The Solo Artist: When the In-House Design Team is You

Regardless of your title, people simply call you “the designer” because you’re the only one. The one-man band. The lone wolf. The creative. If you’re a department of one, you encounter unique challenges and opportunities that other designers may not. Here are some tips for those going it alone:


Image courtesy of Kristine Oplado/Flickr 

1. Get some help.

“It’s daunting—getting thrown into the fire without a creative director to show you where to begin,” says Matt Gray, the solo in-house designer for DC United, a professional soccer team in the nation’s capital. “I’m constantly scavenging blogs, working through web tutorials, and reading articles,” says Gray. “A good social network is priceless. I’m a networkaholic. I stay in touch with talented people from my past and I take advantage of social opportunities hosted by organizations like AIGA, Refresh DC, and Designing Gov.”

Gray was fortunate that one of his predecessors still freelanced for the organization, and offered him plenty of help in the early days. If you’re not so fortunate, seek out people who sat in the same chair before you did, for their perspective on the design work and the internal politics of the organization.

2. Define your own position.

No matter what it says on your business card (the one you probably designed yourself), you’ll want to concentrate your efforts in some areas and find freelancers to help with others. “Your fate is in your hands,” says Anthony Dihle, the lone designer at MV+A Architects in Washington, D.C. “So try to get others to think of you as a department, not a graphics guy (or girl). Don’t be afraid to do small, awesome things such as designing a unique holiday card or promo materials for the company-wide kickball team.”

Dihle’s predecessor was primarily called upon to bolster architects’ presentation materials using his skills in Photoshop and InDesign, but Dihle gradually expanded his role to include wayfinding, environmental graphic design, branding, interactive, digital illustration, and infographics. As people see the value you bring, you may even be able to demonstrate the need for doubling or tripling the size of your department.

3. Speak their language.

If you’ve ever been abroad, you know there’s a big difference between being one of a handful of people who speak a language, and the only one who speaks the language. As a solo artist, you may struggle to communicate with your coworkers, who might resort to vague directives like, “Make it edgy,” or “It just needs more pop.” In those scenarios, Gray asks his colleagues to define their visual vocabulary, by sharing a design, image, advertisement, or concept has something in common with the approach they’re trying to convey.

“Your bosses probably don’t have training as designers, so try not to use design jargon,” says Dihle. “But you should communicate what you’re doing beyond making something look good. When talking about your work, speak to effectiveness, functionality, legibility, goals, context, and appropriateness.” Avoid words like “good,” “bad,” “like,” and “dislike,” which are subjective, and won’t communicate the problem in a way your colleagues will understand.

4. Be confident, but not arrogant.

“Remember, you’re the one who got the job,” says Gray. “The organization hired you to represent the creative department and manage their brand, so they clearly think you’re capable. Believe in yourself and show everyone that you’re a professional, a leader, and ultimately someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done right.”


Additional Resource
You have a lot on your plate working as an in-house designer. The HOW’s In-House Design Handbook, focused solely on issues relevant to you – from career to inspiration to client relationships –will explore how to effectively navigate all of the challenges thrown at you.