Sides of the Fence
Long before I started my career in design I knew I wanted to work in an agency. It wasn’t even a question. I wanted eclectic, exciting work with consumer-facing clients, so I consider myself fortunate to have worked for boutique agencies in New York and the UK. Not every client was a household name, but every day was challenging and our small, agile teams were never bored. After a decade though, I was curious about other paths and decided to try something new.
Now, on the third anniversary of my tenure with the in-house design team for a B2B tech company, AppDirect, and having been honored to sit on a San Francisco Design Week panel focused on the subject of enterprise design, I’ve been reflecting on both aspects, and the misconceptions I had about this side of the fence.
- Going deep with a brand
In agency life we created identities from scratch, breathed life into them, and got them walking. But having a client select your design and releasing it into the wild was often a short-lived thrill. As part of an in-house team we nurture the brand every step of the way and it’s so rewarding to write an ongoing story, not just the introduction.
- Living with the consequences of our actions
Good designers always care deeply about building successful brands, but when your touch-points are limited, success in an agency is often measured by having your design accepted and getting paid. In-house we support a sales function and share their success. That doesn’t end once the design is shipped, and the consequences of decisions we make today are our concern long into the future. If you enjoy strategic thinking and directly impacting the health of the business, that’s a challenge you can get your teeth into.
- Not being the person we’re designing for
As part of an B2B company, our team market a large product suite to multiple industries. Personas, strategies, and messaging frameworks are incredibly diverse, so design skills like research and testing go hand-in-hand with business and marketing expertise. If you enjoy learning the things they don’t teach you in design school there’s no better place to be.
- But, sometimes being the person we’re designing for
The buyer might have a very different persona to anyone on our team, but our brand represents our company, and as an employee there, it represents us. We’re not just designing something that works, we’re invested because we’re expressing ourselves.
- Dealing with internal vs. external stakeholders
When the decision makers work in the same office you do, it presents a unique challenge. I assumed that design presentations would theoretically be simpler because you have an established relationship and you know how they think. But the problem is, you have an established relationship and you know how they think. That makes it easy to get caught in the trap of designing something you know will get sign-off, not necessarily the right solution. Continually checking yourself is essential.
- Fighting for user experience
Enterprise design is inherently different. As the saying goes, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM. When that was coined––with the best will in the world––IBM wasn’t the sexy option (although it might be now), it was the safe bet because it worked. That cuts to the heart of the issue that people traditionally bought enterprise software based on features, not user experience, but in a fragmented marketplace there’s more choice than ever and users have a louder voice. As a designer, with the skills to improve user experience, that presents a massive opportunity to impact business success.
- Thinking big picture
Design systems are a hot topic at the moment as brands are expected to stretch across every conceivable application with consistency and personality. Establishing brand guidelines isn’t enough; we need pattern libraries, style sheets, and content management systems. Crafting the details is essential, but understanding how they fit into a much larger picture, and then maintaining that system, is where the real challenge lies.
- Staying in motion
Just when you think you have your design system in place and there’s a harmony to everything, you remember that a brand is always evolving and done is never the end. You’re not going to get bored in this field.
- Raising the bar
Quality design hasn’t been exclusive to consumer-facing businesses for a long time. Take a look at any successful B2B company and you’ll find impressive, creative design at its core. In a world where analytics and user experience count, enterprise design is finding it’s voice. There’s no room for excuses, just opportunities.
- Maintaining enthusiasm
Even if everything else here fails to convince you that enterprise and in-house design positions have more than enough to keep you interested––and we all have days when it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm––there’s always your team. Having people around you on the same mission is a great boost when you’re in the trenches. If you need ideas on how to foster that kind of support I recommend checking out this article by Samantha Salvaggio.
I’d never steer a new designer away from exploring agency life. To bust out all the clichés, it really is a trial by fire and a great way to cut your teeth, but just sometimes, the grass actually is greener on the other side of the fence.