Archive for the ‘In-house Issues’ Category

Last week, in this column, I wrote about the realities of workplace bullying and noted that in-house designers are particularly vulnerable because of the client/designer dynamic. Knowing that many organizations tolerate and ignore the abuse that clients can inflict on their designer colleagues, I’d like to suggest, when confronted with a bully client, that you take radical action to get your managers’ and HR’s attention – FIRE YOUR CLIENT.


If outside agencies, when confronted with a client whose demands and behaviors damage their business, can resign that client, then why can’t an in-house team? The key is to capture the costs of the inflicted damage, both in financial, morale (and moral) terms. If you position your arguments for taking this action from the perspective of serving the best interests of the company, then you can base a subsequent conversation (which will surely come) on a premise that will be less about blame and more about finding solutions. Simply put, the primary argument should be predicated on the assumption that you have multiple clients and that the bully client has become such a drain on your team that he or she is diverting your resources away from your other responsible clients.

This “break glass in case of emergency” approach should only be attempted after all other options and channels for airing grievances have been exhausted and should be handled as objectively as possible. My recommendation would be to craft an email stating that your department is no longer going to be servicing the offending client, list the offenses and then, most importantly, clearly point out the negative impact that the offenses have had on you, your team and the company. Refrain from using inflammatory language and keep the email as concise as possible. Send it to your manager and HR and cc the client.

Firing a client is, of course, a contentious act, in and of itself, no matter how carefully you approach it. That fact alone should be enough to deter any in-house designer from taking this route in any but the most extreme circumstances. But, if all else has failed, it may be appropriate as the alternative of tolerating abusive or irresponsible behavior is the worse of the 2 options.


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I was reading an opinion piece in this week’s Sunday New York Times about the prevalence of the bullying of nurses by doctors and the detrimental impact it ultimately has on patient care. The author noted that while the offending doctors were in the minority and many of the instances were not blatantly abusive, the condescending nasty behaviors were damaging and corrosive enough to the entire industry’s culture and the self-esteem and confidence of the nurses that a number of studies of the phenomenon recommended swift and decisive action. The bottom line was that nurses who were the victims of this type of bullying were less inclined to inform or challenge the bully doctors on their errors and the bullying behavior tended to infect the entire organization with nurses picking on younger hires, residents abusing interns and on and on.

The parallels to the company/designer dynamic are hard to ignore. Actually in-house designers are in a worse position than the nurses as they’re vulnerable not only to the potential bullying by upper managers but, unlike their non-design peers, they may be victimized by their clients as well. As with the nurses, the offenses may not be blatant or practiced by a majority of clients or managers. They often show up as sarcastic quips, nasty tones, abrupt emails, unreasonable demands and lack of responsiveness to requests for support.

As subtle and seemingly acceptably benign as these behaviors may appear, along with the fact that the bully clients and managers are (hopefully) in the minority, they should absolutely not be tolerated. This issue is difficult to address, though, because designers, when they do attempt to confront this type of behavior are told that they’re not being a team player, they’re not practicing good customer service, the client could dump the in-house team in favor of an outside agency, the work still has to get done and (the ace in the hole) that they’re behaving like prima donnas. They should rest assured that they’re not.

When designers accept a job at a company, they are accepting the mandate that they perform their assigned functions to the best of their ability. What they are not signing on for is the requirement that they tolerate abuse in any of its blatant or more subtle guises. Actually, it is all designers’ responsibility to their company to challenge this type of behavior because of the overall negative impact it wreaks on the company’s efficiency and quality of work.

I’m not naïve enough to ignore the fact that nasty bosses and clients have been and are tolerated at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, but I am very clear that, just like in grade school, if bullying is not called out and confronted, it will persist and corrode, personal self esteem, corporate culture and the performance of everyone in the organization.

It is every designer’s right to be treated with respect and it is their duty to responsibly challenge abusive behavior by addressing it with the offender, their managers and their human resources department the moment it occurs.

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By the very nature of its process, design is an entrepreneurial exercise. Unlike most other professional pursuits that primarily rely on managerial, analytical or maintenance practices, design incorporates action, improvisation and resourcefulness – all decidedly entrepreneurial behaviors. This fact sets the stage for conflict between in-house design teams and their departmental neighbors whose functions put them squarely outside of the innovative sphere.


