The Ups & Downs of In-House Designers

Being an in-house creative in a corporate environment has many challenges, but also many rewards. One can feel isolated, or one can revel in being immersed in a brand, living and breathing the culture first-hand. We talked with three in-house designers from across the state on the pros and cons of being a creative in a business world.

Tina Sommers is a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, and is currently the Creative Director at People’s United Bank in Bridgeport. Outside of that, Tina is an intrepid world traveler, photographer, and connoisseur of extraordinary travel experiences, specializeing in photographing unique signature details of luxury resorts, boutique hotels and distinctive restaurants to create custom-designed marketing materials for her freelance clientele.

As a Senior Designer for Media Networks, Inc. — a Time Inc. company — Rachel Rowan possesses nine years experience as an in-house designer. Current projects include brand awareness, advertising, print, online, email and SEO. Previously she has worked at advertising agencies in both Connecticut and New York. Rachel also serves the Connecticut design community as a CADC Board member.

Lisa Burns has over 20 years experience in print, web and multimedia design. She has worked in some of Connecticut’s top agencies and in-house departments, including Lombard Marketing, Donaldson Makoski, Decker, Robinson & Cole — and currently Nerac, a research and advisory firm in Tolland. She was instrumental in getting the Connecticut chapter of AIGA launched this summer, and has donated her design services over the years to non-profits such as the Hartford Stage, the Greater Hartford Arts Council and Community Health Resources.

Editor of conncreatives and moderator for this interview, David Cushman spent close to four years in the corporate marketing department of Gartner, a technology research and advisory company in Stamford.

So let’s talk about roles.

My role as Creative Director in Corporate Communications is responsible for the development and implementation of corporate design standards and branding to align with major initiatives and strategies. It includes collaboration with senior management in the creation of the Annual Report; establishing stylistic direction for initiatives directed toward internal audiences; and proposing and implementing innovative solutions to meet the needs of the organization in a cost-effective manner.

I am the sole designer. Anytime anyone needs a presentation, chart, event materials, invitation, email newsletter, e-invite … that would be me. My other responsibilities include Search Engine Optimization for the site, plus photography and video of our analysts and events.

I’m a Senior Designer. I work on print, web, email campaigns and SEO.

Do you find working in an in-house department very different from agency life?

Yes and no. The level of expertise varies. I spent five years at Caldor in their Visual Presentation department; it was a group of talented and creative individuals. At People’s, when I began 12 years ago, it was two people that worked in word processing who learned Pagemaker and were considered “graphic designers” — no passion, no talent and no interest in any kind of formal training.

The hours are much better. It’s more of a 9 to 5 job. You do get more involved in the strategy, but I find the work focuses on the production side more than the creative side. You have short spurts to be creative in between a lot of production.

I do enjoy it more, though I miss designing for a range of clients. But in-house designers have more of an opportunity to play a role in strategy.

As far as the 9-5 aspect … was this a motivating factor in switching to an in-house job? More time for family, etc?

My conscious reasoning in making the switch was job security. The agency I started with had lots of accounts, but only one account paid everyone’s salaries. When that account left the company, we went from 33 to 2 employees overnight. In-house departments are not trying to wow their next client in hopes of winning the account. I find it a more solid environment, and a way to live the brand.

In-house, there is more time outside of work to spend with your family. One of the benefits in working at Nerac is the Nerac Bike Club. We go riding at lunchtime. It’s a good way to get your Lose Weight Exercise in during the day. I would not have that flexibility at an agency.

Not really. It was a chance to work for a great company and take more ownership over projects.

At Gartner, most weeks rarely went over 40 hours. I liked the fact that they cared more about just getting your job done versus billable hours. Since we didn’t bill by the hour, hours were almost irrelevant.

Ditto. It’s more about the quality of the work and whether we are “on-message”.

Lisa touched on being in “production mode”… have you struggled in convincing internal clients that you are a strategic partner versus just a “service center.”

