In-house Issues: Designers’ Desert Islands or One is the Loneliest Number

There is an often unacknowledged fact about the in-house design community that should be influencing how design organizations, publications and vendors address in-house designers’ needs. A sizable group of corporate designers are working in their companies pretty much on their own as an in-house team of one.

It can be difficult enough to negotiate the left-brain corporate culture with a group of like-minded comrades-in-arms, but I can’t imagine the difficulties that solo in-house designers face with little internal support.

One challenge that I often hear when I speak with these creatives is that they are brought in at a mid to lower level position with little of the authority they need to effectively execute their functions. There is nothing more deadly to success than responsibility without authority. Add to that the fact that many report into managers with little to no understanding of or respect for the design process and you’re pretty much left with a designer who is being set up to fail.

There are some obvious paths to gaining support, such as joining organizations such as AIGA and InSource and attending the HOW and InHOWse conferences along with buying relevant magazines and books, but the fact remains that even those options often don’t address the very unique needs of this group. Ironically, solo innies are probably the most in need of advice and effective strategies for success but the least likely to be able to find it.

I believe a good place to start is by asking questions that will flesh out the needs of this group and then looking at ways to facilitate dialogue around and among single in-house designers. To that end, this Friday’s “Get IN The Vote” will feature a series of questions directed at these creatives who, for all intents and purposes, are stranded on desert islands in the rough seas of their corporate culture. To all you designers looking to send out a message in a bottle – here’s your chance.

10 thoughts on “In-house Issues: Designers’ Desert Islands or One is the Loneliest Number

  1. Jason Graham

    OMG! I’m not a solo innie anymore, but this post just summed up my current situation at my job in one sentence, “There is nothing more deadly to success than responsibility without authority.” Thank you Andy for that little nugget. I read these posts and I’m always amazed at how often they address an issue I’m dealing with at work either directly or indirectly. I heart these HOW posts-keep them coming.

    I used to be a solo innie at a very small mom and pop company, and yes it can be very challenging. You will often be a low ranking employee even though you may see an ocean of opportunities to help them work smarter instead of harder and sometimes not even in your own area. This can be very frustrating if you are a big picture person. I’ve noticed some small businesses will make a lot of mistakes that bigger companies have already grown through. There’s lots of opportunities to help these smaller businesses grow if you know what to look for and if they let you in deep enough. To get deep enough they have to value what you bring to the table.

    When you’re that one person you may have to wear a lot of hats, but the upside is that it also gives you a chance to make improvements over a wider range of areas for the company. Even if they’re small improvements it’s still a chance to flex your problem solving/critical thinking muscles thus adding value. And I think the impact you can have is ultimately dependent on the value they associate with your position and your field of expertise. It may not start out with them valuing you as much as you’d like, but determining whether you and your position are going to have that potential is the key. Sometimes you can build your value as you go along, and sometimes there’s jobs you should just leave if they are indeed setting you up for failure.

  2. Andrew

    I also identify with this article, in particular –

    “Add to that the fact that many report into managers with little to no understanding of or respect for the design process and you’re pretty much left with a designer who is being set up to fail.”

    Do you have a secret camera in my office?

  3. Meagan

    It is very true how solo innies are taken for granted. I don’t how many times I am pressured to deliver marketing material and take care of customer service as well. To make matters worse I work with engineers that test material properties for a living! They think my job is a joke!

  4. Andrea

    At my current job, I was hired as a “Graphic Designer.” However, that is a small part of my job. I mainly do e-marketing, copyrighting, web maintenance, & photography. Not complaining, because I love the variety and the new skills I’m gaining. Just wondering how many other people out there are “designers” but then wear 10 other hats as well. Thankfully, me employer sees the value in my work and I am given authority in several situations!

    1. Angie

      Andrea, I’m in the exact same boat as you. I’m also my own IT support, because our IT guys don’t know macs, and the queen of the color copier/printer because no one else really knows how to use it, including the IT guys. Like you, I enjoy getting the experience, but I often wonder what it would be like to just design all day long and to work with other designers. Collaboration would be awesome once in a while!

    2. D

      I wear many hats as well. I do graphic design, photography, web maintenance, copy writing, editing, printing, answering phones, silent auction solicitation, quarterly publications 56 pg +, promotional material, and the printing of that material. I have had to learn to work fast. It is gratifying and challenging. Oh and anything else that just needs done. It comes with the territory.

  5. D

    Wow, I really enjoyed the post. I am a solo in-house graphic designer. I have been doing in-house graphics for the past ten years. My latest position has me designing at lightning speed. It is nice to have some creative freedom. Explaining the ins and outs of how things work do create a challange. I could definetly use more graphic design minds in the office. Too bad I cannot ctrl C, ctrl V them into the office. One thing that is difficult to swallow is not being able to give enough design time to projects when it is warranted. Seeing major event signage done by untrained individuals is difficult when it is littered with things you learned not to do in graphic design I class.

  6. kristina

    Wow, I feel like you read what has been going through my brain for the past 8 months! This paragraph describes my situation almost too well ! It is quite a lonesome road!!!

    “…One challenge that I often hear when I speak with these creatives is that they are brought in at a mid to lower level position with little of the authority they need to effectively execute their functions. There is nothing more deadly to success than responsibility without authority. Add to that the fact that many report into managers with little to no understanding of or respect for the design process and you’re pretty much left with a designer who is being set up to fail…”

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