A job at a wacky creative agency may appear glamorous, but can designing in-house for a business be equally creative? Digit investigates.

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Design agency workers get all the kudos. With their scruffy dress codes and the leeway to swan into the office at midday, they’re the envy of the creative industry – and all their banker friends. 
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Designing in-house for a non-creative organization may not have quite the same cool-factor, but it can be equally rewarding – financially and creatively. 
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“There’s the assumption in the industry that agency creatives produce better work than in-house creatives, that agencies are mythical hubs of creativity,” says Matt Wildin, a creative who’s worked in both environments. 
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He’s currently creative director at Web design agency Elastic Media, and has eight years’ experience as head of design at telecoms company Energis. 
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“I’ve worked in agencies that have been vacuums of creativity, and inhouse where the design department is buzzing with the stuff. The difference is the client, or the organization you work for and the people you work with. Attitude plays a large role in that too.” 
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There’s always scope for artistic expression, even in the most corporate environments. James Holland designs in- house for PricewaterhouseCoopers. 
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“In terms of the role, we are allowed complete creative freedom within the brand, which is fairly wide and very contemporary,” he says. 
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“We do have the chance to create work we are proud of. In the end, as with any designer you are mostly restricted by what you can get your client to accept, but that goes both ways – if they want a clip-art rocking horse on the front of their brochure, you can tell them: ‘sorry, that’s off brand’. The brand rules can be useful to hide behind sometimes.” 
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It’s a view shared by Richard Lee, designer at Macmillan Cancer Support. “Working in-house at Macmillan during the rebrand allowed me as a designer to gain and far exceed any creativity and responsibility I’d be given within an agency,” he says. 
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“My opinion counts, although I find you do have to prove yourself. Being in-house you tend to get your hands dirty once in a while, instead of being shielded behind account managers at an agency.” 
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<h2>Talking the talk</h2> 
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A business environment does mean you have to learn to communicate with hard-nosed sales staff or businesspeople on their own terms. 
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“You are in a sense on the front line,” says Richard Lee. “When you’re in-house you don’t have anyone to back you up and deal with any unhappy clients, so you have to do it yourself. This is a task that I don’t like but in some ways it’s helped me to toughen up. 
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“You find yourself in some kind of balloon debate where you’re trying to back your design up and give a good solid reason as to why you’re only allowed to use green and not pink or why you can’t fit four sheets of A4 copy onto a single page in a magazine.” 
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Having worked for an in-house team at Shell, Academee’s designer Chris Plant has developed his communication skills though an understanding of what is most important to business people. 
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“The most important thing to businesspeople seems to be the return on investment,” he reveals.
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“Most successful business people are very pragmatic and require that you spend more time listening to them and understanding their requirements than talking design jargon. 
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“I’ve always found that even the toughest ones enjoy reviewing designs as long as they are well thought out and useful, interesting solutions.” 
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Deadlines can also be unrealistic unless you can defend your corner. “People don’t always understand what’s involved in the design/creative process,” says Becky Davies, designer for recruitment consultants Nigel Wright. 
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“It is essential to describe clearly and simply the process involved, as well as what they need to go through in order to produce the project within realistic timescales.” 
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<h2>Keeping people sweet</h2> 
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Gavin Gooddy, graphics manager at PR consultancy MS&L London, agrees that wide-ranging people skills are vital to the in-house designer. 
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“Managing colleagues can be just as demanding as managing clients,” he says. “I need to keep everyone informed about my workload and priorities to ensure colleagues are aware of when and how I will complete their briefs. 
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“My ‘jobs to do’ list can lengthen faster than a speeding bullet if I’m not too careful when taking on extra work.” 
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<h2>Design to go</h2> 
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It’s a familiar situation to Andy Fox, who was designer at a large motor auctions company for a couple of years. 
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“The business execs didn’t really understand how the creative process works and it was more a case of sitting down at the Mac and coming up with the goods almost immediately,” he says.
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“There were very few times when the design team would have a chance to sit down and discuss what we were going to do with this or that campaign – the priority was turnover.” 
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However, in-house designers can benefit from a more structured working environment. Paul Wood, founding partner of Purple Consultancy, believes that in-house designers often work under less pressure than their agency counterparts do. 
