11 Misconceptions about In-house Design
There has been a lot written recently about what is — and what might be — happening to the business of design. As in-house design becomes more common, I imagine there are many designers thinking about what it means for them. In-house design isn’t a new thing, but it has been growing rapidly over the last several years, so it feels new. I’ve spent most of my career in-house and love it. Part of my job at Twitter is to make it a place that other designers enjoy working at as well. A few of the recent articles on the state of design made some points about in-house work that didn’t reflect my own experience. I’ve heard similar ideas in conversations as well. So, let’s dig in to that! It may not be for everyone, but at the very least it’s worth getting to know more about this increasingly common way of working.
1. In-house designers are less committed to advocating for users
I can understand why a designer that works in an independent studio might think that they are better positioned to advocate for user needs. It’s possible that this used to be true. It’s probably still true in old or slow moving companies. However, it is not true relative to designers working in-house at any modern product company. I’d posit that most (if not all) in-house designers are working in-house precisely because they are deeply committed to the needs of the users of the company they’ve chosen to work for.
I’d go even further to say that in-house designers carry a level of empathy for their users that independent designers are highly unlikely to reach. When you work at a product company, the needs and desires and frustrations of your users surround you. As a representative of the company, you become the direct connection for everyone you meet to share both their wish-lists and grievances. The needs and wants of your users are something you internalize and think about daily, over the many years you work for the company. Empathy for your users goes beyond just advocating for their needs in the product, but also advocating for user expectations of your company (ask any designer who currently works at Uber about this).
Additionally, the investments we’re seeing companies make in Design also extends to Research. Most product companies are also investing in and building Research teams, so that user awareness and understanding is also a core competency. For example, the Facebook Design team’s acquisition of Bolt Peters in 2012. Many of these Research teams are quite big — including field researchers, in-house labs, and data scientists — and provide in-house designers a range of information to help guide, challenge, and validate their work.
2. In-house designers get dragged down by corporate inertia
If you agree that in-house designers are committed to advocating for user needs, perhaps it’s corporate inertia where in-house designers get stuck? Every company goes through periods of inertia, but again, this is where in-house design sits at an advantage. The in-house design model allows designers to reach out directly to anyone they need to in the company, at any time, when they need to advocate for a cause — be it a program manager, an engineer, a product executive, or even their CEO. In the face of inertia, an in-house designer can stick with a cause they care about for as long and as regularly as they need to. Because of the relationships and organizational understanding that in-house designers can build over time, they have great affordances for finding their way around the inertia they face. In-house design also allows you to do homework while other parts of the company might be lagging. On many occasions I’ve seen product groups turn to the in-house teams when they’re stuck, to find that the designers have been working away on a pile of new ideas.
3. In-house doesn’t offer variety
You’d be surprised by the variety of work that an in-house team does. When I left Microsoft after being there for four and a half years, some of my colleagues razzed me for being a “short-timer”. At Microsoft it’s not uncommon to meet designers that have worked there for 7, 10, 15 years or more. If you became bored of working on Windows Phone, you could go work on the next generation of Xbox, or Office, or Windows, or a completely new project like Hololens. You would find a similar situation at companies like Apple, Google, or Amazon. Or take a smaller company like Square. Square has Square Reader, Stand, Register, Cash, Inventory, Analytics, Sites, and so on. Designing new products is what many companies do now — all the time. In the past, a company might have had one or a few distinct products made each year, and then specialized in manufacturing, distribution, marketing and sales. The design and development of new products happens quite fast now, so right beside the development team is a great place to be. For every new product there is brand and marketing work, strategy work, web work, app work on multiple platforms, and depending on the type of product, industrial design work as well. Individual projects naturally change as teams work on future versions, and designers are free to move between projects whenever they want to. In addition to the products themselves, you’re helping to grow and shape a company and the way it thinks about design. In other words, there is no shortage of interesting things to work on.
4. In-house designers are more likely to burn out
Burnout is the result of one of two things: 1. Being overworked, and 2. Not making progress after x period of time. Overworking employees is something every company — both in-house and independent studios — needs to watch out for. It happens when you give people too much work with too little time. The way to avoid it is to help your team with time management, and keep an open dialogue about how they’re doing.
When it comes to not making progress, the period x is different for every designer, so again, requires keeping an open dialogue with your team. When they are making progress, I’ve seen many designers happily stick with the same project for 9, 12, 18, and 24 months (and even more). Building ambitious products takes time, and once designers dig in to it they can keep going for a pretty long time. Many designers thrive off of seeing their work through from end-to-very-end, and it’s a lot of fun to celebrate with the whole company when you launch.
Every in-house team I’ve worked with keeps an eye on how the team is doing emotionally, and is good at shifting roles for designers that need a change. There’s always lots of other work that needs to be done, so when someone needs a change, it usually opens up a mutually beneficial opportunity.
5. In-house designers aren’t exposed to lateral perspectives of other industries, disciplines, trends, or technologies
In-house designers read the same blogs, visit the same sites, listen to the same podcasts, and go to the same conferences that other designers do. Internally, designers are exposed to points of view from engineers, researchers, product managers, business managers, and data scientists, to name a few. In-house designers get to see prototypes and new technologies that engineers might be tinkering with on the side, draw new insights from some data science research. As my friend Albert Shum said of Microsoft, being an in-house designer is like being a kid in a candy store. While the business we work with may only be involved in a few specific markets, it’s been my experience that designers everywhere like to keep their eyes on things going on in every industry, whether or not it affects their day to day directly.
