Coming Out as an Innie

Alan Chochinov, from Core77 told me today that he recently came across, for the first time, the term “innies” as a nickname for designers working in-house at companies whose sole business is not design. He thought it made for a memorable and appropriate bit of slang, and while I’m not sure I with him on how catchy it is, I do agree that it gives a useful appellation to a neglected subset of the working design population.

Anecdotally speaking, the majority of what’s written by design writers and discussed between designers pays short shrift to innies. Instead, the focus tends toward the world of studios, consultancies and agencies — businesses whose main sources of revenue result from selling design services of some form or other for outside clients.


You could say that the studio paradigm is the industry’s romantic ideal: passionate and usually young designers working on new and unique challenges for a string of diverse and interesting clients, with each new job an opportunity to start afresh. It’s a brand of design that usually happens within an almost wholly design-centric culture, in which the management has an innate appreciation for the value of design as integral to the health of their own business. And in ideal situations, they may even be devotees of the whole design ethos.

By contrast, innies are essentially dedicated to a single client over the entirety of their stint with an employer. They must make do with much less diversity in the nature of the projects they tackle; assignments generally hew within a small number of knowable types (as opposed to the sometimes unpredictable variety of consulting). And innies must also frequently contend with workplaces that are ignorant of, mystified by or even contemptuous of the very idea of design.

Against Type

The popular perception of the life of an innie is that it presents a designer with far fewer opportunities to do challenging, creatively satisfying work. And, fair or not, it’s probably safe to say that not nearly as many notable or ground-breaking design solutions emerge from in-house design shops as do from studios.

This had been my perception, anyway. Or perhaps you could say it had been my prejudice for quite some time, until at least I accepted my current job. But in talking to young designers here and there over the past few years, more and more I’ve heard that they’re looking for innie positions over studio jobs, that they want to spend their time building a brand over a long period of time with a single client, rather than in fits and starts with many different clients.

For my part, I once used to be quite dismissive of in-house jobs. I always regarded the relative comfort that they provide — generally higher salaries, respectable benefits and reasonable workday schedules — to be seduction at its finest. Once you take a job in design that’s that well-appointed, it makes it very difficult to return to the less financially rewarding and much more labor-demanding world of studios — where, to me, the really interesting work always happened.

Since I’ve had this job, though, I’ve gained a much richer appreciation for the reality of the life of an innie. The challenges are neither better nor worse than those of studio life, just different. I had underestimated how rich is the opportunity to shepherd a brand over an extended time frame, and how rewarding is the act of establishing long-term relationships with colleagues who also share the trust of building a brand. I’m having more fun than I ever thought I would as an innie.