In-house Issues: The Silent Majority

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In-house designers make up a majority (around 60%) of all graphic designers practicing in the US today. If you add in industrial designers, who typically work in a corporate environment, the number of in-house creatives is probably higher.

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This begs the question – where is everybody? The InHOWse blog maintains a very healthy readership but not nearly numbers representative of the 60% figure. In many AIGA chapters around the country, this majority does not play out in their local membership. Online and print publications cater to the most active segment of the design community, which is not in-house designers, and their coverage of in-house issues reflects that fact.

This is a loss for those in-house designers currently not participating in industry organizations and for those who are. The less active innies are in the design community, the less knowledge sharing, content and opportunities for meaningful dialog on topics relevant to them will be available.

Lack of engagement is especially damaging to the profession because in-house designers receive precious little, if any, training specific to their role as designers practicing in the corporate environment. If the in-house community is to truly deliver on the promise of delivering great design artifacts and design thinking for its host companies in-house designers will need to rely on and learn from the insights of their colleagues.

The potential contributions of in-house designers to the greater design community is not limited to just the number who participate. There are many in-house designers and creative directors working in innovative design driven organizations who have stories, ideas, insights and advice that need to be heard.

HOW has taken an important first step in creating community by establishing the Full House Ning communities made up of this year’s InHOWse conference attendees which will be launching in a few weeks. Any in-house designer currently not a member of AIGA should join their local chapter and participate and this fall there will be an exceptional opportunity to hear from in-house thought leaders who will be speaking at AIGA’s Pivot conference in Phoenix.

Unless and until there is greater and more active engagement on the part of in-house designers in the dialog, publications, events and organizations dedicated to the design industry, we will remain second-class citizens and unfortunately, deservedly so.

26 thoughts on “In-house Issues: The Silent Majority

  1. Chad

    This sparks a great conversation. However, it may be missing a larger issue. I myself am an in house designer. I am an active member of my local AIGA chapter. But, I do so on my own initiative and my own dime. My organization doesn’t and can’t seem to be convinced of the value of such an investment. It is only focused on it’s own industry.

    I’m guessing a lot of other in house designers share the same challenges.

    1. Andy Epstein Post author

      Chad,
      You’ve touched on an important issue that needs to be addressed. One of the 11 priority projects for the AIGA In-house Initiative involves creating tools and providing support to in-house designers to assist them in articulating their value, the value of design and the benefits of participating in the greater design community.

      HOW is exploring the establishment of professional development opportunities that should appeal to corporate upper management and HR leadership.

      This will take time but there is an acknowledgement of the challenge you rightly brought up and, more importantly, there is action being taken.

      -Andy

    2. Accidental Designer

      inHouser,
      It sounds like you’ve got your nose up in the air and your ink is unfairly bleeding all over those of us who took on the designer role out of necessity and then turned it into our passion. It would be difficult to relate to you because of your negative attitude towards “accidental” in-house designers. On the other side I’ve been to several HOW conferences and I’ll be attending my second AIGA (member for past 4 years) conference this Fall. Whenever I meet a long-time designer or someone who graduated with an art/design degree and I mention that this profession just dropped in my lap I see their eyes glaze over. They have no interest in getting to know me because in their minds – like yours – they don’t think I have anything to share since I’m not a “true” designer. I don’t think it’s “unfortunate” that I am an accidental designer because I believe I have a lot to offer if only other’s could see passed their degrees to notice that. I used to look forward to meeting other designers (“real” or not) but now I just go to learn and I’m thankful that I work for an organization that values professional – that’s right – professional development.

  2. inHouser

    Andy, have you ever heard the term “just give up?”

    Have “mingled” with the agency/firm types at AIGA and even taken in my fair share of Ad club events. Guess what? They all had their noses so high they bleed ink – or pixel dust, as it may be.

    Unfortunately, the in-house crowd is comprised of secretaries, ad agency flunkies, and Andy Warhol “wanna-be’s.” Would guess only 10% of the 60 you mentioned have actual art/design degrees. Doesn’t mean some of them aren’t good – but most aren’t! Thus the rub from agency/firm types.

    If you’re in-house “you have no ‘real’ experience or training.” I get it now.

    And the cost of joining AIGA or an “ad club” is prohibitive for most in-house folks, too. ( Buy grocieries for a month, or join a design club… to get snubbed. Hmmmm… )

    How about more solution articles than “WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE JOIN THE CLUB” articles?