One of my favorite things about working in-house is not just the on-the-ground collaboration with people from different disciplines, but being able to watch and learn from the leaders of different disciplines. Everyday I get to watch and learn from my CEO, our Product leaders, our Engineering leaders, and the many other leaders outside our Design and Research team.
6. In-house designers have to be more conservative
When you work in-house, you do learn that the flashy ideas that might sell in a pitch deck are often different from the ones that make sense to build. Companies are also generally not looking to launch the craziest idea, but the idea that works. However, whenever it makes sense, the in-house teams I’ve worked with are always looking for ways to push themselves and their ideas as far as they can. There is an important step in that process where you pull yourself back in and validate. If you think about some of the more impactful products of the last decade — Amazon, Gmail, Google Maps, Android, iPhone, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb, Dropbox, Spotify, Uber— they aren’t crazy ideas, they’re just good ideas built well.
7. In-house designers are at risk of stale thinking
A few years ago while I was at Microsoft, some people I knew from a large design consultancy where in town and came by our studio for lunch. As we were finishing up, one of them asked: “So how can we work together? We could help bring a lot of fresh ideas to your team.” In the next room sat 100 very talented designers. Fresh ideas were definitely not a problem. In my experience, fresh ideas are almost never the problem. In-house teams use the same techniques and tools that independent studios do to brainstorm, sketch, and explore. At any given time, we usually have more ideas than we can deal with. The problem that in-house teams usually run up against is how to get their ideas built, so that is where they spend a lot of their energy.
8. In-house is where good ideas go to die
Making things requires editing, so a lot of great ideas get cut — that much is probably familiar to any designer. Not every cool idea makes sense to build. Building things also takes time. I bumped in to a designer I know on the day of a pretty large product launch, and asked him what he thought about it (I knew he had consulted with the company). He shrugged and said that he had told them to build that product two years ago. I was a bit confused because two years is roughly how long it takes to build that particular type of product.
From a distance it can seem like building a product takes too long. Large companies often move slower but have a greater ability to make a big impact when they launch. Smaller companies can often move faster, but will be less visible. Any size company can be ambitious and courageous (or the opposite). Some things just do take a really long time to make, and its during that time that many little decisions get made that affect the final design. That has a lot to do with why many companies are hiring as many designers as they are. The more designers you have relative to the size of the company, the more you can ensure that design can guide the product along its development journey. Good ideas only die if you let them.
9. In-house is just a San Francisco thing
I got my start as an in-house designer in Los Angeles, as part of a larger team that was based in Helsinki. It’s true that many San Francisco and Valley companies are building big in-house teams, and they seem to be getting a lot of attention for it. However, in-house work is already available in the same cities you’d find most independent firms: Seattle, New York, Boston, Boulder, Austin, Los Angeles, Toronto, London, Berlin, Stockholm, etc. Tech is making it a lot easier to set up a product company wherever the founder chooses, and with that, we’re going to see a lot more in-house studios in more cities around the world. Sonos is building a team in Santa Barbara, which is pretty nice.
10. In-house designers are only there to vest
Equity and the other benefits that often come with in-house work are nice, but that’s not why we’re here. The work is really exciting, and it’s great to dig deep in to long-term problems with your non-design colleagues. You get to know a problem space extremely well when you spend a few years (or more) on it. Your exposure to teammates from other disciplines helps you to look at problems in new ways, and learn new skills. Launching a big product that took a long time to build is really exciting. When they are no longer interested in the problems that a company offers, designers move on and will leave stock on the table. Most of the in-house designers I know go on to find a new product and company that lines up with their interests, or start their own product company.
11. The ROI on in-house design is unclear
At the individual company level, yes, ROI needs to be proven out for each individual company. Integrating design won’t go smoothly everywhere. Sometimes it will fail. But at a macro level the investments that many companies are making in design now are a result of companies like Apple, Google, Tesla, Twitter, Facebook, or Airbnb already showing what is possible when design is well integrated. The ROI is why in-house teams are becoming so popular. Designers are able to work more closely with development teams and help shape strategy, companies get to see close up how design works, and in turn get their designers involved in more things. Both the designers and the company learn how to work faster together, and build on results year after year after year. Continuing to prove out the ROI of Design is the massive opportunity waiting for the many senior leaders of the Design industry today.
It’s Nice Inside
The design industry is definitely going through some changes, but there’s more work now than ever. In-house design is the seat at the table so many designers have been talking about for so many years. The shift is reshaping the industry of Design as we’ve known it, and it’s hard knowing that it is (and will) personally affect many of our friends and colleagues as the industry works through change. It wasn’t fun hearing that Smart was closing its San Francisco office. On the upside, the change is happening because of an increased demand for design. I don’t know for sure, but I expect that all the designers at Smart had multiple job opportunities land in their inbox the moment the news got out. Everybody is hiring.
In-house is becoming a more common place for designers to work, and that doesn’t mean independent studios will go away. Let’s not conflate one trend for another. The in-house trend just means that more designers will work in-house than in the past. The good news is: A lot of us that do work in-house really enjoy it. If you try it, you might find that it’s a lot more fun than you’d expect.
There has never been a better time to be a Designer, inside or out.