Thriving in an In-House Environment
Whether you’re just starting out in design or you’ve ping-ponged between gigs for as long as you can remember, there are many advantages to working in-house. Sure, with freelancing, you’re your own boss and you can set your office hours however you choose. There’s also that whole working in your pajamas thing we’ve heard so much about.
But what about the frequent all-nighters? The lack of health benefits? The deep feeling of disconnect and sadness that comes from only wearing pajamas all the time?
We spoke with four in-house designers and they gave us some valuable insight on the perks of having a steady gig.
What are some of the lesser-known benefits to working in-house and how do they affect your overall work/life happiness?
Ann Dang, Senior Graphic Designer, Barbie Brand Design at Mattel, Inc.: One of the biggest benefits being in-house is the consistency of working with a team I enjoy. I find it rewarding to collaborate with a design team and create something greater together than we could on our own. You also dive in deep and get to know the history of the brand and understand all dynamics of it. You become fiercely loyal because you get to steer the brand and see the full scope of things versus just working on an isolated project.
Fernanda Amarante, Manager of Global Design at The Hershey Company: Working in-house can feel like what some might describe as an out-of-body experience. Designers spend a significant amount of time on the agency side wondering how decisions are made and how projects move forward or backward in a corporate organization. When working in-house, the crucial mindset shift that allows the work to thrive is to see yourself no longer as just a designer, but as a business partner with significant skin in the game.
Mike Peck, Creative Director of Design at Microsoft Office Creative Studio: The biggest benefit of working in-house is the access to information. We are in the business of creative designs that connect with consumers, and in order to do that you need to know as much as possible about what you’re trying to design and who will be using it in the end. Working directly at the source gives you nearly unlimited access to that information. At a briefing, there will be tech experts, analytics specialists, and often times strategists in the room. This way all you have to do is focus on being creative.
Fernanda Amarante: The corporate environment is much more forgiving to work/life balance than freelance or agency life. You’ll still have long hours or crazy deadlines, but the all-nighters and Friday 5:30 pm client calls are gone for the most part. Corporations are also often able to offer competitive benefits that smaller shops are not built to offer their employees.
When you have a particularly challenging day, what sort of things help you push through your work?
Mike Peck: I like to think in the back of my head that we’re building something mid-flight. Our group is less than two years old, so the idea of using an in-house creative team is still a bit tough for some clients and there’s still a two-steps-forward-one-step-back mentality. We always want to do amazing work, but we need to bring our business partners along for the ride, and it can be a bit bumpy for them. The difference between in-house and agency life is that the journey is a shared one. We are all owners in the company and have a shared interest in its success, so the struggles are far less transactional.
Fernanda Amarante: The corporate world is dynamic and brand/marketing team members often rotate internally - being promoted, moving into new roles or joining new companies in search of different opportunities. Design can become the one continuing function that retains the brand identity knowledge pool.
Michael Gluzman, Design Lead for Sprite + Flavors: I’ll go for a little walk outside or around the building. Sometimes I wander along and run into someone who isn’t a designer - this is very likely - and end up speaking about one of their projects, or they tell me about something completely unrelated to my work and that is when the adjacent possible train of thought can begin. That’s a really good move for your brain.
How can designers utilize an in-house environment to grow rather than to feel limited or stifled by it?
Michael Gluzman: Growing your ability to communicate with non-designers is quite possibly one of the greatest ways to grow as a designer. Get good at listening to inform your design. Get good at presenting to sell your design. I also recommend thinking about your access to agency partners. Realistically, design talent will always be drawn to agencies but it doesn’t mean you’re lesser-than. You can become a super-node of design awareness if you play your cards right. A good product with a strong brand can attract some of the best of the best to come play with you. There’s a huge opportunity to collaborate, learn, and network with outside partners. I’ve been able to call or email people whose work I’ve admired and get responses that turned into working partnerships all thanks to where I worked. Having a big company behind you can open some doors and email inboxes.
Ann Dang: The networking opportunities that present themselves working for a corporation like Mattel are amazing. There is always an event happening where you get to meet new colleagues and fellow designers. As a designer, it’s crucial to see what else is out there and what your peers are creating. Being in-house makes it easier to naturally network and gives you a chance to build upon those relationships.
Mike Peck: For in-house designers, they need to utilize the HR term knows as the ‘lateral move.’ If you’re a senior designer on the brand team, look for opportunities in another department or group. If the company is large sometimes that can even mean moving between sub-brands. At Microsoft, if you get bored on Office, you can move fairly easily to the Xbox team. You can have a long diverse career without ever leaving the company.
What would be your best piece of advice for someone who is struggling to adjust to an in-house environment?
Michael Gluzman: If you're struggling to adjust, outline the situation. Try a design process to figure out the context of what you're dealing with and make sense of your chaos to inform your next move. Is the company culture good? Is there a path to grow for you? Is the brand or product something you like working with or have an opportunity to change? There's very little benefit to staying where you are if most of your answers are no. If you mostly answered yes, try to identify how the work you're doing is directly improving your career, personal life, or skills. And then see how it checks against your goals.
Ann Dang: The hardest part of my job is also one of the most rewarding parts. As an in-house designer, I’m constantly getting projects that are out of my comfort zone. The projects that challenge you are the ones that push your limits and ultimately force you to learn new skills. Take these opportunities when they come. Getting out of my comfort zone helps me grow as a creative and keeps me on my toes. It’s such a satisfying moment when all the hard work pays off and I created something I’m proud of.
Mike Peck: Know that the people you are most likely dealing with day to day are not creative people like you. In an agency you are surrounded by creatives, whether they are account managers or writers, they chose the creative field. If you are in-house often times your coworkers are not focused on the creative in a way you are. Help them understand why you make the choices you make in your work. Help them understand the value of the brand in the work, not just the monetary return for the work.
Jumping back into the magical realm of offices, water coolers, and a structured schedule can be a huge leap for anyone that’s been living the life of a freelancer. But no matter where you are in your career, this last bit of advice from Michael Gluzman rings true.
“Good design is everywhere,” he says, “but so is bad design. No matter where you work, if you enjoy it, bring good design there. That’s hugely admirable.”