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“The demands on their creativity are often not as great as they might be if they were working agency side,” he says. 
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“This isn’t because in-house creatives are less creative. The proximity of the ‘client’ or brand manager can facilitate better lines of communication and therefore the hours worked can be shorter. 
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In-house positions also come with the kind of benefits that you’d expect from a corporate environment and the benefits that agencies, which are generally smaller, cannot provide as standard.” 
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“You don’t have to pitch for work and try to work out what might appeal to new clients,” agrees Chris Plant. <BR>
“I also found that you have greater peace of mind in terms of job security working for a large blue-chip, as you never have to compete with other agencies or worry about losing the account.”
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<h2>Standing firm</h2>
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It can be difficult for the designer to put a point across or challenge a decision in the corporate environment. 
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Paul Wood says working in the same office as the company bigwigs means your creativity will inevitably be reigned in slightly. 
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“The hierarchical nature of many corporate structures threatens the fluidity of the creative process,” he says. 
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“Too many opinions can force the dilution of a good creative idea and ultimately mean that the less wacky or creative ideas get through.” 
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Maree Munn runs the in-house design team at the British Library. As a manager, she says it’s important to protect your team from too many unreasonable requests. 
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“Often you get some [internal] clients who think they can bully you into an approach – we just pull out the brand book and lay down the law,” she says. 
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<h2>Design relief</h2> 
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Some business executives, though, are sympathetic to the designer’s task. Office-bound high-flyers may be glad of the break from figures and meetings, and more than happy to talk about the company’s visual representation. 
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But you have to tread carefully, according to James Holland. “‘Creative’ is not really in the business exec’s vocabulary,” he says. 
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“Businessmen do flyers in PowerPoint and generally what they are asking for is not creative. So they probably wouldn’t be that pleased if they found you spending hours on multi-layer vector art.” 
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<h2>Making it work</h2>
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It’s the in-house designer’s job to let the rest of the business know what design is all about. The aim is to be informative without becoming condescending. 
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“It’s not realistic to expect other areas of the business to know much about your role or output,” says Matt Wildin. 
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“So you need to explain processes, timescales, and technology in the simplest manner possible, and without the use of jargon. Always ask yourself the question: ‘would my mum understand what I’ve just said?’” 
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In-house designers can take the initiative with their remit and thus stack up brownie points from executives for more creative discussions. 
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“Design departments need to be more proactive in identifying business needs and requirements,” suggests MIVA global design director, Andy Brandon. 
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“The client will often be unaware of tools that could improve their sales figures. Often suggestions for new tools or working practices will originate from us. 
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“Then once the project is commissioned we will oversee, build, and provide training.” 
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One of the other main advantages of an in-house career is the opportunity to work on a variety of large projects. 
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“As a freelancer you either tend to work in isolation on small projects, or just design a specific component of a Web site,” says Rick Lippiett, creative director of design and marketing agency Glass. 
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“As an in-house designer you get to work and build relationships in the team, see the project through to conclusion, deal with large brands, and learn from your peers.” 
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“There is something really challenging and rewarding about working within an organization,” adds Maree Munn. 
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“You learn all its foibles and eccentricities, which you don’t get an opportunity to understand necessarily if you’re working from the outside.” 
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<h2>Spice of life</h2> 
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“In my job I have found that rarely one day is the same as the next, so there is always a need to think differently,” says Becky Davies. 
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“I always look out for ideas or inspiration by keeping up to date with what’s happening within the industry as well as subconsciously coming across things in everyday life. 
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“I don’t think it’s the case of trying to keep yourself creative, for me it’s just part of who I am.” 
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Finally, know when it’s time to move on. Working in-house can make you a much more ‘saleable’ designer and many designers advise that a mixture of agency and in-house work leads to a greater breadth of experience and a CV that’s more attractive to potential employers. 
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However, as Matt Wildin suggests, if it gets to a point when you feel genuine excitement about being able to use a third colour or a different font, it’s time to try something new. 
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But don’t assume that just because you can’t wear flip-flops in the studio the job isn’t worth doing. Working in-house could give your creative career the boost it needs. 
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