08 November 2006
Adriane Lee Schwarz
Adriane Lee Schwarz

In-house teams face the same creative challenges as any other design group. Here's how to stay fresh when you're toeing the company line. A common perception among designers is that working in-house is less inspiring than working for multiple clients. Corporate brand standards, internal politics and a mistrust of "those wacky designers" within other parts of an organization conspire to squelch every ounce of creativity.

This perception, however, is largely unfounded. According to several veteran in-house designers, creativity isn't dictated by environment, but rather by one's attitude, approach and efforts to stay inspired. Like their design-firm brethren, corporate creatives need to pursue outside interests and push the envelope to have fun and stay fresh.

Develop a Creative Mindset
According to John Dorcas, art director of the Fossil Design Group in Richardson, TX (USA), creativity has less to do with the project or the client than it does with your own approach to the task. "Every job is what you make of it," says Dorcas, whose in-house group designs Fossil's fashion accessories and print collateral.

Jean-Leon Bouchenoire, worldwide brand equity director at Compaq Corp. in Wooster, MA (USA), agrees. "Creativity is a state of mind," he says. "It has nothing to do with the fact that you're in a corporation or a design agency."

In fact, "a design firm's clients and our internal clients are not much different," says Michael Kaye, creative director for Little Brown & Co. in New York City, whose presentation at the HOW Design Conference in June will touch on in-house issues. "They all have the goal of achieving success from a product."

Break the Mold
Although the objectives are similar whether you're working for an in-house group or an independent agency, corporate designers are still shackled by the monotony of working on the same brand or projects day in and day out. According to creativity expert Dr. Carrie Heeter, professor of telecommunication at Michigan State University's San Francisco campus, repetition is an in-house designer's biggest enemy. "A brand-new topic is easier to brainstorm about," Heeter says. "Something you've been working on for years is, by definition, dragged down by the weight of history. In these cases, the mold you need to break is your own."

External forces play a big part in breaking that mold. Steven Heller, a New York City-based author, educator and newspaper art director, says that for many in-house creatives, inspiration comes from outside the company. "It's important for any in-house person to have other interests," Heller says. "If one's creativity is narrowly channeled, then doom and gloom set in."

Corporate designers have to work a bit harder than their agency counterparts to expose themselves to different creative perspectives. "It's important to look at publications, go to conferences, review competitive work, look outside the industry to see what's being done, and look beyond your boundaries, culture and language," Bouchenoire says. "You need to be part of a network, stay connected, be curious, rejuvenate yourself, constantly reinvent yourself and find new ways of thinking."

For Dorcas, current graphic and fashion trends beyond the Fossil walls strongly influence his work. Conferences and design symposiums allow him to see what's happening outside his company and encounter new ideas. Exposure to the arts, continuing education and consulting with colleagues for ideas further promote creative flow. Freelance work can also enhance creativity. "The greater the knowledge, the more able one is to design," Kaye says. "Freelance work allows me to expand my knowledge, to be art directed and to examine how other people work."

Build on Standards
Graphic standards can be the bane of the in-house designer's existence. But they need not impede creativity. Miranda Moss, principal of Yamamoto-Moss, a Minneapolis-based design firm, urges in-house design managers to allow their staffs to help define the creative direction they're expected to follow. Moss' résumé includes a stint in-house at the retailer Dayton's; she now works with clients to establish and implement brand-identity campaigns.

In some companies, though, brand standards have been in place and have remained unchanged practically since the beginning of time. Bouchenoire, who's charged with safeguarding and implementing Compaq's brand rules worldwide, says a designer should consider those constraints from new angles. "Think of standards as the building of brand equity," he says. "Look at new applications, develop new imagery, investigate sounds and work with textures, shapes and colors."

Just as they struggle with standards, corporate creatives also face tight budgets - perhaps more so than their agency counterparts. But Bouchenoire encourages his staff to regard cost not as an obstacle, but as "a challenge to creativity and design."

If handled constructively and diplomatically, the usually frustrating process of selling design concepts to non-designers can lead to stronger relationships between creative and non-creative departments. And Bouchenoire encourages designers to educate colleagues and catalyze creative change at higher levels of the company. "Raising awareness with upper management by forwarding articles of interest and looking at research promotes the value of design," he says.

Manage for Creativity
How creative departments are organized and managed significantly impacts the creative experience. Anne Tryba, manager of the Graphic Design Department at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, CA (USA), says rotating her staff through different assignments is key to keeping them fresh. Tryba's group creates the graphics for Disney's theme parks and resorts. "Casting the right talent in the right project is important, but putting someone on something they've done before can be discouraging," Tryba says. "I try to give people new experiences."

Moss agrees: "Many designers who have areas of specialty face burnout when they work on the same type of project without any variety."

Mixing up project assignments - allowing a designer to work on an in-house newsletter and an external ad campaign, or the company annual report and a new retail-signage program - can positively influence the creative outcome. "Working on several very different projects at once allows cross-pollination," MSU's Heeter says. "As a result, each problem and solution can be seen from several perspectives."

Just Have Fun
Fun is also crucial to creativity, according to Heeter. "Designers need to take time to be playful, to keep the creative spark vital," she says. "Brainstorming sessions should be organized as delightful experiences of wild creativity a reward to look forward to, the most fun part of the job."

Off-site workshops and retreats are other avenues for creative recharge. From museum visits, movies and games at work to "trend trips," guest speakers and celebrations, the possibilities are endless for keeping creatives motivated. According to these corporate-design veterans, creativity exists regardless of setting. A designer's approach and effort determine the reward and outcome. Being in-house isn't the issue; inspiring and challenging oneself is.

For more information, contact:

Adriane Lee Schwartz
T: + 212 352 9300 x224

About this article
The above article by Adriane Lee Schwartz originally appeared in the April, 2000 issue of HOW Magazine and appears here with permission.
© 2000 HOW Magazine.

About Adriane Lee Schwartz
Adriane Lee Schwartz is president of The Creative Resource, a national design-recruitment firm based in New York City. She is a writer, management consultant and creative.

About HOW Magazine

How is a leading U.S. publication for the graphic design profession, offering a comprehensive mix of business advice, creative inspiration, design insights and personal profiles.