When you were starting out in your career, was it your goal to work in-house?
Truthfully, when I was starting out I don’t think I really knew the differences between in-house and agency work. At that time, I was just happy to find a job where I could learn from senior designers and work on creative projects. My first job was at a boutique design studio and it was a really great experience. My goal at the time was to do design work I loved and I think that’s still true today.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of working in-house?
Working in-house, designers have the benefit of becoming very familiar with the company’s brand. I feel like we’re more likely to get it right the first time because we understand the business and the culture around our brand so intimately. We also have the creative challenge of keeping our material looking fresh and helping the brand evolve over time. I really enjoy this part of the job.
In terms of challenges, trying to educate those around you about the creative process is a never-ending task and can be one of the most trying things about working in-house. In-house designers work in environments where design is not the company’s core business. Demonstrating the value of design, pushing back on timelines with clients and enforcing brand guidelines can wear you down if you let it. Identifying key people in your organization who are “design advocates” can make things a lot easier. Design advocates are colleagues in your company, working at any level, who understand the value of design and promote and support your design team’s work. Our team has gained design advocates over the years in many different departments within our company by approaching projects from a strategic perspective (not just making things pretty) and producing consistently impactful work. It’s important to build relationships as you go, not just complete the projects.
A common request I’ve heard from non-creatives in the past is to “Make it pretty.” How do you educate colleagues about what designers do?
When asked to “make it pretty” — or my personal favourite, “jazz it up” — I take the time to ask questions about the project that you would find in a creative brief. I make sure the client knows about the amount of thought and care that goes into even the smallest project. I have found educating colleagues about what we do doesn’t happen overnight though. It’s about advocating for the value of design at every opportunity and designing effective, thoughtful pieces. At the end of the day, the quality of the work is what really gets colleagues to listen to you.
Do you ever receive push back from non-creatives regarding timelines? What do you do?
Timelines are hard. Many feel that their work should be a priority and not everyone understands how long something takes or the workload you are already dealing with. Being able to have an overview of all the open projects and your design team’s availability will allow you to make decisions around prioritizing projects. I find most clients are flexible with deadlines if they are able to be, so don’t be afraid to have those conversations.
How do you demonstrate the ways good design can strategically benefit the business?
It can be easy for good design to go unnoticed or taken for granted when you are seeing it consistently from the in-house team. I find it helps if your or someone from the design team presents concepts to clients rather than having someone from the Communications or Marketing team doing it for you. When we proposed our company’s rebrand in 2018, we set up several meetings with members of our executive team. We were able to go through the design proposal and talk about it in relation to where we were going as a business. Choices around colour, typeface and logo were now not just seen as arbitrary picks from a designer, but very intentional choices for the story we wanted to tell around our business and its brand.
Do you have any tips for designers on how best to collaborate for effective results?
The most collaborative environments I’ve worked in have been with teams that trust and respect each other. Different opinions are healthy and constructive in the design process so it’s important that everyone feels comfortable enough to speak up and contribute their ideas (especially if they’re worried their ideas are bad... sometimes those are the best ones)! This kind of environment lends itself to designers showing each other their process work too. Such an important thing when trying to avoid working in silos. I’m finding working remotely is making collaboration harder and it’s something we are still figuring out.
How do you keep your team top of mind with other departments to ensure you are brought in at the start of projects?
In our company, we work closely with Communication Specialists. Each department is assigned a Communications Specialist and we rely heavily on them to bring us in at the start of projects. They are very familiar with the design process and understand the benefits of having us involved with strategy up front. Again, finding these design advocates in your company can be so helpful.
Do you have any tactics you use to convince colleagues to keep highly creative projects in-house instead of outsourcing?
The best tactic is always to produce amazing work. That way your colleagues won’t want to go anywhere else. I find if you produce consistently meaningful work, colleagues will always come back to you. There’s a lot to be said for professionalism and just being great to work with as well. At the end of the day, you are providing a service within your company. Don’t be the department that’s difficult to work with.
One last fun question, what is your favourite way to be creative outside of work?
I love interior design (although I’m definitely not an expert in this field!) and have always enjoyed doing projects and putting spaces together around my home. I moved into a new house about a year ago, so it’s been fun starting from scratch and being creative that way.
Kathleen has been leading the in-house design team at Bruce Power for over a decade. She is known for strategic planning and implementing structure, resulting in more productive and creative outcomes. In addition to being an award-winning designer, Kathleen is also an elected member of the RGD’s Board of Directors and Vice-Chair of RGD’s Events Committee.