Surviving as a Creative in Corporate Environments

The Corporate Creative by Andy EpsteinAre you a Corporate Creative? Andy Epstein, author of the new book The Corporate Creative, explains who falls into this category—you might be surprised—and more.

“Whether they’re copywriters, marketers, product designers, R&D engineers or even forward thinking managers and, dare I say, enlightened HR staff—if they are individuals who are empathetic, entrepreneurial, intuitive and non-linear thinkers with a healthy rebellious bent, then, I’d say, they are a corporate creative,” says Epstein, in an exclusive Q&A with HOW.


1. When did you realize that being a Corporate Creative was for you?

On a certain level, I figured this out when I won the election for junior class president in high school. I had known I was a creative and a bit of an outsider since I was in kindergarten. But, I also discovered that I could work well socially and in organized groups and that I enjoyed it. Once I found myself in a corporation after freelancing for a number of years, the same skills and aptitudes kicked in and it’s been one heck of a ride ever since.

2. Are some creatives’ personalities better fit to adapting to a corporate culture than others?

Yes. There are some creatives who are just so “out there” in terms of their lifestyle and behaviors that they would wither and die in a corporate world that is pretty intolerant of individualism and self-expression.

Designers who are what I’d call “closet creatives” fare better in companies where conformity (at least on the surface) is valued. These designers are innovative and rebellious on the inside but conservative on the outside. Dyana Valentine uses a term I think is pretty accurate; she calls them “shape-shifters.” They’re adaptive, good communicators, even better listeners and have an ability to remain objective and in control of their emotions in spite of trying circumstances. They also are patient and defer instant gratification for more incremental successes. And they definitely have a good sense of humor.

3. Corporate environments—love it or hate it (be honest)?

I could try to duck this question and say I have a love-hate relationship with corporate culture but I’ll attempt to give a straight answer. As much as it surprises even me, I’d say it’s primarily a love affair—but not all for positive reasons.

Most obviously, I like the opportunity to execute projects on a global scale and really impact an organization in fundamental ways. The benefits and salary don’t hurt either. I’d add that corporations often provide their employees with great resources and opportunities for training and professional growth, which I’ve always taken advantage of.

On the flip side, corporations can be pretty dysfunctional, political, petty, malicious and downright stupid. But I like the challenges and adversaries many corporate cultures provide in abundance so it’s fun for me to righteously rage (hopefully in a functional way) against the machine. Looking at this from a more positive perspective, I get a chance to have a constructive impact on the culture beyond providing great design. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit on that front.

4. Do you think every creative should experience an in-house job at some point in his or her careers?

Not if they don’t possess the personality needed to succeed in a corporation. They should get to know an in-house designer, though, and make an effort to understand the challenges these creatives face. It will set both groups up for success should they ever have to collaborate with each other.

5. In the chapter “herding cats,” you compare clients to cats—they have a mind of their own and resist being controlled but can make for great companions. When or how did you make this connection?

I remember someone referring to a particularly difficult situation as trying to herd a bunch of cats. I thought it was funny and that it accurately described the frustrations of a typical designer trying to get her clients to get her the information she’d need to start a project (has any client ever willingly filled out a creative brief?), give her clear and actionable feedback, and leave her alone when she was actually designing the project (the one time the client chooses to make themselves abundantly available). The clients are all running around tearing up the furniture, while the designer is hopping around like a madman trying to keep the house in order.

I have to ask, are you a cat person?

I used to be, but when our last cat cashed in on his ninth life, we got a dog and I haven’t looked back since. I have to say that in the context of the book and my experiences as an in-house designer, as much as cats can be loving companions, they tend to be narcissistic and manipulative, like the worst corporate animals I’ve had to deal with (with apologies to cats). Dogs are more self-expressed and are much less concerned about looking good when it comes to accomplishing a task like burying a bone or chewing up a pair of loafers —they’re all about getting the job done. As a creative, I identify much more with those characteristics.

6. Your tips to avoid cat-scratch fever are wonderful and peppered with the right amount of snark. At what point in your career did you become a cat person, figuratively?

I hope my sarcasm is well placed and not malicious. I got snarky after I realized that trying to tow the corporate line with my team with all the “rah-rah” hypocrisy wasn’t going to cut it for me or for them. Things aren’t A-Okay in corporate America. Humor, albeit the gallows variety, seemed more appropriate. I couldn’t continue dealing with my peers as if they were 10-year-olds. At the same time, I try never to get personal or use corporate dysfunctions as an excuse for copping out, becoming resigned, and adopting a victim mentality. My humor is more about blowing off steam and moving on with the business of improving my team’s environment.

