In-House Issues: Motionless Motion or How “House” Got It Right

I received an email from a fellow AIGA member describing a challenge she is facing often encountered by in-house groups – having to justify the hours she and her team spend on their design projects. There was a bit of an interesting slant to her request for advice, though. Rather than just asking for ways to capture hours, create hourly rates and compare costs to outside agencies, she wanted to know how she might articulate the need for, and value of, creative time spent on a project. Specifically, the times when a designer is gathering research, looking for inspiration and just plain thinking as opposed to moving a mouse and staring at a screen – which most clients and upper managers equate with working.

A television show that I watch, appropriately named “House”, came to mind. This is a program where, for much of the time, there is little or no physical activity taking place. The focus is on a group of talented committed doctors led by an incredibly intelligent wiseass misanthrope attempting to diagnose and treat patients with mysterious ailments. Most of the real action occurs when they’re staring off into space twiddling their pens, gathered around a whiteboard chugging caffeinated drinks and arguing medical theories and reviewing lab results again while twiddling their pens.

It is in those spaces of seeming non-activity (not when they’re poking, prodding and cutting their patients), that the doctors are truly doing their most important work. The same holds true for us designers. Without taking time up front to precisely define the problem we’ve been presented with by our clients, we risk designing a solution to the wrong problem.  Without reviewing options that other designers have come up with to similar problems, we risk repeating others’ design solutions and reducing the impact of our designs or, just as bad, spending unneeded hours reinventing the wheel due to ignorance of our peers’ efforts. And without allowing our minds to quickly and efficiently build prototypes in our heads or sketching ideas on paper, we miss out on opportunities to draw parallels between various partial design solutions or explore how seemingly unrelated experiences might inform our designs. As a result we risk repeating ourselves with hastily jerry-rigged solutions that only partially answer a design problem.

The depth of this issue doesn’t allow for a quick fix in the form of a blog post, nor do I have the depth of understanding of it to provide all the advice needed to completely support our community, so below I’ve listed books and blog posts that may help. I f anyone knows of additional resources, I hope you’ll add them to my list by responding to this post.

  • “Change by Design” by Tim Brown
  • “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink
  • “The Art Of Innovation” by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman
  • Design Process

4 thoughts on “In-House Issues: Motionless Motion or How “House” Got It Right

  1. Andrew

    I have encountered this problem recently…

    In my own head, I feel almost guilty for spending time on illustrations and research required to complete a project. I feel that unless I’m physically arranging graphics in a brochure layout, my non designer manager will think I’m just wasting time!

  2. Diana Bergquist

    I used to feel that way in an ad agency…how do I bill for “thinking” and justify my hours to a client. So, one advantage in the in-house environment (for me that is, I feel lucky) is that as long as we turn out good work that makes our “client” look good, then who cares how long it takes. I find the simple requests often bogg me down more than the requests that really need help. I guess I like to be needed for my ideas and being able to solve problems and not just make it look pretty!!

    Every client I work with sees the creation time as a mystery and I like the ones who accept it and don’t try to justify it with numbers.


  3. Andrea

    I’ve never had anyone complain about the time it takes me to do projects, and I’m not afraid to just sit at my desk, going through inspirational material or doodling.

    I think the fact that I work quickly on projects that DON’T require much thought is the key. My boss knows I can turn out stuff quickly if it’s simple. He also knows that the meatier stuff takes more time.

    People with the problem of how to justify “thinking” time should point out how quickly they can turn around easy projects, then argue that, obviously, more complex projects take more time. Heck, draw a quick time vs. project type ratio chart!