Straight Talk From Two Solo In-House Designers


Generic_Competition_Logos_Inhouse_300x220“One is the loneliest number” could be the mantra of many a solo in-house designer. In fact, it’s not uncommon for corporations to employ a single creative to handle everything from advertising concepts to print production to digital design. So if you fall into this category, perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not actually, well, alone. To learn more about the ins and outs of operating as a team of one, we recently spoke with two solo design professionals.

Nick Nawroth is director of graphic arts at Dorothy Lane Market, an upscale grocer in southwest Ohio, where he’s worked for 25 years — 17 of them as a graphic designer. His role includes brand management, graphic design, social media, and project and print management.

59fdccde3e464c5747b51cb975e39250Dorothy Lane Market logo design by Nick Nawroth

Susan Barnabee Long has been the production design technician at the Peoria City/County Health Department in Peoria, IL for nearly 21 years. Her responsibilities range from full-scale graphic design, with some identity and campaign development, to glorified desktop publishing and form creation — plus the dreaded “other duties as assigned.”

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“Prepper Pete” logo by Susan Barnabee Long, used for emergency preparedness training materials.

Here, they share their “straight talk” tips for generating ideas, gathering feedback and staying inspired without the company of other creatives.

As the lone designer, are you asked to handle a wider variety of creative (and possibly administrative) duties? If so, what’s great about that, and what kind of stinks?

Nawroth: We are a small company, so everyone wears many hats. I love the variety of work, but I feel like I am not really good at any one thing.

Long: For most of the years I have had this position, I created health education materials directed at a diverse set of populations. Basically, if it was needed and had our logo on it, I was the one who did it. I made displays, accessories, presentation materials and all other printed items. I was the first computer-based designer in my position, and initially only had a letter/legal size black-and-white laser printer. I would cobble together most large items with a straight edge, blade, adhesives, markers and even crayons on poster, foam board, or large paper by projecting line drawings and transferring them.

As the years progressed and the resources improved, the majority of my work became electronic, but I still made ID badges, including photography and manual assembly, had AV responsibilities and built miniature medicine cabinets for health educators to use in teaching hygiene to school-age children. I have been back-up coverage for telephone lines, worked switchboard/reception, been deputized as a back-up registrar to issue certified birth/death records, and had various roles in public health emergency preparedness drills and actual responses.

What are your biggest challenges as a solo in-house creative?

Nawroth: My biggest challenges are prioritizing and finding the time to complete my massive to-do list.

Long: As a designer, lack of interaction, understanding of design, isolation and administrative politics are all challenges. One of my biggest creative challenges is producing interesting projects that can be printed via in-house methods (a black-and-white copier or tabloid size color laser printer) using easy-to-understand language and images because a portion of our clients are non-native English speakers and/or have a low literacy level. Budget and funding are also a challenge — as our programs are funded by taxpayers, and local, state and federal grants.

Where you do get feedback? Who do you bounce ideas off of?

Nawroth: I usually bounce ideas off of coworkers. Since they are not designers, it actually is helpful to get an “average customer” perspective.

Long: I collaborate with the departments who request materials, but my ideas only bounce around my solo office.

99fe79d8021edd3ff37ddd1a67f2c774Poster design for Dorothy Lane Market’s 2013 Food & Wine Show, an annual celebration of food, fine wine, and beers from around the world to celebrate the season. Design by Nick Nawroth.

Without other creatives around day to day, what drives you to be more creative or push boundaries in your work?

Nawroth: I am a highly motivated person and do my best to push boundaries and try to educate the owners and department heads about good design where I can. Deadlines keep me moving on most projects. I do miss the energy of fellow creatives, though.

Long: Absolutely nothing. Many projects are modifications of existing public health materials or campaigns. It is difficult to push design boundaries while keeping material understandable for low literacy clients. Simpler is better in these cases.

Lead Poisoning Awareness Campaign

Lead exposure awareness display by Susan Barnabee Long for the Peoria City/County Health Department.

What do you do to stay inspired? Do you have favorite groups, events, books, podcasts, etc.?

Nawroth: I do improv, binge on Netflix and work on personal projects. It was very inspiring to have my latest foray into fine art and my first abstracts well-received by my local art community.

Long: I frequent forums, the HOWie Facebook group page and follow links posted by other group members. I found great inspiration at a HOW Design Conference in Chicago, but the cost is price-prohibitive for my employer and me. I earned a web design certificate from our community college using our tuition reimbursement benefits and use for other educational needs.

Do you use outside help? If not, how do you avoid becoming overwhelmed by requests?

Nawroth: I am fortunate enough to have an intern and a part-time coworker to assist, but she isn’t a designer. Folks here understand that I’m one person and that they must provide me with deadlines in order to prioritize projects. We currently outsource a selected few projects to our design agency who specializes in the grocery industry, so we don’t get the normal ad agency BS.

Long: The Peoria County IT department controls our website as part of the larger county website, but I manage our content within the constraints of the county’s CMS. I have a service bureau I use, but otherwise, it’s all me. If I get overwhelmed, I take things one step at a time, juggle priorities as needed and keep plugging along until I get caught up.

a3420194ca25d990bae5c5f10e3e8f43Killer Brownie logo design and ad mockup by Nick Nawroth.

What does brainstorming look like when you’re a party of one?

Nawroth: I do a lot of research on the internet, Pinterest and websites. Most times, the brainstorming is none to minimal since I do know the brand inside and out and most projects repeat from year to year.

Long: I evaluate project goals and available assets, then formulate a plan and execute it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Nawroth: I feel like designers need to be more realistic in our expectations whether we work freelance, in-house or at an agency. There is no ideal workplace or work environment. Figure out what matters to you most in your life and find a job that fits within those parameters as much as possible so you can live a full, balanced life. Working in-house is a challenge, but it is the same challenge all designers face: relevancy, respect and doing great work.

Drop the jargon. It’s meaningless to clients and makes communication difficult.

Do your own work. By that I mean do work for yourself on your own time for you. Or just get outside of design completely with a hike or other hobby. Or just veg out to let your mind relax. Do whatever it takes to decompress from work and allow you to feel centered and happy. Most of all, have fun at your work and when you are at play.

Long: Working in public health has been a tremendously eye opening experience. The people providing public health services are dedicated, caring professionals with the health of the individual and community at the center of their focus.

I have an AFSCME represented position with pension and health benefits, and although it’s not always the most creative, I have been able to provide for my family in an Monday through Friday, 8:00am-4:30pm setting with little or no overtime required and earned time off that allows flexibility to attend to family’s needs as they arise.


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One thought on “Straight Talk From Two Solo In-House Designers

  1. Roberto Blake

    Great post. When I worked In-House I had similar experiences to these and dealt with them much the same way. It can be challenging when you have to justify everything to people with no design background but it keeps you humble and makes you focus a lot more on empathy and the experience of the customer. I also agree with dropping the jargon. Graphic Design is more communication than anything else, but many of them drop the ball in written and oral communication with clients and non-designers.