    The club isn’t very inviting…

    1. Andy Epstein Post author

      inHouser,

      I totally understand your frustrations having shared them myself. My personal experience, though, has been that, when approached with solid ideas for creating and disseminating content, opening channels for dialog and establishing events to support the in-house design community, the greater design community has been receptive and supportive.

      Also, I hope you’ll take time to explore the blog archives. The majority of the articles are less about the topic covered in this post and more about real-world strategies and tactics.

      -Andy

  3. Chris Garbrandt

    Unlike many in-house corp environments, I encourage and will pay for my designers to engage in professional organizations such as AIGA. Unfortunately, AIGA does not have a chapter in our area. There is an Ad Club comprised mostly of agency folks and a local professional communication arts group which again is mostly agency focused. The lack of in-house participation in these groups is why I decided to attend InHOWSE Live this year. I also brought one designer from my group. I found it a valuable experience for us both. Now, at least one of my designers WILL attend each year!

  4. Kat Gray

    [Unfortunately, the in-house crowd is comprised of secretaries, ad agency flunkies, and Andy Warhol “wanna-be’s.” Would guess only 10% of the 60 you mentioned have actual art/design degrees. Doesn’t mean some of them aren’t good – but most aren’t! Thus the rub from agency/firm types.]

    Inhouser, I disagree about in-house designers not having actual degrees. For sure, there are the types you’re saying, but there are also plenty of designers who’ve trained and decided to work in-house. Especially in the current economic climate, I’m guessing quite a lot of people may have opted for a 9-5 job. (as if it’s only ever 9-5!)

    I myself lead a team of designers, and I have to admit that even though some have studied and have design degrees, the better ones have real world experience working with printers and the like.

    I have to admit, I’ve always thought about joining a ‘club’ of designers (I’m from Australia, but am currently working in the UK), but it’s not something that I’ve ever taken the time out to do. That’s really something I need to kick myself about.

  5. Carolyn Crowley

    Andy’s right. I’m sick of the snobbery from agencies and firms too, but we can sit back and play the victim. Or actually do something about it. Also we deserve to take the blame in stereotyping too. I finally got off my butt when there was an opening to join my local chapter, and it was the best experience ever. Many of my AIGA colleagues were from agencies and shared that they would love to have my job. We got together because we cared about design and the future of design and we all wanted a chance to participate in the dialogue. And dialogue/action is the only way change ever happens.

  6. Stephany

    I disagree entirely with the idea that in-house designers are less creative and produce less quality work than their agency counterparts. In fact, my experience has always been the opposite. And I definitely agree that there is a distasteful arrogance to many agency folks—a major reason why I has always chosen to be an in-house designer.

    I think the biggest factor in lack of in-house designer involvement in professional organizations is lifestyle. I would love to attend AIGA events, but they all take place in the evening hours and are geared towards socializing with other young design professionals. I am a 40-year old mother of two, with more than 15 years of experience, and am not interested in spending my time socializing away from my family. If the events in my area were more focused on professional development, I’m sure I would feel differently, but my family would remain my primary focus. I am certainly not alone in this feeling. I work in a team of 6 in-house designers and only one of us attends local AIGA events. Each of us would much prefer to attend lunch time events focused on training, industry trends, and technological advances.

    1. Sarah

      Amen, sister! Since the birth of my son, my priorities have shifted from spending loads of free time with coworkers and putting all my energy into my job, to making sure I’m there for my son in his formative years. But hell, yes, I’m still passionate about design, and making my inhouse experience better for my employer.

      As we’re going into the fourth year of austerity measures, membership in any organization is usually the first thing off the plate. I wish AIGA would facilitate OPEN local meetups…not even as often as regular meetings. Closed systems belong in the past!

  7. Suzanne Oberholtzer

    Inhouser: You can choose to play victim and give up, or you can choose to fight the good fight for the principles you believe in. Some days you win the battle, some days not so much. But, if you keep true to yourself and keep communicating what you’re about, the people who are also in tune for providing the best design and best service possible will take notice. I’ve been an in-house designer, now director, for 30+ years in various industries, and giving up would have meant many many years of drudgery and depression. Sounds like you need a new job or a new attitude. It’s your choice.

  8. Charlotte Brenne

    As a young designer, living in the city, I found membership in AIGA invaluable. However now, working in the suburbs (as many corporate in-housers are) the value is diminished by the lack of access to functions held mostly in the city. How about mixing it up, so that some events—perhaps expecially in-house oriented ones, are held in various locations away from the city center where many corporations employing in-house designers are? If it is easier to participate, designers may be more inclined to push for membership.

