Survival Tips for Working In-House

It’s been almost ten months since I started my job at The New York Times, and I still regularly get asked how I like it, and do I really like it? The implication, I suppose, is that having founded and ran a little design studio would make a transition to a huge company with a century and a half of history challenging. Challenging, is a good word for it, yeah. But here’s the truth: it’s a terrific job, and I feel lucky for having it.

Part of the reason why I like it so much is that I’ve learned a lot — a tremendous amount — about a facet of design that I never thought was particularly interesting until now: work in a design group on the inside of a company. I spent over a decade on the outside, working in studios and agencies on the ‘consulting’ part of the business. Almost all of the projects I’d ever worked on lasted only a handful of months; I’d kick off a new assignment, design it, hand it off and then moved on to a new assignment — or just as often I’d move on to an entirely new client.

I always thought that was the kind of design career that I wanted, and that was the kind of design career that I would have forever. I may one day return to it, but I’ve really discovered that working in an in-house design team, if it’s the right one, has its upsides too.


The Customer Is Always Right

The most obvious one is that, rather than establishing fleeting professional relationships with clients, I’ve building and nurturing ongoing relationships with stake-holders. The peers and superiors with whom I work today are, more or less, going to be the ones that I work with tomorrow, and again and again. We’re all in it together, which makes for a huge difference.

That huge difference is something that I had almost no conception of when I was a consultant: at The Times we can talk about design in an honest, unguarded fashion, and we can focus on making the best decisions for our customers. I never realized it before, but as a consultant, I spent a large amount of time focused on my customers, the clients who hired me, privileging their approval or displeasure over that of the end users. Except on rare occasions, it was very difficult to be as open and direct about design with my former clients as it is with my colleagues today.

For me, this is like a quantum leap ahead in terms of what I can do with design. In spite of the fact that, in many ways NYTimes.com is more limiting than many of my previous projects, I have considerably more latitude in helping to shape products than I ever have before. The design group has a seat at the decision-making table.

Public Service Announcement

This isn’t just a post designed to pat myself on the back for tripping into this great position, though. I offer it as a little bit of encouragement to anyone considering taking a job with an in-house design studio. If you find the right situation — and, granted, there are probably far more bad in-house groups than there are good ones — it can be an enormously enlightening design experience.

As an aside for those not considering such a move, here are two more good things about my job that, I think, can serve as useful indicators how much you enjoy your own job: check your emotional temperature on Sunday evening, and again every weekday morning when you open your email.

Sunday nights are always a little bit depressing because they signal the end of two days of freedom. I still feel a little sad at around about dinnertime, but there were times in my life that I used to feel practically depressed about the idea of returning to work the next day, and the night before Monday was almost always a dispiriting time. If you truly don’t enjoy your job, there are few things more painful than the idea of returning to the fray after a brief reprieve. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t enjoy a third weekend day, but I can honestly say that it worries me not one bit that, come Monday morning, I’ll be making my way back to midtown Manhattan for a day of work at The Times. To me, that’s a sign that things are good.

A similar phenomenon that I noticed today while answering one of the dozens of emails that I received is that I have no fear of email, none at all. As a consultant, my email inbox used to be a dumping ground for irate clients and aggravated co-workers, where I was never quite sure if opening a message would mean reading through several badly formed paragraphs of accusation and abuse. I used to look at email as an application whose main feature was to tell me what I did wrong, but no more. I actually like my email now; it’s full of communiques from people who want my help, or who want to figure stuff out together. There’s still far too much of it, but it’s a much, much better experience. For that, I’d work just about anywhere.

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  1. What does it mean if you’re at work at dinnertime on Sunday?

    I definitely agree, though. It’s been very enlightening for me to go from working with clients from the outside to working with stakeholders from the inside. It’s a very different — and sometimes very rewarding — experience.

  2. The middle ground, it seems, would be to change companies every two or three years. The stability of working with the same set of clients is a great upside, but you may find that once you have them figured out, it may bore you. At that point, a change to another company is in order.

  3. a fantastic insight. i like the inhouse design team scenario aswell – giving you the satisfaction of being the client as opposed to working for a client.

    In saying that, I’m still a little bit scared of my inbox ;-)

  4. Switching jobs, unfortunately, isn’t always an option. Sunday nights and workday mornings have been horrendous for me for the past few months—on your workplace thermometer, I’m just a few degrees below boiling.

    Or, rather, I was. This is my first job out of college (I’m the marketing manager for a small professional theatre), and the first few months of my job have made me hate myself and what I do. I took the job because it was in theatre (where I want to be) and because of the large amount of design work to be done (ads! the theatre’s website! a new 36 page publication with every show!) but I quickly found that those two things weren’t making up for the downsides of the job.

    Now I’ve decided that I’m going to stick with it, and I’m not going to hate it (it’s a learning experience! it’ll make great stories! it’s challenging to go to a job that’s difficult and demanding every day!). That’s a decision. No hating. The thermometer’s going down already.

  5. Working In-House, agency and as an independant. It’s all about your attitude. With that, I’ve found the in-house experience sometimes frustrating because of compression which in some cases stifles overall creativity of an organization. But the insurance benefits sure are nice!

  6. I was reading the Sitepoint Forum and following the link to the very interesting article “Web Design is 95% Typography”. The author mentioned you as a very professional designer, i decided to visit your website and read your posts. It must be admitted that I’m nicely surprised and glad that I made such a decision:). I like your website and it was curiously to read this post which I read fist on your website. I hope I will find time to read your blog at least once a day:) There are a lot of posts worthy (for me:) of reading.

  7. A really great post – thank you. I’m in the process of looking and applying for jobs as a junior designer (indeed am waiting to hear back from a studio following an interview) and this post finally made me get off my arse and thank you for your intelligent and interesting posts, instead of just lurking…

  8. Khoi- A very nice post. Please allow me to add an additional observation. As the lead for design and development at FOX Interactive Media I cannot stress enough the need to allow in-house designers to occasionally be designers. What does that mean? One of the biggest challenges facing designers and their managers in in-house studios is political management for lack of a better term. This politics can overwhelm and stifle even the best of us at times.

    In an agency environment we tend to be insulated from the politics of a client organization. That doesn’t mean there is none- it just manifests itself a little differently. An agency generally has the luxury of setting new boundaries and constraints for a client through a new design or architecture, etc. An in-house design studio is constantly working in an environment that has walls around it. We have a brand, infrastructure, viewers/readers- in short, we have an obligation, an obligation to be true to ourselves.

    Office politics can and will dictate our product roadmaps, our timelines and even our final designs. Designers can become frustrated and bored by this so how do we successfully motivate designers to continually do great work in a walled garden and still be true to our brand? I’ve found that allowing everyone to be their own product developer has been a key to success at FOX. Our designers aren’t just designers, they are in charge of developing products. Watch what happens when you tell a designer that they have to come up with a solution to a nagging problem or they have time in the schedule to develop an entirely new product from scratch. Often times these can be small scale products outside of the scope of large committees but sometimes they are not. Sometimes these designer developed products turn into something much larger and I’ve yet to see anyone get discouraged by cooks in the kitchen when the product development was their idea.

    Politics doesn’t always need to be the constraint. Politics can also be the ally. By constantly asking your designers, “how can we make this product better,” you’ll empower them to be a part of the political process that is in-house studio design and less of a bystander.

  9. I work for a fairly small manufacturing company and have been giving the task of putting together a design/conceptual/innovation type area. I’m looking for something that will allow me to improve the overall communication as well as innovative thought process. Do you have any recommendations for magazines, web sites or books that would get my thought processes cranking and allow me to think a little more outside the box?

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.