An Inside Job

I’ve always worked at design studios rather than within design departments. That is, at shops (usually small) that deal with lots of different kinds of projects for different clients, rather than on a company’s internal design team, working on projects for in-house clients. Those studio jobs haven’t always been glamorous, especially when I was just getting started, but I’ve always enjoyed the varied exposure to different businesses and challenges that kind of environment affords me. It’s been a kind of an education in itself, and I’ve become familiar with lots of industries that otherwise I never would have known much about at all. It’s no accident that, at the last crossroads of my career, I helped found Behavior, rather than looking for work inside a corporate entity.

Dream Jobs

Still, from time to time I wonder what it would be like to work in a design operation dedicated to a narrow stripe of business or a specific set of challenges. I was thinking about this the other day and made a short list of the kind of design departments that I’d like to join:

  • Any metropolitan transit system, but especially New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. I’ve been privately fiddling with ideas for reinventing the online version of the New York City subway map for years.
  • The online division of Major League Baseball, or one of the stat houses that are doing new, groundbreaking work in statistical sports analysis like Tendu or Baseball Info Solutions.
  • A newspaper with a serious Internet offering like The Guardian or The New York Times, where the online content is an integral complement to the offline content.
  • Any research company like Forrester, Jupiter, etc., where I’d have an opportunity to influence the presentation of serious business data and research online — these companies desperately need the help.

Earth to Khoi

Of course, the fantasy of the kind of work that’s possible to do at any of these organizations and the reality of what can actually be accomplished in the real world are two entirely different things. I’m sure that a lot of the idealized design strategies I’d like to put in place for these organizations might quickly collide with the cold reality of budgetary constraints, cultural intransigency and/or office politics.

As abstract opportunities, though, what’s enticing about projecting my design fantasies into these organizations is the idea of working on a product, a quantifiable body of design work that can be nurtured and evolved over time. The nature of studio work, at least the way we do it at Behavior, doesn’t always let us stay with a product we’ve helped design for as long as we’d like. Even when it does, it’s difficult if not impossible to achieve the same level of intimacy that an internal design team develops with a product that they effectively own — as it happens, that detachment is a function of the objectivity we bring to a client’s design challenges, so it has both its pluses and minuses.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all just idle daydreaming. I’m too excited about all the really cool projects we’re working on at Behavior, and really, at heart, I’m a studio guy. I can’t realistically see myself focusing on one kind of design challenge at this moment, not when there are so many different kinds of problems offering themselves up to me daily at the studio.

  1. Khoi, I’ve always wanted to work for too, especially when they had offices in Chelsea Market (I think they’ve since moved).

    Here’s hoping you’re a Mets fan. 😉

  2. Seattle is where it’s at for hot global warming action. We had some 68 degree days in the middle of January. Supposed to hit 70 this week as well.

    Connecticut needs more of a global flamethrower to heat that shit up.

  3. As a designer on an internal marketing/design team who used to freelance, I will say that it is nice not having several clients to hand-hold and answer to (not to mention trying to wring money out of them).

    I do miss the variety of working in different verticals and different types of clients, but I do not miss having “clients.” I like having just one product to focus on, as you stated, and the ability to fine-tune and hone the design and strategy over time (and hey, I can take on freelance for nights/weekends! – ugh.)

  4. Having spent most of my career as a freelancer but now working as a design director at a large Internet company, I can say that the difference is in whether you want to focus on designing products or designing organizations. A lot of working in a company has to do with forming and using relationships and ultimately trying to ‘design’ how that company functions. It’s quite different from designing products but can ultimately have a much larger influence and effect.

    I’d also add that it’s completely acceptable, if not expected, for any given designer to repeatedly move between the two situations over the course of their career.

  5. Someone was listening:

    Company: The New York Times on the Web (
    Title: Design Director
    Location: New York City

    Responsible for leading a site-wide redesign; directing the design team; and collaborating with editorial, IT, marketing and product teams at Will champion user-centered processes and methods. Requires 5+ years of management experience and expertise in visual and interactive Web design.

    Learn more and apply online at

  6. Several people have pointed out that job posting to me. I’m a little surprised that they’d embark on such a search so publicly, though maybe I’m just overestimating the importance of the role.

  7. It’s a mixed blessing IMHO, largely depending on the kind of company you want to work for.

    In my case, the department (marketing & advertising) has little or no ‘pull’ in the company (motor industry retail), as we effectively just spend all the money the other depts are making. So sales managers with no design savvy at all dictate much of what we have to put down on paper, as it’s their budgets we’re blowing. Which in turn means our work is pretty much totally ineffective and rather pointless.

    Sadly, the department managers are the kind who want a quiet life and have no intention of arguing for change or improvement. Staff turnover is high and the office politics are pretty awful.

    After 3 years, I think I’ve had all I can stand of this internal design team. It’s easier work, more stable and reasonably paid compared to freelance, but if you give half a hoot about creativity or innovation, it will erode your soul.

    That said, I would like to think there are far better companies out there with a more positive outlook.

  8. Has anyone else actually tried applying for a job at the NYTimes? The online application process suggests to me that they only hire insiders.

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