  9. Courtney

    My company wants me to grow, but they want to see results from an investment. When I worked at an Ad Agency, membership to organizations was scrutinized to see if we really needed it. It’s more than money – it’s also the time spent. When there are so many other options for free or cheaper ways of getting that exposure and growth, AIGA loses. They have prestige and tradition, and certainly a large base of members, but I’ve found other resources to be more useful.

  10. Todd Denton

    “Unfortunately, the in-house crowd is comprised of secretaries, ad agency flunkies, and Andy Warhol “wanna-be’s.” Would guess only 10% of the 60 you mentioned have actual art/design degrees.”
    What an uniformed slam against in-house designers. There are a lot of us out there with degrees who are trying to balance great design within corporate needs. Sometimes a difficult aesthetic to achieve but we proudly make it happen.

    I was a member of AIGA for one year. My company even paid for it. Unfortunately, my nearest chapter was 200 miles in either direction from my location. Also the events held didn’t seem geared to in-house designers. I even encouraged a board for design conversations and threads but nothing came of it. Sadly, I didn’t get anything out of it. But, I have been able to fill that need through social websites and local art associations.

  11. Suzanne Oberholtzer

    The other thing that I wanted to say was that it’s up to each of us to develop and nurture our own careers– so for me that means championing good design principles and standards w/ whoever I’m working with– whether my “client” is in-house or out. And I know it’s my responsibility to keep contact with the outside world– something I haven’t done much lately, but shame on me. There is a problem though, with getting financial support for memberships, subscriptions and conferences. I get a lot out of going to conferences and getting that face to face communication with other designers– but in the 15 years I’ve been with this company, I’ve gone to 2 conferences. My company is publishing based, so when they’re looking at declining revenue and layoffs, it’s very difficult to justify travel expenses or a pricey AIGA membership.

  12. KMC

    I disagree with InHouser as well. While there may be those out there as described, my employer would not hire a graphic designer unless they had a degree in their field along with adequate experience.

    I work for a large US retailer and there are only 8 designers total in our company that consists of over 86,000 employees. For that reason, when my company hires a designer, they make sure that the individual is qualified. Of the 8 of us, we’re all artists and creatives with real talent for illustration, painting and sculpting outside our design work, so we have a mini creative community in and of itself, though we are spread out so far that it’s rare we ever see one another face to face.

    I am the sole designer on my floor and support 10 different departments by myself, so my plate is almost full to the point that it’s very hard for me to take time for myself for things like inspiration and career development. Fortunately I was able to convince my manager that it would be valuable and educational for me to attend the HOW Design conference this year. With the wealth of knowledge I brought back, I’m imagining it’s only a matter of time before other managers begin to allow their designers to attend. I’m also looking into joining my local chapter of AIGA, to get more involved.

  13. Adrianne

    I have to agree with Stephany. My in-house company is completely willing to pay for memberships to AIGA, and they also pay for Ad Fed lunches, etc. I, however, have found most of these to be ineffective training tools (AIGA does have several great resources, but the events in my area, and even the conferences have been a dissappointment to me). My time is much more valuable to me, and there are plenty of other resources, from books to blogs to webinars that I can do on my own to nurture my career. What other industries spend so much time worrying about club membership? It seems to me that we would be better off looking at world issues, social issues, and coming together to solve real problems, not just meeting for drinks at some bar to say “hi, I’m a designer, too.” We can make change in our communities, but it’s not likely to happen in a club setting.

  14. RMW

    As our ONLY in-house designer, I am constantly looking for feedback. Unfortunately, I work with engineers and no other designers. Because engineers are mostly left-brained, they think most of what I do is fabulous. I know I could do better but have very few right-brained counterparts in the firm. To solve this problem, I looked to the AIGA. Unfortunately, the closest AIGA meetings are in San Francisco, CA. That’s a 2 hour drive for me. Like Stephany, I am a mother and my family time is very important to me. So, where is the bang for my buck? Socializing with SF agency folk after working all day, then driving 2 hours to get there, be pleasant after fighting traffic in the City, driving 2 hours back is not that attractive. Maybe the AIGA needs to consider starting smaller, more local organizations instead of in just the bright, shiny agency-laden cities.

    1. Todd Denton

      I think the smaller AIGA organizations is a wonderful idea. I live right smack in the middle between St. Louis and Chicago. St. Louis was my closest chapter and 200 miles away. Tough to do. Smaller chaps would be a wonderful idea. Even in my area of Springfield, IL, artists and designers are gathering locally even if it’s at the newly formed PechaKucha events. People like to gather to discuss, critique and support.

