How to get ahead as an in-house designer

Working as an in-house designer at a company where creative output isn't the primary focus comes with something of a reputation. Working in-house is dull. It's creatively restricting. It's a poor third career option by comparison to working for an agency or freelancing.

Such a reputation is unwarranted, though. Like all creative minds, designers that work in-house answer specific design needs - whether that be creating easily readable bills and catalogues, or advanced social media campaigns and boundary-pushing digital projects.

Working in-house can be more of a test of one's creativity than working in an agency. Operating within tightly defined boundaries demands constant inventiveness. It's a breadth versus depth difference, and working in-house means immersing yourself in a single company. Most agencies will focus on a specific niche, whether that's project-based (for example packaging specialists) or brand-based (niches like financial services or clothing brands).

In-house creatives have the opportunity to really get under the skin of their brand, believes Paul Crabtree at the University of the West of England, and that brings with it many benefits. "[As an in-house creative] you know and care about your company," he comments. "You invest in your company because it is rewarding, and I think it encourages a deeper connection with a brand."

According to Crabtree, who has previously worked at agencies including BBH, working in-house has a great many advantages. Primarily, it enables you to be more experimental and push your internal clients in new directions. "There is less fear of an internal client saying no," he explains. "They can't pull their business, which offers greater creative freedom."

Agencies have a tendency to pander to client expectations and demands, whereas in-house creatives have a degree of freedom in which to fail. It is this freedom to experiment that Crabtree and other in-house directors we spoke with identified as key to a successful in-house career: you need to ensure you remain highly inspired and motivated above all else.

New opportunities

Working in an agency or as a freelancer means brand guidelines, a full brief and often the provision of examples of existing work to get a project started. Brand strategy workshops and other research also inform an agency's creative answer to a client brief. As an in-house creative you're often the driver of both the brief and the execution, and as such it's critical to stay inspired and aware of new technologies and trends, and filter these into a form that works for your company.

"Spotting and then selling new opportunities is what we are employed to do," says Ben Topliss, senior designer at JD, the leading sports fashion retailer in the UK. "I don't want to be stuck doing boring day-to-day tasks - although they are important and do have to be done - I want to work on interesting and exciting projects, just like every other creative. People always want to see that, especially in a 'non-creative' company."

Topliss and his team have just created the King of Trainers site; the digital side of a campaign to celebrate the greatest trainers, both classic and new. "There will be new content for it regularly, so getting the balance between creating a unique but shoppable experience for each post was a challenge," he says. "The infinite scrolling nature of the site, fantastic full-bleed shots and a little bit of parallax scrolling should mean that anyone who is into their kicks will find it really engaging."

For Topliss, as well as creative inventiveness, one of the key aspects of a successful in-house career is to be self-motivated. "I think you need to be quite proactive," he says. "Maybe more so when working in-house. People are keen to do things and try stuff, but everyone is busy and it might not otherwise come up if you don't just do it. Whereas the focus of an agency is centred around what can they do for their clients in order to bill them."

Working for an agency often means you're ringfenced creatively, as Topliss explains, with an accounts team or project manager acting as a barrier between client demands and your work. At larger agencies it's common to have creatives tied to a single client. This doesn't happen in-house, and means your expertise is often in high demand from multiple areas of the business at the same time.

"Generally, on a day-to-day basis I am consistently busier than I was at my last agency, but I work better hours and rarely stay too late," he says. "If you want to get away on time, you do need to be organised and motivated as there are key deadlines which need to be met each day. There are lots of people and lots of departments who all want work from you, often at the same time, so you need to be able to manage your own time better than in an agency."

Managing expectations

This highlights one of the most widely acknowledged problems of working in an in-house capacity. You are a resource, and the fact that your internal clients aren't billed for your work (although recharging within an internal economy is commonplace) brings with it wholly different client relationships and expectations. As a result, it's vital that your project management skills are second to none, and your communication skills are similarly exceptional.

"I see in-house design as a valuable resource, with in-depth knowledge and custodianship of a brand," says Kate Bates, design manager at the British Library. Bates heads up the team responsible for producing all branded marketing, large-format graphics in and around the Library building itself, and bespoke exhibition marketing material.

The work the team produces is broad and inventive, and must balance the British Library's own brand and guidelines with each exhibition's natural character - be that a printed guide for an Ancient Egyptian exhibition, or an advertising campaign for a showing on the poetry of Benjamin Britten.

"The key issue is one of perception, in that we are very much viewed as a 'free resource'," says Bates. "If we charged agency fees it might help our internal clients to focus a little more when it comes to making amendments. It's also a constant challenge to use our brand guidelines in a way that conforms to all the rules yet looks fresh and different from job to job."

Keeping things flexible

The tricks to ensuring your creative juices are overflowing are as applicable to in-house designers as they are to freelancers and agency creatives - brand guidelines notwithstanding. For Rob Langtry, chief strategy and marketing officer at The Woolmark Company, the skillsets and character traits that make a great in-house designer are transferrable.

"Intelligence, maturity and a good understanding of the importance of a strategic approach to design are critical," he explains. "As is the ability to balance innovation with established brands."

Patience and flexibility are also important traits, explains Langtry, pointing out that while the brands you work on may be restricted, the depth in which you work with your brand is far greater than any agency-client relationship can offer.

"The likelihood that the categories and brands [an in-house designer works on] are limited, means the scope for 'stretching' your thinking may be more limited," says Langtry. "Balancing this off is the deeper engagement with brands and with marketing, and the ability to work with greater knowledge of the context your work will be seen in," he adds. "Where working in-house can be liberating is in the potential to be more innovative. Knowing your products and internal clients usually means a higher degree of trust and greater support for lateral thinking."

Topliss concurs. He says that adding additional skills to your armoury is a great means of introducing new ideas to in-house projects. But there's no simple route to a successful career that's applicable to in-house creatives any more than it is to any other profession.

"I would say that you can make yourself more valuable by doing two things," Topliss elaborates. "Either by learning new skills - motion graphics, 3D or illustration for example - or, and probably most importantly, with plain and simple hard work.

Words: Tom Dennis

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 220.

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