In-House Issues: Adult Education or Grow Up Already

My dad, to me, was always the iconic grownup. Being a boy, I guess I gravitated toward emulating his behaviors and beliefs rather than my mom’s (she was the one I looked to more for nurturing). Sometime around 16, though, being grown up became exceedingly uncool. This attitude lasted well beyond college for me – not the best career (or dating) move on my part. I believe much of my disdain for being grown up stemmed from my belief that creatives should shun “the establishment” and nothing embodied “the establishment” more than grownups.

A number of years ago, I had the presence of mind to rethink that paradigm and, along with my willing adoption of the grownup mindset and accompanying behaviors, I also chose to redefine what it meant to be an adult. I thought back on what, as a child, I remembered of my dad. He seemed kind, patient, reliable, honest, respectful of men and women and surprisingly inquisitive – never stodgy. I recall how he once stooped down to snap a Milkweed in half and called me over to watch and marvel at the white liquid oozing from the stem. When we went on family vacations he always took the time to explore the old buildings, battlefields, museums and zoos we visited to discover something he didn’t know about before our trip. So much for my assumption that being grown up meant giving up curiosity. There were a number of other characteristics that I associated with adults that I began to debunk as well.

So what does this diatribe on being grown up have to do with in-house design? I’d say that any designer working in an in-house team who eschews adulthood is on the fast track to failure and unhappiness. Corporate culture demands, at the very least, an appearance of maturity but, much more importantly, to succeed in any organized group of human beings with varying interests, skills and agendas, an individual must actually be an adult.

The design profession tends to celebrate youthful rebellion probably because a younger crowd tends to dominate most of the design community’s events and organizations. This is natural because younger professionals most likely have less family (read parenting) obligations and more energy than their older peers. The danger, though, is that the anti-adult mindset may be glorified a bit more than is good for the profession and especially for those designers trying to assimilate themselves into (not succumb to) their host companies.

To simplify things and keep this post from running longer than it should, I’ve included a list of decidedly grownup attributes that it would be beneficial for an in-house creative to adopt.

  • Practice inclusion not exclusion. The us/them mindset may make for dramatic acts of rebellion but it won’t forward your or your company’s best interests
  • Check your righteous indignation at the company door
  • Put situations into context – Your boss may seem to be acting like a jerk but if you look at the bigger picture and the challenges he’s facing along with the long-term goals he’s trying to achieve, his actions may make more sense
  • Look at the world in color, not black and white or right and wrong
  • Say what you’ll do and do what you say
  • Confront uncomfortable situations respectfully but head-on. Cut out the passive-aggressive crap
  • Celebrate the cult of ideas not the cult of personality (with apologies to Stefan Sagmeister and Michael Bierut)
  • Know the difference between style and content
  • Understand the proper place for self-expression
  • Challenge the status quo responsibly
  • Put the needs of others above the needs of your ego
  • Be honest
  • Be patient
  • Be fair
  • And, most of all, be kind and respectful

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