Happy on the Inside

Ever find yourself struggling to make changes to a brochure laid out in PowerPoint? Or trying not to yell when your boss asks you to use her favorite highlighter color for the ink on a brochure? Small frustrations like these are side-effects of much bigger problems for in-house designers. You’ll be able to improve your workdays if you tackle some of the following issues:
* Co-workers who don’t recognize your creative knowledge and strategic ability
* Art direction that comes from people who are clueless about CYMK and kerning
* Outside design firms that snag exciting projects
* Internal clients who don’t know what it takes to produce a design project
* Creativity that atrophies from lack of use

Most companies don’t offer the kind of environment that can help you grow as a designer and businessperson. In order to remain happy on the inside, you must find inventive ways to function as a professional designer within a sea of non-creatives. Here are five ways to take control of your career today.

Whether you’re alone or part of a small group, you can transform your team into an onsite design firm. Just a few changes will show your co-workers that you’re serious about making the design department a recognized business partner. Gain respect and clout by showing that you operate professionally and by illustrating your value.

To get the ball rolling, express your goals to your supervisor and enlist her support in building a strong creative group. Make a clear proposal of the short- and long-term steps you intend to make. If you include your boss in your plans, she can be an advocate for your cause as you initiate changes.

Design firms conduct creative meetings and so should you. Even for small projects, spend at least 15 minutes pinpointing major goals and creating a timeline so that expectations are clear. For more substantial jobs, gather together everyone who will have a hand in the project: the internal client, copywriters, mailing coordinators, web editors, business developers, etc. Here’s your chance to brainstorm solid ideas and avoid having layouts dictated to you. Taking time to see the whole picture will prevent problems from appearing right before deadline. Your peers won’t know this is important unless you initiate it.

Administrative systems can also help you stay sane. In-house designers are flooded with dozens of projects daily. Co-workers constantly interrupt you with new details and rush jobs, not understanding why you can’t just drop everything.

If you’re like most corporate creatives, keeping track of all these multiple deadlines can be so overwhelming that you never have time to devote real creative energy to some of the most rewarding and significant projects. To alleviate some of this stress, develop a project order form. Include client contact information, date submitted, deadline, a short description and quantities. There are no guarantees your colleagues will comply immediately, but insist upon it. If possible, tie this into a tracking system that can be used for file-naming and archiving. (You might even print a code discreetly on finished pieces.) Many in-house groups find such a system invaluable because it allows them to prioritize deadlines efficiently and spend less time wading though e-mail strings searching for project details.

Non-designers rarely understand that you approach your creative work in a very analytical way. Because you’re just down the hall and not sitting in a creative enclave on the other side of town, they think their design opinions are just as valid as yours (usually more so). Visual communication is something everyone experiences daily—and consequently, everyone has very strong ideas about it. If a local sports team changes its uniform color, you can be sure someone will ask, "What were they thinking about with that green?"

Everyone has the potential to be creative, but as designers we aren’t just relying on our inherent abilities. We research, brainstorm, draft, sketch and critique, spending hours agonizing over what a particular typeface might reveal about a company’s personality. So how do you handle those subjective suggestions about how to do your job?

Your first move is to understand the best ways to communicate with internal clients. Executives, managers and co-workers come in many shapes and sizes; they might be easygoing, high-strung or anywhere in between. Concentrating on client interaction is important. You may ask, "How’s that going to make me happy?" It’s simple: If you have happy clients, they’ll trust your professional advice.

Clear and constant communication puts even the most trying clients at ease. If they’re informed of the project’s progress throughout the process, they’ll be less nervous about the outcome. Check in with them periodically and follow up with proofs. If you think of innovative ways to get the job done at a higher quality, lower price or faster time frame, you’ll win them over.

When it comes to questionable art direction, use your best negotiation skills and challenge your internal clients to think differently. Colleagues will usually make specific suggestions about artwork because they want to solve a problem but just don’t know how to articulate it. Figure out what’s really bothering them about the piece and suggest more appropriate solutions. What they might be trying to say is that the piece lacks interest or energy or perhaps that the message isn’t standing out. Whatever it is, help them verbalize their real concern and supply them with an estimated turnaround time for changes. This will prevent them from making suggestions over your shoulder.

By being direct with your clients, you’ll get a clearer picture of what they need. Taking care of all these details will show that you have their best interests at heart. They can leave you alone to design, freeing them to focus on business. As a result, you’ll form more harmonious work relationships.

Are you frustrated that good design projects are being sent to outside design firms? You’re not alone. It’s no secret that the good projects often get shipped offsite, yet it still baffles inside designers. While there are some circumstances where an outside design firm can be more effective, there’s no reason why a competent and talented onsite staff shouldn’t present a strong proposal for keeping a job on the inside.

Once you realize a project will be sent out, meet with the internal client and request that you be considered for the work. Even if you think the project manager is set on using a design firm, show that you’re dedicated to bringing the project inside. Set up a meeting with the project team to discuss their goals, and schedule a follow-up to present your proposal.

Provide your preliminary design ideas, material options, budgets, quotes and suggested time lines. Explain the elements of your design clearly and confidently. Discuss your intimate knowledge of the company and the benefit that brings to the project.

If you’re lucky, the job will land in your lap immediately. More often than not, this initial effort won’t win you the work. This isn’t a failure. It’s the first stepa??the warm-up. There are many factors for the internal client to weigh. The project manager will probably still be unsure of your ability to handle the job. Many managers prefer to let certain projects go outside even at a higher cost because they can leave the responsibility of its success on the shoulders of an outside agency.

The key is persistence. Continue to pitch your in-house services for future projects. You’ll gain valuable experience marketing your ideas and refining your approach. Even though these episodes may feel defeating, you’ll benefit as your presentation skills improve with each new pitch. Most designers don’t realize how much marketing and business knowledge they can acquire by working as an in-house creative.

Does it seem like everyone thinks you just push a button and the design magically appears? Creative positions are still foreign in many large and small companies. But more and more of us are filling brand-new design positions at financial institutions, hospitals, law firms and thousands of other types of businesses.

To break down some of the odd perceptions associated with graphic designers, you’ll need to work to set the record straight. Educating co-workers and promoting your work is instrumental in maintaining a positive mental state. Use any opportunity to explain your job to those who don’t know what you do. While going over a job request, for example, explain the relationship between quantities, time lines and quality. To take a more significant step, ask for a time slot at your next regular company or marketing department meeting to speak about graphic design.

You could illustrate the life cycle of a design project from initial creative meeting to print delivery, or go over the basic rules of layout by comparing unprofessional design samples to strong graphic pieces. You might explain resolution and why it’s important to differentiate for print and web projects, or show off some impressive special printing techniques. Your presentation should be informal and upbeat. By explaining these processes and design terms, you’ll be more accessible to your peers. They might even be less likely to glaze over when you talk about PMS numbers, leading and white space.

It’s important to recharge your batteries and not let the pressures of in-house design get to you. Don’t rely on your job as your only creative outlet. Instead, seek out local design groups, join national associations, participate in online forums or take a class. If you’re really motivated, look for freelance work or find nonprofit organizations that could benefit from your skills. Meet with other in-house designers to vent and laugh about the quirks of the corporate world. It can help you gain new perspective.

Chances are, co-workers will still complain that they can’t open the .eps you sent them for their T-shirt vendor. You can’t expect miracles overnight. But effective communication will give you more control. You’ll command respect, solve problems, better manage bizarre requests and your portfolio will thank you.