am in the same exact position as you, working as a solo designer in a very corporate world, and reading this article has helped me to remember the positive side of being a solo designer. There are so many great outlets to go to outside of the cubicle world (other projects, design community) that those are really what fuels me.

    It’s so great to see strong individuals out there making a difference in the design world.

    Thanks for the article!

  5. Pingback: WITHIN | Just go for it!

  6. Pingback: test | WITHIN

  7. Pingback: Randy Johnson, Fellow Innie | WITHIN COMMUNITY