In Defense of the In-House Designer

Illustration by Jeff Desrosiers

Gather up a handful of designers and pose this question: “What is your dream design job?” I’m sure you’d get a lot of different answers. Advertising firm. Freelance. Studio. Maybe the latest addition is “Product Design.” There’s one thing that you probably wouldn’t hear, though.

I recently heard about a professor who posed this question to a very practical design student, and got an unexpected answer: “I want to work in-house.” The professor was surprised, “Why would you limit yourself like that? You should aim higher!” Point being: Don’t settle. Don’t give up on your dreams. These are good things to instill in a young student’s mind. But that professor also cast the in-house designer as a second class citizen — which is totally incorrect.

During my time working in-house, I stretched myself creatively, became a better designer, and learned to be a more effective worker. I saw the evolution of a company’s design thinking and played a role in pushing it forward. Overall, the experience proved extremely valuable and I’m grateful for it. All of which made me wonder, why didn’t the professor see what I saw? What myths might have led him to think this way?

Before I go any further, I should say: I no longer work as an in-house designer. I work at Upstatement. We’re a firm. Why am I writing this? There are a few reasons. First, many of my colleagues and I have had formative experiences as in-house designers, from newsrooms to online retailers. Second, we value good design no matter where it comes from and have a vested interest in a thriving community. Finally, we work with in-house designers on many of our projects, and skilled in-house teams can be critical to a project’s success.

That said, let’s get to the myths!

Myth 1 — It’s more difficult to be creative when you’re working in-house

I joined an in-house design team shortly after graduating from college, and was full-to-overflowing with great design ideas — or so I thought. I might have had ideas (and maybe a small, small number of them were “great”), but I also had a ton to learn about how to execute them. Problems that I could bend my way around while I was in school became real-life roadblocks: budget, politics, lack of support. Learning how to navigate the challenges associated with the professional world was tough, but those roadblocks didn’t cause my creativity to wither and die.

Creativity vs. Constraints
Something heard frequently in design classrooms is “constraints beget creativity.” Many design students (myself included) have floundered to get a foothold when an assignment was too open-ended. Turns out, self-identities aside, those open-ended assignments don’t exist outside of the classroom — there are always constraints because there’s always context. Even at Upstatement, constraints are the foundation on which we build our solutions. Identifying core problems is pretty close to Step One in our process. Whether you’re a designer at an agency or in-house, you’re never going to have a project that doesn’t involve limitations. Might you have more of them as an in-house designer? Maybe. Will they be different than the ones agencies face? Probably. Is there still room for creativity within them? Definitely.

Great design =/= redesign
For an in-house designer, creative opportunities are constant — not just when your company’s undergoing a full-scale redesign or beginning work on a big new project. Think of it this way: if an agency just completed a rebranding job, handing off brand guidelines signals the end of their involvement. For designers who are on the other side of that handoff, it’s just the beginning of their work.

Agencies are limited by time, funds, and the tasks that have been outlined within their Statement of Work. But, speaking for my colleagues at Upstatement, it’s actually exciting to hand off designs to strong in-house teams. They get to finesse details, adapt to new use-cases, and push the boundaries of what was initially conceived of within the design. Working within and extending established systems is a unique skill; an entirely different exercise than creating brand new work. It can still be incredibly impactful and large-scale, and other times, it can mean focusing on small details. The fact of the matter is, whether you’re starting from scratch or building on top of preexisting systems, that’s creative work. In the same way, creativity exists just as much in the details as it does in the big picture.

Working within established systems is a unique skill, an entirely different exercise from creating work from scratch.

Myth 2 — There won’t be room to grow

There are two parts to this myth. The first is that the challenges will always be the same in an in-house gig, stunting personal growth. The second is that your work won’t get noticed if it’s not release based or “new”, and therefore you can’t grow your personal reputation.

