Jeni Sez – Functioning with Form

by Jeni Herberger

The function of in-house design departments within larger organizations has long been a heated topic among designers that work both within them and outside of them. Honestly, I don’t get it. The purpose of any design department (whether in or out) is to create compelling visual communications and brand initiatives that further the vision of a company. So, what’s the problem? I’ll list just a few for you:

  • Design departments don’t function like their counterparts in outside firms (organizationally or procedurally).
  • Internal design teams and outside agencies often don’t work as partners towards the greater good.
  • Team members can act like victims, not experts in their field.
  • Design departments ask for permission rather than proving their worth.
  • Clients of in-house groups are not courted and coaxed (hell, much of the time they aren’t treated like or expected to act like clients).
  • Design departments usually do the work for free, not instituting chargeback systems.

Have I got you fired up yet? Good. It’s time to change the course of things for in-house design departments. Many of us in the industry feel we are on the forefront of an evolution in the structure and function of the agency model. With the expanded role of visual communications in reaching a greater demographic of consumers, agencies are struggling to be everything to everyone; brand creator, web architect, advertising guru, product design promoter, etc. Seemingly, this makes the role of the internal design team intrinsic to the success of its organization. Its time for in-house teams to take the bull by the horns and make words like ‘respect’ and ‘value’ the norm not the exception.

There is no doubt in-house departments should consist of high-level designers, producers and directors that are promoted as experts on the brand. Now more than ever in-house designers have an amazing opportunity to be partners in establishing and implementing an organization’s vision and brand. As companies navigate through these turbulent times, they will continue to look for ways to cut costs and creative ways to increase revenue when consumers and businesses alike are less likely to spend money. What a tremendous opportunity for in-house groups to ask for a seat at the table and show the value they add.

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19 thoughts on “Jeni Sez – Functioning with Form

  1. SGH

    This is great. I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to make an in-house team act more like an agency. Generally the talent level should be the same from one to the other, but the mindset is totally different for whatever reason. One thing I’ve been thinking could help is to give our dept a name. Instead of ‘Brand X Marketing Dept’ coming up with something more creative to call yourselves. And maybe take on some outside charitable design projects so that you have a little more room to flex your creative muscles.

    Great site. I’m really glad this exists.

  2. JL

    Totally agree on all points. To the previous poster, branding an in-house creative team has worked successfully in my experience. For instance, at one position we branded ourselves as the “Idea Center” – and launched an internal marketing campaign (which included presentations, ads, branded chotchkies, etc) to spread the word about our services. The company really embraced our new brand and perceived us as if we were an outside agency, and the Idea Center even became a recruiting tool to attract new sales people.

  3. Todd Olsen

    Hello,
    I’m doing exactly what your talking about in my organization.

    I’ve earned the respect and collaborated with multiple departments to gain momentum.

    I’m also working with an outside agency with the intent of creating my “Design Powerhouse” at least thats the term I tenatively come up with.

    The agency is specifically one that used to be in-house and ended up getting more customers and developing their own agency.

    My intention is to give the organization a huge ROI, from the knowledge that my Powerhouse Provides, along with the availability of designers to grow with a specific brands.

    The In-House firm is so close to the business that turnaround is immediate.

    Thank you for this article it has certainly assisted me in my quest for the ideal internal design firm.

  4. Jim Paynr

    This is really great. I haven’t read more than one article, plus the comments and I’ve already gleaned a great idea that never occured to me before. We’ve done charity work together as a team building exercise, but never design work for a charity. Great idea!

    Management renamed our group Global Graphics to give us a worldwide name to go with our responsibilities, which I felt was too limited.bEe were over ruled. Our sister group is named “Creative Services”. I’m not sure which is worse.

  5. Trish Anderson

    I completely agree with Jeni. I have spent way too much time cranking out high-level inhouse projects and way too little time quantifying my value to the organization. Now I’m job shopping, they have no creatives on staff any more, and we are all sad.

    1. Jeni Herberger

      Trish- This is the key!! Agencies don’t have to quantify in the same way because they charge HUGE money to do what they do (which makes them SEEM more valuable), boast beautifully creative office (which makes them SEEM more successful), portfolios that are exhibits of all they do well (which makes them SEEM more talented, and they work to impress their client (which makes them SEEM a more desirable vendor). In-house groups must learn to quantify and put themselves out there as CREATIVE EXPERTS!