7. The chapter “37 Sure-Fire Ways to get Fired” focuses on proper business and personal etiquette of a corporate environment by calling attention to those things not to do. Do you think creatives who have never worked in-house would be surprised by this list?

Yes—I know I was. When I took on managing a large corporate group, I noticed that there was stupidity on both sides of the management/worker fence. I had directs who actually were doing some of the things I mention in the “37 Ways To Get Fired” list. They were starting mean-spirited blogs and Myspace pages, working on freelance projects in plain sight, and boycotting important meetings they didn’t feel like going to without any thought to the consequences of their actions. On the other hand, the convoluted, inane and counterproductive HR policies just blew my mind. I quickly realized, though, that management was taking these rules very seriously and I had better do the same.

Are these learned manners for a new in-houser?

I hope that some are just common sense and considered important in the name of common decency. The wacky HR stuff, though—well you’ve gotta live it to learn it.

8. Do you have any tips for a new corporate creative who is trying to learn the ins and outs of a company’s culture?

Keep your mouth shut and watch and listen. Things are definitely not the way they appear on the surface and people certainly don’t always say what they mean or do what they say. Talk to everyone and don’t judge them; you have no idea what they’re dealing with and how it may be affecting their behavior. Also, being nonjudgmental not only allows you to more objectively assess your surroundings, it makes others feel safe around you and be more candid in their conversations with you (and don’t abuse that trust).

Brad Weed at Microsoft once told me how he values designers who look for ways to make an impact when they arrive as a new hire. I’d add to that and say walking into a job with the mindset, “How can I be of service” is another way to set yourself up for success.

9. Have you ever been fired for sticking up for challenging the status quo of a corporate structure with a clear and positive rationale, like the “13 Stands Worth The Risk of the Pink Slip” that you outline?

No, as a matter of fact, it’s almost always ended up raising my stature in the eyes of my managers. This is a bit off topic, but I once went to the owner of a company that I worked for and sat down and told him that I felt I wasn’t performing to my full potential and had not been giving 100 percent, but that I was committed to recommitting myself to the company.

He ended up promoting me. The point is that being honest, objective and addressing management with a challenge coming from a place of support and service will usually be well received and, not to be flippant, if your protest isn’t embraced, you probably don’t want to be working at that particular organization anyway.

10. You provide tips in your book for succeeding when your corporation is unintentionally setting you up to fail. Why do these situations happen?

I’ve noticed that the collective intelligence of an organization is inversely proportional to the number of people in it. Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point” showcased a company that figured this out and kept splitting itself up into divisions whenever it grew beyond 500 employees. Unfortunately that company is the exception to the rule.

Large companies become incestuously immersed in their own culture to the point where they keep building on past policies and behaviors regardless of their current appropriateness. It becomes less about the spirit of the law and more about the letter of the law—a kind of dogmatic insanity. Self-absorbed and self-serving managers can thrive in this environment that values compliance over common sense. They game the system and individuals like designers who are all about problem solving, rationality and accomplishing things can get chewed up and spit out in these circumstances. That’s why I wrote the book—to give these creatives a chance at succeeding. They deserve to and so do the companies that they work in.

More specifically, managers of creative teams (not the creative directors) are constantly being hammered by their managers to provide more with less and, not understanding the design process or the resources needed to support it, these managers force unrealistic demands and cuts on their creative teams. These mandates push creative groups beyond their ability to provide quality service and deliverables.

Have you encountered this while on the job?

The question should be when have I not encountered it. On a more positive note, I’ve noticed that as bloody as the battles may get, honesty and commitment to the greater good of an organization often triumph in the end. Good salesmanship and street smarts don’t hurt either.

About the Author
An in-house designer since 1992, Andy Epstein created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund, and later restructured and expanded the 100-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb. He currently works at Designer Greetings, leading an in-house design team that develops the company’s greeting card and gift wrap product lines. Andy has spoken and written extensively on in-house issues, recently published a book on in-house design, is the co-founder of InSource and is currently heading up the AIGA in-house task force as well as editing the HOW In-HOWse blog.

About the book

This book is your tool for surviving and—more importantly—succeeding as a creative in a corporate environment. It will help you become a project manager as well as a designer, a businessperson as well as a creative. The Corporate Creative provides all the tools you need to achieve success. Get your copy today!



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