Challenges Faced by In-House Designers (And How To Deal With Them)

As part of a panel discussion hosted by RGD, design leaders Mark Cohen (TD Bank), Andrew Davies (Corus Entertainment), Kelly Nicoll (PwC Canada) and Wendy Millard RGD (Empire Life) discussed the challenges faced by in-house creative teams and strategies for achieving successful outcomes. 

1. Keeping an in-house design team's skill-set up to date. 

"The evolution of technology forces you to keep up. Necessity drives the need for innovation; we have to develop new skills and tools to stay relevant. We do this by working with outside experts, consulting, attending the DesignThinkers Conference and always looking for new ways to stay connected to the latest trends and ideas." Mark Cohen


"Two weekly team meetings: 'Share An Inspiration', which involves bringing a creative exercise or a video, and 'Share A Skill', where team members must come prepared with something new that they have learned to help each other build on existing skills. Learning through projects is also helpful; factoring in lots of buffer time allows for a learning curve to occur while a project is in play and is a great way to learn new skills." Wendy Millard RGD 

2. Making the transition from service to strategy. 
"A key step towards establishing our team as a strategic partner has been embedding ourselves as a driving force in working toward business goals, rather than simply facilitating client requests. In the digital space, we've had the chance to become the owners of important data. We can measure customer visits and user behaviour. Not only are we creating the experience from the creative side, we're also measuring how those experiences work from the analytics side, which gives us strategic clout." Kelly Nicholl  
"Instead of telling us what to create, we encourage people to come to us with challenges which we can actively engage with, deconstruct and work together to solve. We have access to data that helps us provide supported suggestions. As an in-house team, we also have the advantage of being embedded in the business and knowing how to communicate with stakeholders in ways they can understand. The ability to identify what needs to be solved is what gets us a seat at the strategic table." Andrew Davies 
"Make plans to offload production/service requests as much as you can. Adobe InCopy allows our content team to come right into the files to make any edits. By cutting down the time spent adjusting for revisions, we have more time for ideation and strategy. It's also important for the leader of the design team to build alliances with VPs who have influence at the top level to help them see the strategic value that design has to offer to the business." Wendy Millard RGD  
3. Addressing feedback from non-designers. 
"We look at the entire team as collaborators. When you disagree with feedback, always come back to the problem you're trying to solve and make sure everyone involved is on the same page. Determine whether the feedback you're hearing is an opinion or a business requirement. If it's an opinion, it's optional, if not, you may need to adjust." Mark Cohen
"You don't have to respond to feedback in the moment. There's nothing wrong with saying, 'That's an interesting idea, let me think about it.' Buy yourself some time to really think about whether or not it makes sense. Sometimes it might be a matter of setting ego aside and really considering whether a suggestion will make the solution better. When the feedback is great, reward it with praise. People want to be part of the project, they want to be heard. An idea is good when it solves a problem, no matter where the idea comes from." Andrew Davies  
"It's important to build relationships with people - get to know them, invest time in building trust - that will make it easier to work on projects together." Wendy Millard RGD 
4. Keeping creative in-house. 
"We encourage everyone in the organization to come to the creative team first to discuss their needs. Then we can work with them to decide whether it would make sense to bring on an external team to work on some aspect of it, depending on the capacity of our own team. We've reached a point where they know we are capable of doing 'cool' work, and don't feel they need to go outside to get what they're looking for." Kelly Nicholl 
"We have our own niche as an editorial team, and the work we do is all part of the larger company strategy. One-offs or last-minute projects often goes out to agencies, but we don't have a desire to take on that type of work. We are experts in our area of focus, and it will always make sense for us to do the strategic work for the organization. That is the rationale for deciding what projects stay in-house and which go to an agency." Mark Cohen 
"There's a misconception that going to an agency will result in less work. But at the leadership level it actually means more work. I'd rather be working with my team down the hall than taking meetings with an agency, where I need to go back through the very basics of the brand, when my team has been living and breathing this brand forever. Keeping UX and design in house means that the business is closer to it - we can have more say." Andrew Davies 
5. Being a successful in-house team member
"In-house designers must be willing and capable of becoming experts in the industry and company that they're in. Having diplomacy skills to deal with a wide range of colleagues directly, rather than a hierarchy of account people, is essential. You need to be comfortable with engaging in dialogues around creative solutions and managing the expectations of multiple stakeholders." Mark Cohen  
"An in-house person has a desire to own a brand and watch their products grow. They build, measure, learn. Where agencies are often working at a campaign level -  finishing one project and moving on to the next one - an in-house team is really looking at the changes they've made, the new tools they've created, new devices their designs are available on and how the user is being impacted. It's interesting to be able to optimize our brands and see them grow." Andrew Davies
"Soft skills are really important in-house. The fit has to make sense. In an agency you can walk away from a bad client, but in-house you don't have that option. You need to be able to deal with different personalities and make relationships work." Wendy Millard RGD
6. Keeping design fresh. 
"When the colour palette is fixed, you can focus on making the content more effective. It helps to fully understand the intent of brand guidelines, where there is room for flexibility and how to apply the standards intelligently to what you're doing." Mark Cohen 
"Your brand is there for a reason. It's not there to restrain you; it's there to be the face of your company in the marketplace. A certain amount of consistency is important. You always want to have the same face and the same voice. As designers we should respect the consistency that makes sense and identify the flex areas that help us tell the stories. As designers we should not be trying to get around the brand, we should be putting the right face forward and telling the good stories. There's lots of opportunities for creativity in-house." Kelly Nicholl 
Watch the full panel discussion below (Visit the Members Only section for the password).
For more on the challenges and opportunities of in-house design teams, check out the in-house panels at RGD's upcoming DesignThinkers Conference, Nov 3-4 in Toronto: 
RGDs interested in contributing to an 'Insights' article can download the 'Guidelines for Contributing Content' PDF and email