Leading an In-House Design Team

Cameron Moll is speaking at An Event Apart in Chicago, and his session is called “The In-House Designer”. Here’s the description:

The fundamental principles of design remain constant irrespective of organization size, technical discipline, and the like. Yet within larger organizations, the dynamics of applying these principles, the ability to produce quality output, and overall job satisfaction are a challenge at times. Learn how to hone your technical skills, and, more importantly, your soft skills, to effectively grapple with the politics and red tape that are common to larger organizations — or, for that matter, to client services work.

A few days ago on his weblog, Cameron asked those of his readers who work for larger corporations to give feedback about the issues they face as in-house designers. Cameron gave a few bullet-points and then opened up the thread for comments.

Since I lead the in-house design team for a large non-profit ministry, I know exactly what a lot of the commenters on Cameron’s post are talking about.

After reading through all the comments, I pulled some of the issues that especially stood out to me, and gave my own experience of what I have done to solve (or work towards solving) these problems with our team of in-house designers.

Patrick Foster (#3):

Meetings. Incessant, irrelevant meetings . . .

Meetings are necessary, but overrated and usually crowded. Most meetings would be more successful if half the people in the room weren’t there.

When a client wants to meet with us I’ll have the project manager or myself sit down with the them. I am violent about not making my designers sit in on any non-essential meetings that would be a waste of their time. I’d rather let them hear the 3 minute update than the 2-hour conversation.

Someone anonymous (#5):

  • You’re creativity and output can get stale
  • Taking on multiple job roles due to re-orgs and downsizing

With my ministry, our other departments are our clients. Therefore being an in-house designer means you work with the same clients over and over. There is certainly a level of monotony that arises when that’s the case. However, I think it’s a byproduct of poor design.

When poor design solutions are offered, the design team doesn’t carry any authority to speak into the creative process. Thus the client becomes the creative director and the design team becomes a work-force, not a resource.

Encouraging the design team to grow in their creativity and productivity, helping them think outside the box, and letting them know it’s o.k. to fail will help the overall creative process. Once the design team has scored a few touchdowns the other departments will realized they’re playing ball with a different team.

The second point of taking on multiple jobs is the nature of the beast. There will always be the time when a specific skill-set is needed for a project, but it’s a one-off project that doesn’t warrant hiring someone new.

Brendan Cullen (#6):

Unrealistic expectations/deadlines/requests…

Sadly, unrealistic deadlines are part of life when it comes to web and print design. In the years that I’ve been in the design industry, even a project with a realistic deadline that is moving along in a timely manner will still come down to crunch time.

My goal for our Marketing department is to lay out a long-term strategy for advertising and marketing efforts. Focusing on a handful of well-designed, well-funded projects that are high quality. Getting a plan ahead of time allows the design team to start work right away and have the freedom to create something excellent instead of something fast.

Stephen Cap (#8):

People need to know what you can do for them so when they encounter a problem on a project they know who can help them solve it.

This problem is completely in the boss’ court.

A good department director is one who knows his team like he knows his own children. Not only is he aware of what they’re capable of producing and designing, he also knows how they relate to their peers, how they respond to pressure and how they process new information.

Mike Busch (#14):

Design is rooted in solving problems for the end user, and too often I find myself many steps removed from the user I’m designing for. In this environment experimentation/innovation simply take too long, and instead I’m forced to go with proven solutions to avoid the time hangups. So, although I’m rolling out high quality work, it lacks that intangible qualities that come from experimentation.

Mike’s end-result can be reached from multiple paths: time constraints, too many cooks in the kitchen, etc. There are countless dynamics that can trip up the design process in a large corporation.

This, to me, is the number one issue facing our design team right now, and I have a lot of energy behind solving it. That will have to be saved for another post, but I will say this: great numbers doesn’t always equal great design.

Sheri Bigelow (#17):

Lack of clear communication. Or, lack of a desire to communicate. I have run into a lot of decision makers who just don’t seem to care about the issues until they become a problem.

This is something I have had to force myself to do. I didn’t realize how easy it was to not communicate with my design team, and to just give out orders and directions.

We meet twice a month to cast vision and share about upcoming events and changes that normally wouldn’t be shared. This meeting has helped tremendously in getting the whole team on-board and excited about what’s around the corner. It gives them a greater ownership of the team and more motivation to do their job.

Justin Viger (#50):

. . . a big issue is not having a clearly defined role or specific job title.

This was the first thing I chose to address when I stepped in as director. The designers and programmers already knew what their jobs were, but the administrators and managers were overlapping in their responsibilities, and there was some breakdown in communication within our department.

I went with a bottom-up approach, and re-wrote the job descriptions for myself, the office manager, the department administrator, the web director, the creative director and the project manager; all in such a way that made their primary responsibility to serve the designers and programers.

This means they keep designers out of meetings whenever possible, make sure a designer’s projects are running smoothly, and help get needed answers.

When leaders lead by serving, everyone wins.

Anindya (#57):

Another problem is, you have to learn accepting average quality work. Many might not agree, but in bigger organizations, you have to accept average quality work. Because the focus shifts to doing volume work, generating more revenue and profit growth rather than quality!

This was something I personally had to quickly learn how to deal with.

Where do you draw the line between time it takes to complete a job, and the quality of a job? As a designer I am super attentive to detail and I cringe when a job doesn’t nail the potential it could have had. But as a director, I have to keep things moving along with some rate of progress.

The truth is: if we settle for average quality work for the sake of “generating more revenue and profit”, the revenue will suffer in the long-run due to everything being surrounded by average design.

But if we take a short-term hit in revenue, and focus our efforts on excellence in design, in a few years the rewards will be much greater and the momentum will be much stronger.

Steve Rose (#51) gives some great advice to the designers:

…you have to learn how to fight, carve out territory, and collaborate with other groups in such a way that you fulfill the project requirements (most important) and maintain your artistic sanity. Its a battle — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That’s just the way it is.

‘Nuff said.

Leading an In-House Design Team