In-house Issues: Being Conscious Of Craft And Creativity

Are in-house designers hired for their creative chops? It seems doubtful based on how they are utilized by their host companies. The “Just get it done” design as commodity mindset of clients and upper management expresses itself in design teams being afforded limited resources, challenged with unreasonable deadlines and being skipped over for plum assignments which often go to outside agencies.


The problem is that these in-house creative teams may not be acting in very creative ways and so are not viewed by their companies as having the capacity to address strategic design-based initiatives. Designers, especially with the advent of computers, tend to confuse craft with creativity. Being able to design an attractive brochure through the good use of type, colors and layout is the craft component of design, not the higher level creative expression that designers can, but often don’t, bring to bear on their projects. Like an accomplished potter who throws one beautiful bowl after another, designers certainly have the chops to ply the tools of their trade. But tools, albeit skills that could be used in the service of a higher function – that of truly strategic, unique and creative pursuits and practices, is all they are.

Creativity, particularly for designers, is the act of defining problems by putting them into an appropriate holistic context, creating and exploring multiple solutions, choosing the best of those solutions and then implementing those solutions. Stefan Mumaw, author of “Caffeine For The Creative Mind” and “Chasing The Monster Idea”, expressed the distinction between craft and creativity very succinctly this way:

Craft – You’re assigned a brochure to design. You get the content, utilize legible fonts, apply attractive colors, artfully crop the images, place them all into an orderly layout and send the files off to the printer.

Transition – You’re assigned a brochure to design. You meet with the client to determine the objectives of the brochure, the audience and the branding priorities. You apply your craft as noted above to the brochure design using the client’s insights.

Creativity – You’re assigned a brochure to design. You meet with the client as noted above. You research the assignment from a larger perspective and context. You ask yourself, “Why a brochure?” and initiate a dialogue and exploratory process that encompasses solutions that take you well beyond ink on paper.

The path to gaining the respect and position many in-house creative teams desire that will afford them more opportunities for broad strategic contributions to their companies rests almost exclusively on their willingness and ability to engage in truly creative practices and behaviors, not just the crafting of pretty pictures.

5 thoughts on “In-house Issues: Being Conscious Of Craft And Creativity

  1. Tommy Lynn

    Great post.

    I love the idea of questioning at the start of a project. This exercise, while frustrating to those who only value action, brings deeper meaning and clarity to objectives that are laid out before us.

  2. Joe

    It’s easy to get caught in the “craft” and “transition” mindset of projects. If I start to feel I’m not “allowed” to be creative, I must look in the mirror first….”yup, I’ve been just a design monkey on the last few projects” or “I just focused on choosing a nice font and color for the last few projects without any other insight.”

    Great reminder post. May we drink more often and freely from the deeper, wider, and broader wells of creativity.

  3. Chipmunk

    During my long, in-house career, I have consistently approached brochure design assignments from the “creativity” point of view. What’s been interesting to me over the years is that this approach has sometimes been rewarded, and sometimes derided depending on the changing guard of managers over the years. For an in-house artist to survive, you have to be flexible and figure out how to deal with each succession of new managers and what they want while not compromising your own design integrity.

    I have been rewarded by increasing promotions under past supervisors who valued my holistic view of projects.

    More recently, however, management has changed yet again and expectations have changed as well. We designers are not allowed to meet with our in-house clients. It’s viewed as a waste of our time. Only the account managers are deemed strategic enough thinkers to meet with the clients. Nor are we involved in new brand design directions which are farmed out to our agency, then brought back in house for us to carry out their look. We in-house designers are actually rewarded in our annual reviews for the quantity of work we produce (by job count), not for our thoughtful responses. My desire to be more involved is now more often than not, seen as meddling in areas that I shouldn’t be wasting my time in.

    To give some of our account managers credit, they have told me that they like working with me because I give them more thoughtful feedback and recommendations.

    Regardless, perhaps it’s about time for this old chipmunk to think about taking a leap and starting off on my own so I can get to work with clients again and feel those creative juices really kick in.

    1. cindyagoncillo

      Your recent experience sounds familiar. Our process leaves the client as the last person to see and approve the project, something I was reprimanded for defying. While creativity and thinking outside the box are appreciated, I have also been told to beat things back into the box. We have given up on having design integrity and being anything more than computer operators for management.

  4. Creative

    Some of Chipmunk’s experience has been mine as well. Although some of our clients appreciate the questions and the thought given to their overall needs, others see it as “obstructive” and “bottlenecking” when, “I just need a brochure!”

    Sometimes it helps to redirect people back to their communications goals, but sometimes it doesn’t :).