An Open Letter To In-house Design Imposters

© Disney
“Hi, my name is Barry, and I’m just an in-house designer”

I don’t know about other in-house designers, but I frequently suffer from what feels like imposter syndrome. For some reason I often class myself as a lesser designer without any real justification. When I speak to other designers I instantly feel like a design fraud and I can’t seem to shake the habit. It was only recently, after listening to a talk from Alexandra Humphry-Baker at UX Scotland 2015, that I had my “Ah ha!” moment. So if you’re not quite there yet it’s totally fine.

Being an in-house designer is hard work — there is no question about that. Chances are you are part of a small team of few specialisms and as a result your workload is always massive. You’ll likely have to learn new skills on the fly because there is a piece of work needing done and there is no time or budget remaining to outsource it. I bet you’ve even had to be a project manager in some capacity at some point. We are pushed to our limits, but let’s face it, we love it.

As an in-house designer you get to nurture your brand(s) and product(s) — you grow as the brand(s) grow. With every iteration, update or release you and the product improves. No-one looks after a product like an in-house designer will. That’s why in-house designers are rockstars. Yeah I said it, ROCKSTARS! The industry is shifting to echo this; more and more companies are investing in their own team or acquiring an in-house team. You’re not just a cost effective solution; you’re the preferred solution.

Which is why it was a real bugbear of mine when work needed to be outsourced — I used to think that it was a reflection on me. The sad reality of it is that there are only so many hours in the day, and if a product needs delivered then a product needs delivered, it’s that simple. Don’t let your ego fool you into thinking it’s a punishment or that you’re not good enough. It’s likely that the project manager or similar wants high risk jobs done in-house and less so being tendered out if the in-house team is busy.

When something is outsourced, get involved in the process and help make sure that the agency or freelancer is getting a clear picture of what’s required and the standards that are expected. You need to be proactive as it’s you that will need to look after the work once it’s delivered. Moreover, your opinion is fundamental to delivery of a quality product. Much like the saying that you should always hire people that are better than you, you should absolutely tender out work to agencies and freelancers that are better than you. Draw inspiration from it, be challenged, vibe off of the work, develop relationships with people that you want to work with. Your fear and ego will try and stop you from getting the full experience of a professional collaboration.

Try to remember that you have a lot of influence over the direction of products and brands. Through your relationship with the product and the stakeholders you are in a position of trust and privilege; often you will need to give advice and opinion — it’s important that your responses are well thought out and productive. If someone asks a silly question, they do so because they respect and trust you enough to ask it. Don’t sully a good relationship by being disrespectful and elitist. An important thing to remember is that design is about solving a problem, and to effectively solve the problem you need as much information as you can get from a stakeholder or project manager. A positive relationship will help that process along, so you make your life easier if you’re respectful and patient.

So why did I feel like a design imposter? If I’m brutally honest with myself, it’s mostly my own ego. I see agencies being commissioned to do crazy work and see the limitations put on my own work, which is usually down to constraints such as budget and time — the unfortunate reality of business. It’s one of the challenges of the job, but that’s always been the challenge for the designer; find creative solutions within the restrictions of the brief. I now choose to see it as a challenge rather than a burden, I just have to sell the ideas better and prove that it’s the best solution. I’ve found combining the points discussed above have created an effective vehicle for getting the best solutions out of projects. Additionally because of positive relationships our stakeholders are more inclined to allow us the creative freedom. Win win, right? So embrace being an in-house designer and try not to let your ego drag you down.

“Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude.” — Ralph Marston

Originally published at on July 9, 2015.

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