    2. Jennie Resendez

      My situation was very similar to RMW’s. To attend the nearest AIGA event I would have to drive 4 hours (2 hours there and 2 hours back) in addition to working 9 to 5. I am a member of a local non-AIGA club with a reasonable membership fee. Either AIGA needs to become more dispersed with local chapters or offer more benefits accessible from a remote location. I’m not holding my breath for a high-speed bullet train. . .

  15. Dot

    First, please excuse my long sentence form. It is how my brain works, unfortunately. Hopefully I will make sense.

    As a former inhouser, I see where each one of you are coming from, especially in midsize companies in the burbs. Exactly two months before I got laid off, I joined a monthly local free creative (ok, mostly designers but a lot of fine artists, photographers, writers, animators, industrial designers and programmers) community networking event. I met people in and near my industry. Arizona didn’t start out this way. It used to be super snobby and parts still are. But the agency folk in my community, at least socially, try to reach out to inhousers even though it is hard to know which companies are employing a design team and which are outsourcing to a firm or agency. Joining this free hang out event opened me up to the club groups. I can’t afford to join AIGA but I go to their events when I can afford them. Then I found out about the Phoenix InDesign User Group (also free), WordCamp, LaidOffCamp and other events that intertwined finding work and being a designer or trying to learn programming.

    creativeconnect.org has a couple of locations but it might behoove inhousers to either reach out to the design community to start one of these in your area. or start one yourself and see how it grows.

    I go to everything. As much as I can to remind people that I am still freelancing and also looking for full time work. I would take inhouse work again in a heart beat. But now, I am connected to my design and small business community so I don’t fear being isolated or unappreciated again.

  16. edr3

    I don’t understand the negative “in-house designer equals loser” stigma that seems to infect the minds of some in-house design professionals. Seriously, in-house designers understand their organizations and the industries they operate in better than any out-house designer. Does this low self-esteem come from insecurity with our professional credentials, lack of engagement and leadership in our local design community or could it simply be a well-executed “gorilla marketing campaign” developed years ago by out-house design firms that financially need in-house designers to believe we don’t measure up? I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that I received an excellent design education from an accredited design school. Many of the out-house designers working in my area graduated with me and they aren’t bad people. I also know that I’ve worked both in and out of house and produced good work in both locations. The only way in-house designers will be able to change negative perceptions is by engaging in the design dialogue. I know its hard to take on more when you have an incredibly busy professional and personal life, but its vital to our credibility and existence. I’m looking forward to actively participating in the Full House Ning community with all of you.

    1. Todd Denton

      Does anyone have a list of social sites that help promote/discuss in-house design issues? I’m always looking for ways to connect with other designers and share tips, experiences, pitfalls…

  17. Melissa

    I think there are several contributors to the ‘problem’ of in-house not being involved or included. First, from my 15 years of in-house, non-profit/government experience, no organization I have worked for has supported enrollment in AIGA, it is too expensive and there are little offerings to show the return on investment to an organization with limited budgets. 2nd, there are little offerings from AIGA that are relevant to in-house design, yes we are all designers here and that portion of topics is relevant, but it somewhat stops there. There are designers out there that put in a very high effort to promote themselves and stay involved in the community and those are the designers you constantly see profiled, constantly see winning the design competitions, and are pretty much prolific…but are they prolific because they are the best in the community or because they have the best budgets for promoting themselves. This extends beyond AIGA and is represented through publications, design competitions, in the community as a whole. In-house are not second class citizens and don’t deserve to be. I do not apologize for my career choice, nor do I play 2nd fiddle as the leader of my in-house team. I instead work hard everyday, create effective, well-designed pieces that help my organization achieve its goals and at the end of the day, I don’t use my invite list to speak at conferences or the number of competitions or magazine articles as the litmus test for my success as a designer. I use the success of my organization. It would be really nice to see the design community to expand the way it thinks and become more inclusive to in-house designers, and the trend I see is that by design community, it seems to be the world of private industry designers have their community and there is a divide between them and us in-house folks. Should in-house participate more, sure, should the design community expand its horizons and be more inclusive, sure. Then again, it is hard to create programming and events, and magazine articles on something you have no experience in or understanding of. Although, wouldn’t it be nice to see a yearly in-house design competition from AIGA or other publications…or a publication that dedicates an entire issue each year to highlighting in-house industry leaders. Maybe that’s already being done and I missed it….

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