Keeping it fresh
Let’s start with the first. Will you be forced to face the same problems again and again as an in-house designer? The short answer is: no. If a design problem has to be solved repeatedly and in the same way, it probably means the initial solution — or the problem put to you — wasn’t the right one. Armed with that information, you get back at it and work on another, entirely different, solution. If you are asked to design new solutions to problems you have already solved, that’s a symptom of a broken environment which probably isn’t healthy for any employee (Oh yeah, shit companies exist, in the agency and in-house world. I’m not advocating that you stick it out at places like that).

What if the problems aren’t repetitive, but the tasks are? This question hits close to home. At my previous job, one of my many tasks was to design email campaigns. They were sent daily (sometimes multiple campaigns per day), and the work could get tedious, even with new designs for each campaign. Looking back, producing that quantity of work was nothing but beneficial to me. I would focus on different aspects of the email, and in doing so, I could see my typography skills improve, could translate user behavior into layout decisions, could clean up the code behind the emails we were sending. To paraphrase Ira Glass’ very quotable quote — making a lot of work is the only way to make your work as good as you know it can be. Don’t let fear of repetition be the thing that stops you from producing that work.

What about me?
Second, let’s talk about growing your personal reputation as an in-house designer. Redesigns, re-branding, and product releases are all glamorous ways to get your work (and your name) out there. Those are all important things that deserve some recognition when they’re completed! But, how does that redesign look a year later? How have the brand guidelines evolved since initial handoff? That kind of product ownership might not be as media-worthy, but speaks volumes about the individual behind it. My colleague Scott Dasse led Boston University’s design department for a decade. When it was time for him to move on to his next venture — Upstatement — he had established, maintained, and built up a rich design system. His oeuvre wasn’t website redesigns every 3 years, but a system that ranged from broad creative direction to small details and one-off projects. The opportunities of an in-house role can allow you to build an impressive collection of work, and even advance as a designer in ways that other positions might not.

Myth 3 — The climate won’t be design-focused

This is one of the most difficult challenges to address, mostly because every work environment is different. There are bunch of in-house gigs that have amazing design culture right now. There are design agencies that can become mired in matters beyond design. So, maybe this isn’t quite a myth. It’s a real possibility that design won’t be the number one priority where you work. But don’t let that deter you.

Design Ambassadors
As a designer in a work environment that’s not design-centric, you have a unique and kind-of ambiguous challenge — to be a steward of good design and good design thinking. The fact that a company has hired a designer (or designers) proves a good first step. It shows that someone, somewhere knows that design is important to their product or service. In a lot of companies, it’s exactly there that the designer’s work starts. Following hunches and creating beautiful Dribbble shots won’t be enough when your CEO is confused by what you do and how it’s beneficial to their bottom line. Building or contributing to a strong design department, and seeing that culture grow at a company will often mean spelling out the value of design in tangible ways. Yes, I mean money. Yes, I mean “engagement”. Yes, I mean testing your assumptions and sharing the results. It’s important for any designer to know how to prove their work. It’s especially important when sowing the seeds of a culture that values design at a place that may not yet have fertile soil for that kind of thing. Good design will prove its worth in real, measurable ways, and an atmosphere that values design will follow.

Good design will prove its worth in real, measurable ways, and an atmosphere that values design will follow.

Agents of change aren’t always from agencies
At an agency, the first weeks of a project are spent ingesting all you can about the client — the goals, the culture, the people. We try our best to be thorough, but it’s easy for things to slip by and for relevant information to reveal itself at a less-than-ideal time. It’s one of the big challenges of working with new clients every few months — just when you’re most comfortable, it’s time to move on to the next project. In the in-house world, there’s still fact-finding and research that needs to happen around projects, but you start with the major advantage of having an intimate knowledge of the organization you’re designing for. With that expert-level knowledge comes influence — over design decisions, over your own projects and assignments, over larger company matters, and yes, even over the design culture. Having a sustained relationship with a company and having a vested interest in its success matters, because it’s much easier to affect change from the inside out.

Working in-house isn’t without its faults — no job is. I wrote all this not just to validate my four-year experience as an in-house designer, but to remind anyone in the design community who might have forgotten (ahem, looking at you, anonymous professor) that there are many paths a designer can take to start or continue their career. Overlooking or undervaluing in-house roles is a mistake.