      Additionally, not that I’m an advocate of job-jumping, but if you’re not feeling it after giving your GENUINE best then I applaud your courage to move on!

      You go, girl!

  6. andy

    We’re trying right now to brand our inhouse department into something NOT called “Creative Services.” I remember Andy Epstein saying that if you have “services” in your name the rest of the organization sees you as part of the service industry (ie. cleaners, painters, mechanics, etc. NOTHINGS WRONG with those jobs, but as designers its important to differentiate.) So we’re coming up with a whole new name for our department, new titles to match the new name, a logo, we’re even going to try and brand our creative briefs to match the overall theme.

    Just in our early brainstorms everyone is really excited about this idea of branding ourselves. And the ideas flowed out, and we’ve looked at some unrelated projects with fresh eyes.

    Our major goal, along with appropriately marketing ourselves to our company, is to have the best looking, most put together materials out of all the departments- because thats the way it should be anyways.

    1. Jeni Herberger

      Andy- From my viewpoint, its okay to serve. Honestly, its what we all do if we give someone something that’s useful to them. The problem comes into place when you are considered a SERVANT. In-house groups are notorious for perceiving themselves this way and thus forcing others to see them in that light. I love your thoughts of changing your departments name! Think about it, if you can’t brand yourself, can your company trust you to brand them?

      Take it all the way!

  7. Samantha

    I think creating an internal agency is a great idea but how do you apply that thinking to an in-house design department of one? Should the Marketing Department as a whole be rebranded with this approach in mind? Ideas? Any success stories in a small company?

    1. SGH

      I know in my situation our team is small, so I was including designers, writers, traffic coordinators, web admins, etc. under our “InHouseAgency” umbrella. Basically anyone that falls under our current marketing dept structure would be a part of the newly branded agency.

    2. Jeni Herberger

      Samantha- You have to be careful about imposing this on the entire Marketing Dept. It really depends on how the hierarchy works and where you fall in it, as well as whether or not you can get the Marketing Dept on board with you.

      I always preach taking the PLR (path of least resistance). You have control of you, the work you put out and the method under which you operate. Think of it this way, some agencies are only one person, right? So, be a business whether one or many. This means promote yourself, prove yourself and convince your client you are an expert at what you do!

      Also, as a one wo-man team, be sure to find places where you can collaborate with others. Its a necessity of our profession!

      Go get ’em!

  8. Maria

    I’m with you Samantha, there are many more one person in-house designers than you think. While many small to medium sized businesses out there see the value of having designers on staff, they’ll still try to squeeze as much out of only one. That’s not to say we can’t use these in-house ideas and strategies though. I’ve read Cathy Fishel’s In-House Design in Practice book and have already applied many of the strategies to my own little ‘department’. Having this kind of more targeted knowledge, inspiration and collaboration really can make a tremendous difference! Now off to think about that me brand 😉

  9. Kelley

    The overall point of this article is great! In-house design teams are in an amazing position to be the expert leaders of their own company’s brands.

    However, is creating an in-house “agency” the right approach for every company? It still can create an us vs. we mentality that seems to be at the heart of the frustrations for out teams, both with the outside agencies and teams we work with inside the company. We can instead focus on being business partners within the organization that focus on helping our teams meet their business goals. Ultimately that is our role within our companies and owning it can gain us more respect and freedom.

    1. SGH

      I was thinking the in-house agency concept would actually help to eliminate the us vs them mentality, and instill the mentality that the people we used to refer to as “them” are our customers, even if they are internal customers.

    2. Jeni Herberger

      Kelley- Glad you agree that inhouse teams are in a power position if they choose to recognize it and seize the opportunity.

      Great insight on the agency mentality. The point I want to make about the way in which agencies operate with your company is this: they work to prove and quantify their value, they promote their capabilities and talents, and they present themselves as experts.

      As is the case with any business, an inhouse department needs to determine its niche, its service offering, and its measures for success. Some departments will partner with agencies, others own the marketing initiatives. Either way, YOU ARE RIGHT, its about providing the client with excellent solutions to their business challenges.

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