Advice from the Inside

Q: I just finished a three-year process of revamping the corporate identity of a hi-tech company. This is the fourth hi-tech company I’ve done this for, and now I’ve built my own process. However, I’d like to know about other approaches in-house departments or agencies take. For example, how do they handle flagship product brands vs. spin-off product brands, and how do they plan for sub-brands for products not invented yet?
Kati Bujna, Marketing Communications and Design Manager
Spicer Corp., Kitchener, Ontario

Andy Epstein responds: As a soft-toy and gift company, Gund is constantly introducing new product lines that need branding. Taking a page from the style guides we often receive from licensed properties, our graphics team develops detailed trade dress for each introduction. The development process begins with a review of the product to determine key selling points and special features, as well as to target the product’s audience. We use that research to create all the graphic elements of the product brand.

Starting with the logo as a springboard for the rest of the graphics, we then develop background patterns, borders and icons, as well as determine which fonts and colorways best communicate the personality of the product in a way that will resonate with our audience.

The challenge is creating a unique product brand while maintaining a consistent identity under the umbrella of the company brand. To be honest, for a number of years our graphics were overly focused on the product, not the Gund brand. The consequence was that, while our graphics were creative and unique, they failed to project a cohesive, consistent image to our consumers, especially in a crowded retail environment. We weren’t leveraging the power of our company brand.

We’re currently exploring a system that will give us the best of both options by designing a grid where certain areas remain the same—i.e., the upper right-hand area will always be reserved for the product logo, the center panel for the product image, the lower left for the company logo, etc. There will be an area reserved for names of the individual toys within the product line (kind of a sub-sub-brand—whew!).

We’ll also employ icons and borders specific to the company brand that will be consistently used within that grid regardless of the product brand. Within many of the areas of the grid, though, we’ll be able to create unique graphics that communicate the message of the product brand.

By applying the standardized grid and graphics in all media, we’ll ensure that a recognizable image is always in front of our customer. In addition to branding both the company and the product line, we’ll have a structure in place for future product introductions. Bottom line, it’s always a balancing act to get the right mix of multiple brand and sub-brand graphics.

Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance illustrator and designer. After 11 years on his own, he joined Commonwealth Toy to establish an in-house design department. Later, he did the same for Gund Inc., where he’s the creative director of an eight-person team.

Q: I’m new to this company and I alone am the “graphics department.” This is a new position, and there’s not another designer in sight or reach. How do I get over the isolation?
Jacqueline Thompson, Lead Designer
McKim&Creed, Cary, NC

Allison Vallin responds: You’re in an interesting, yet very exciting, position. Having been there, I understand. In fact, I still laugh when I remember the look of absolute horror on my coworker’s face when I kept tossing out the term PMS. I assumed that everyone knew that I was referring to my color selections. Lesson learned: Don’t assume that your design-speak is understood by the rest of the company.

The best advice I can offer is to get involved. It’s easy to stay in your office and focus on whichever project is currently on your desk. But by doing that, you’re not going to get to know your company or coworkers.

With the company new to having a design department, you have an excellent opportunity to show what a valuable asset a designer can be. Educate yourself as much as you can about your company’s objectives. Ask about project budgets, and analyze areas where you can save money. Create processes that allow for smoother flow of information among you and your coworkers. Show that you’re interested in being not only a designer, but also a resource.

Create vendor relationships. As a sole designer, you may sometimes feel isolated in your way of thought and language. Vendors are not only an amazing resource, but they’re also someone to talk design-speak with. Use them as partners in your projects, and seek their advice. Often, the relationships you build now will serve you for years.

And finally, reach out to fellow designers. Whether it’s by attending design conferences or something as simple as picking up an issue of a design magazine, staying in touch with other designers offers a great support system. Designers can relate to both the good and bad parts of being an in-houser. They understand your frustrations of unreasonable deadlines or lack of communication. They can inspire your imagination with their talents and vision. And they may even open your eyes to aspects of design that you may not have been aware of.

Allison Vallin has been a designer for 10 years, working as an art director for companies such as L.L.Bean, Tom’s of Maine and Stonewall Kitchen. She recently launched her own design shop, Vallin Design.

Q: I’ve been an in-house designer for my entire seven-year career, and I’ve enjoyed mostly every minute of it. I currently work for a high-end home-theater company, and it’s the most fun I’ve had designing yet. But the challenge I’m often faced with is how to lodge into the craniums of my colleagues that the creative process is exactly that: a process. I don’t know about other designers, but I wasn’t handed a folder of completed designs when I left design school. Just as I can’t ask the engineers here to design a DVD player for me by 3 p.m., I can’t be asked to design a complete campaign in the same time frame. With minimal effort, how can we in-housers educate the people we work with that designing doesn’t come with a recipe book?
Mark Weir, Art Director
NAD Electronics and PSB Speakers
Whitby, Ontario

Craig Swistun responds: Working creatively in a corporate structure can be like working in a foreign country. Surrounded by people who don’t speak our language or understand how we think, creatives are often singled out as the people with the big blue monitors, turtlenecks or cool magazines.

Gaining respect from your nondesigner colleagues goes beyond having the right professional credentials. It’s about changing their perception of the creative process. It’s about educating your colleagues. And, because you’re already aware of the perceptions that require modification, you can begin to deal with the issue directly.

Recently, in an online forum, Robert L. Peters, principal of Circle Design Inc. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, wrote: "The better you can make the ‘non- design’ shot-caller understand that you have the ability to understand pragmatic issues, the more you will be trusted and empowered with the freedoms to be able to do a great job."

This is the key. By conducting yourself with a higher level of professionalism, you can convince even the most stubborn client that whipping something together in a few hours is a poor business decision. There’s no keyboard shortcut for strategic thinking.

Here are some ideas that you might be able to implement:
* Immerse yourself in the organization’s core business. Don’t expect your nondesigner colleagues to understand you. You need to make the extra effort to understand them. Understand their systems and procedures. Learn their language. If that means taking a business course, do it. Until you can earn their respect on their terms, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

* Treat colleagues as clients. By adopting a more professional approach to your daily interactions, people will begin to accept you as a business person. As with any client, you should regularly report the status of the projects and help them understand your process.

* Out-professional the profes-sionals. To be treated with respect, be mindful of the existing corporate culture. The creative group should stand out for its contribution to the firm’s bottom line, not its work environment or choice in music.

* Implement formal procedures. It’s natural for people to compare the internal model to the traditional outsourced model. So act like an agency: Use formal briefs, production estimates, time-tracking, regular reporting and client relations. Take someone to lunch and askabout their business plan.

Remember, the internal group exists for business reasons. Position your team as an integral part of the business process, and you’ll see a change in the way you’re perceived and gain the freedom and respect that you need to deliver effective creative solutions.

After spending time in traditional design and advertising agencies, Craig Swistun spent the past seven years developing creative marketing solutions for some of Canada’s largest financial corporations.