It’s been a long road, especially in a financial arena which doesn’t really have the desire to understand the value of brand and design. My first goal was to take the desktop publishing area and transform it into a full service graphic design department — purchase a color printer, bring in a Mac support company to network our area, introduce a quoting process with print vendors, create a freelance pool of photographers, hire trained professionals, etc.

The second goal — after building strong relationships with key executives who value what I brought to the table — was to take on larger corporate initiatives. I was involved from the concept and planning stages — with all levels of corporate — to design and implementation. The initiatives I have worked on are so varied, you wouldn’t believe I work for a bank: Creating a stress-free room for Call Center employees working with interior designers; creating everything (30 ft. wall murals, table centerpieces, art auction paddles, signage, photography, a heart bar) for a Valentine’s Day fund-raiser; and working with our Real Estate Services department and the Secret Service to prep an environment for when the president came into town for a speech.

After completing large scale projects as well as managing events, I earned the trust to design the bank’s annual report (and manage the process), run the Shareholders’ Annual Meetings and be responsible for photographing towns and cities for artwork to be displayed inside their branches (I do lots of travel photography on my own).

I have struggled keeping up with all that there is to do. We are very busy! The marketing department is young. Many of us have only been in the department for a year. We are trying to network within the company and get some good quality work out of the department for sales, customer service and business development. Ultimately, we hope to develop and maintain trust and open communication internally to optimize our value to the company. It’s slow and steady but worth it.

I too have struggled because there aren’t enough of us to do everything. But we are proactive and make suggestions to improve communications. We read about industry trends constantly and make suggestions that keep MNI looking fresh.

We also enter design competitions. Recent awards have helped to promote recognition within the company.

I think this has a lot to do with leadership on an executive level that believes in branding and consistency of brand and supports what you do. What kind of leadership do you all have at the top? And who do you report to?

I report to the First Vice President in Corporate Communications, who reports directly to one of the eight top executives. I am the creative lead internally. Fortunately, both executives value branding and consistency.

My immediate supervisor is the marketing director. She oversees the big goals of the company and then funnels them down to our department by specific objectives which ultimately lead to projects, where I take them to the next level in print, web and multimedia assignments.

I report to a Creative Director. We’ve worked together for 9 years.

I started at Gartner as one of three art directors under a creative director, and when I left I was the lead creative reporting to the head of marketing. We went through a change at the CEO level — the old CEO had really championed marketing from a branding standpoint, and the new CEO saw marketing more as a way to support sales.

Have either of you experienced such a shift “from the top”?

The shift has really been with the Presidents of the bank. When I started, it was with David Carson, who has such a strong appreciation for the arts, he hired Richard Meier to build our headquarters and I have just finished designing a biographical book for him to be released in December entitled “Bow Tie Banker.” Once he retired, John Klein was President — but his passions were banking and the UConn Huskies. Since his passing in January, we have Philip Sherringham, who has a sophisticated palette and I think is a good match for the organization.

I was at a law firm for 7 years. The last two years were very challenging for me. The marketing director retired and a new, young director stepped in. She had new goals and a different vision for the department.

Usually it’s the Vice President of Sales that is promoted to the top position. Each has had their own style.

Do any of you use a charge-back system with the rest of the company?

We charge back for materials and print, but our service is free. We found if most departments had to pay, they would do it on the cheap and try to quietly do it themselves. Fortunately upper management recognizes the need for consistency, branding and professionalism.

That’s an interesting point. At Gartner, we pushed for a chargeback system, as we saw it as a way to show our value to the company. But we struggled to implement it and, like you said, internal clients ended up looking for other sources that ultimately undermined what we were trying to do.

Lisa, I know you recently worked with Fathom on the Nerac website launch… what do you think about using outside agencies and suddenly becoming “the client”?