It could be argued that, because designers are forced to be entrepreneurial because of the process they have to engage in to do their jobs, they’re being unintentionally set up to fail when having to work within a larger innovation resistant organization. There have certainly been enough in-house teams that have either stumbled and been disbanded or been beaten into compliant submission, to support this proposition. But there are enough successful entrepreneurial in-house groups to bolster the notion that the diametrically opposed conservative and innovative mindsets can exist and succeed in the same environment.

This success requires the rare combination of a powerful creative team leader and enlightened management. Which begs the question – are you that articulate, savvy and passionate entrepreneur who is able to partner with clients, department heads and the C-suite in a way that allows your team the flexibility needed to be a true entrepreneurial enterprise? Or are you the cynical, browbeaten corporate cog who follows untested and unquestioned policy, habit and tradition, devaluing you, your team and the practice of design?

Being an entrepreneur is a choice. A choice that should be especially easy to make for us designers who have been trained and encouraged to be entrepreneurial because of the very nature of what we do every day.

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Running an in-house department is like trying to build an airplane while it’s already in flight. You’re putting out fires all day long to the point where “proactive” starts to sound like a 4-letter word. How can any of us possibly have the time or the energy to tackle big-picture issues when we’re dealing with unreasonable deadlines, inferior infrastructure, garbled revision requests and corporate politics?


Well, I’m here to tell you, I have seen it done. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. None of the suggestions below are earth shattering or a complete solution by themselves. It’s not quite that simple or easy. But, with a mix of equal parts discipline, passion, and ingenuity, you can address strategic issues such as the creation of SOPs, self-promotional materials and position descriptions. If you don’t –well then just make sure you keep a fire hose handy at all times…

  • Prioritize your paradigm-changing projects using 2 criteria – the payoff and how much time and resources you’d need to devote to a particular initiative
  • Assemble a support group of co-workers, professional colleagues and friends for moral support and inspiration
  • Set aside a half hour every other day at either the beginning or the end of the day to work on big picture issues – make sure you tell your boss what you’re up to and why
  • Work off site on proactive activities 1 day a week every other week (again with the boss’ blessing)
  • Go off site for lunch 2 days a week to focus on high-level projects
  • If you’re guilty of spending even 10 minutes of every day complaining how bad things are at work – stop doing it and use that time for strategic planning
  • Delegate some of the tasks to your co-workers but allow them specified times to devote to your requests
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel – check out web sites, books and magazines that may have information, templates, advice etc. that you can leverage
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel déjà vu – reach out to colleagues at other companies and mine them for valuable insights

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Defining the business relationships that in-house designers have with their companies is an often ignored but absolutely essential exercise for in-house groups. Lack of clarity (and documentation) about an individual designer’s or design manager’s responsibilities, performance, hours, vacation, pay, benefits, opportunities for advancement etc. can and will quickly lead to frustration, disillusionment and bad morale in a creative team – even if it’s only a team of one.


The simplest way to view the relationship between in-house designers and the companies for which they work is as a contractual agreement. The designer commits to providing agreed upon services at an agreed upon level of quality and the company commits to providing specific benefits and compensation.  This quid pro quo mindset puts the business relationship in a context that avoids all the emotional mess around the questions of loyalty, fairness and exploitation.

Pretty simple in theory but not so in practice. Often, designers walk into jobs without having been given a position description, a list of performance expectations, a career path or an org chart that shows where they live in the corporate hierarchy. They don’t have a true sense of how much, if any, overtime they’re expected to put in and how they’ll be compensated for that OT. Are there periods when, because of their company’s business cycles, they won’t be allowed to take vacation? What are the metrics their performance will be assessed by? When will they be assessed?

It’s in a designer’s best interest when interviewing for a job at a corporation to have these questions answered. Hopefully the hiring company has done due diligence and can proactively address these issues. If not, the candidate should not be shy about gaining clarity on the business relationship they’ll be entering into. If a designer is already working at a company which has not provided them with clear documentation on the agreement they’ve entered into then they should request it. This way, they will know what is expected of them now and also what they need to do to move up into higher level positions should they desire to do so.