Fathom was hired around the same time that I was hired. I think it was a good move. Fathom came in and asked the questions that needed to be asked. They were removed from the internal everyday stuff and I think it was beneficial. I was so busy trying to acclimate myself that there was no way that I was going to be able to take that project on like they did.

We’ve used several agencies in the past for radio, billboards and marketing within the branch. I don’t work with them as much, for they report to the Marketing area. I have not been very impressed with the work of any of these agencies. When using design firms originally to design our annual reports, neither my supervisor nor I felt like the client… Hard to believe we were paying them.

We just went through a website redesign for, and used an outside agency. It was good to be the client but required a lot of internal communication to please all parties. At times I felt as though the job was less about the design and more about project management.

It was hard to conceptualize things and how the website was going to work. When we would finally see the new layout, we would say, “oh no, that’s not going to work”…and then we’d come up with a better solution to the problem.

How important is it to speak in the language of business? Have you learned to avoid words such as “pretty”?

It’s extremely important to speak the language of business. The business leaders outnumber the creative, so I need to closely relate to them and help them understand how I can add value to their divisions and decisions. I often refer to articles in ISSUE‚ the journal of business + design — put out by Sappi and the Corporate Design Foundation.

I find that I have difficulty in talking with others about design. I really have to slow down and think about why I choose the color red for a headline, for instance. I do it so automatically that I just don’t consciously think about it.

Internally, we may change our message depending on who we are presenting to, trying to point out different elements of the project that the audience will have an interest in.

We’ll provide top line information and not get into design terms unless we’re talking amongst our immediate group.

Have you done any internal branding campaigns… educating employees on the brand?

Yes, I am involved with lots of internal branding, such as acquisitions, open enrollment, orientation, corporate fund raisers, Corporate Universities, Learning & Development, Diversity & Inclusion, Health & Wellness programs, etc.

I’ve held both branding presentations and webinars to help other departments correctly apply MNI branding to their projects. The focus is on how branding will make their work look professional and therefore build credibility in the marketplace. I’ve found that by positioning our brand efforts as a way to help other departments succeed, it inspires employees to become better “brand ambassadors.”

Yes, I’ve done internal branding campaigns. Presentations help to educate the employees and they start to understand the value in maintaining consistency within the brand. It also provides credibility and exposure to the marketing department in a favorable way.

How important are professional organizations like AIGA or CADC to the in-house designer?

Huge importance! When you are an inhouse designer, it’s like you are on an island with no lifelines! AIGA has opened up a bunch of opportunity nationally and locally. I can’t believe that I wasn’t encouraged to join an organization when I was in college.

I hope to reach out more to the students because they are the future of design. They ought to know that we professionals are available and what to share our experiences with them.

Networking is so overlooked. It is one of the things that I learned when I worked at the law firm from the lawyers. They are taught in school that networking is the best way to build their practices. They are always joining boards, doing pro-bono work, community service. It’s because of that experience that I am now understanding the magnitude of it all — and it really works. I’ve met more people in the last few months in the design community than I ever had.

It’s been my experience that getting out of the box (cube) helps in-house designers learn about new resources, web technologies and vendors. You also meet other visual communication professionals such as photographers and illustrators that are available for freelance projects. So you stay at the top of your game!

I’ve joined both organizations briefly over a year’s span and was disappointed in their offerings. Instead I keep current with the Corporate Design Foundation, subscribe to Before & After and Communication Arts, keep in contact with paper reps who invite me to many workshops, presentations, etc., and work closely as an alumni of Savannah College of Art & Design.

Surprisingly, I grow as a designer and artist by entering many contests and competitions, attending galleries and shows. The most interesting part of my life as a designer has become following my passions: traveling, photography and creating artwork for people or places I love. Those audiences include: Christo & Jeanne Claude, Donghia, Chihuly, Frances Mayes, Sigrid Olsen, Lillian August and One&Only Resorts. From those inspirations and work, I often incorporate various elements back into the bank projects. It might sound strange, but it seems to work.


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