It is critical for in-house managers whose companies have not defined their working agreement with their staff, to do so as soon as possible. In addition to creating descriptions for all the positions on their team, managers should document salaries associated with those positions, routes for career advancement, reporting structures and performance metrics.

Once the documentation is completed, the in-house manager should review them individually with the entire team so everyone is on the same page. Staff should have an opportunity in these one-on-one reviews of the contract to bring up any concerns and the managers should resolve those concerns quickly.

The goal at the end of this process is that everyone be clear about their obligations and compensation. Only then will managers be empowered to quickly resolve any conflicts, confusion or upset around responsibilities, expectations and fairness, creating a culture that will allow their team to stay focused on providing great design and design strategy to their company.

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I believe, as designers, we’re all pretty clear that the practice of design is primarily about solving problems and that it’s not an act of self-expression. This truth and discipline must be exercised in our working relationships as well if we’re to be taken seriously by our business colleagues and achieve the respect we desire as creatives working in the corporate sphere.


The aptitudes and attitudes of empathy, passion and high emotional IQs are essential to our success as designers, but they need to be reined in when we’re communicating and collaborating with our clients, managers and non-design peers in other departments.

All too often, I’ve either witnessed directly or heard about designers walking into an emotionally charged situation, losing their objectivity and shooting themselves in the foot by getting sucked into the drama of the circumstances. Get a grip, people. There is no upside to losing your cool even if it’s completely justified.

Below are some tips on how to manage your emotions in hot messes.

  • If you’re responding to a hot topic by email, get everything off your chest by writing the email you’d want to send, trashing it and then composing and sending a more measured response.
  • Frame the conversation from multiple perspectives – not just yours.
  • Showcase benefits and consequences that will resonate with your audience.
  • Refrain from using adjectives – utilize facts and anticipated outcomes that would result from taking proposed actions.
  • Keep communications as short and to the point as possible.
  • Don’t have emotionally charged conversations with ANY of your co-workers no matter how close you are to them.
  • Find an outlet/sympathetic listener outside of your place of work for venting.
  • Always practice the triple-R’s – Retreat/Reflect/Respond.
  • Keep your goal and desired outcome from ay interaction top of mind.
  • If it feels good – don’t say it. The short-term gratification will never outweigh the long-term blow-back.

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Are in-house designers hired for their creative chops? It seems doubtful based on how they are utilized by their host companies. The “Just get it done” design as commodity mindset of clients and upper management expresses itself in design teams being afforded limited resources, challenged with unreasonable deadlines and being skipped over for plum assignments which often go to outside agencies.


The problem is that these in-house creative teams may not be acting in very creative ways and so are not viewed by their companies as having the capacity to address strategic design-based initiatives. Designers, especially with the advent of computers, tend to confuse craft with creativity. Being able to design an attractive brochure through the good use of type, colors and layout is the craft component of design, not the higher level creative expression that designers can, but often don’t, bring to bear on their projects. Like an accomplished potter who throws one beautiful bowl after another, designers certainly have the chops to ply the tools of their trade. But tools, albeit skills that could be used in the service of a higher function – that of truly strategic, unique and creative pursuits and practices, is all they are.

Creativity, particularly for designers, is the act of defining problems by putting them into an appropriate holistic context, creating and exploring multiple solutions, choosing the best of those solutions and then implementing those solutions. Stefan Mumaw, author of “Caffeine For The Creative Mind” and “Chasing The Monster Idea”, expressed the distinction between craft and creativity very succinctly this way:

Craft – You’re assigned a brochure to design. You get the content, utilize legible fonts, apply attractive colors, artfully crop the images, place them all into an orderly layout and send the files off to the printer.

Transition – You’re assigned a brochure to design. You meet with the client to determine the objectives of the brochure, the audience and the branding priorities. You apply your craft as noted above to the brochure design using the client’s insights.

Creativity – You’re assigned a brochure to design. You meet with the client as noted above. You research the assignment from a larger perspective and context. You ask yourself, “Why a brochure?” and initiate a dialogue and exploratory process that encompasses solutions that take you well beyond ink on paper.

The path to gaining the respect and position many in-house creative teams desire that will afford them more opportunities for broad strategic contributions to their companies rests almost exclusively on their willingness and ability to engage in truly creative practices and behaviors, not just the crafting of pretty pictures.

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