Take five with John Duggan, Head of Design and Deputy Creative Director at Global Creative, the in-house creative department for Johnson Controls and a Design Management Professional Diploma graduate 2022, to learn more about his career journey, day-to-day role at Johnson Controls, the challenges and excitements of leading an in-house design team, his experience on the programme and how it has benefitted his career and cemented him in his current role.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I am Head of Design and Deputy Creative Director at Global Creative, the in-house creative department for Johnson Controls.
I was with my previous agency for 15 years before that in Cork. It was a small agency and after such a long period of time, I felt there was no room for career progression in the company, so I decided to take the leap into the corporate world.
I joined Johnson Controls in 2019 as a Senior Graphic Designer. The in-house creative department was set up in 2019, so I was one of the initial people hired. Within the first 12 months I was promoted to Design Lead and Deputy Creative Director, and 12 months after that again, Head of Design.
Can you tell us about Johnson Controls?
I describe Johnson Controls as a building technology company. One of our key statements is we’re in 90% of the world’s smartest buildings. Any technology that goes into a building, in terms of building automation, HVAC – heating, ventilation, and air conditioning – fire suppression, fire detection, security – as in cameras, control rooms, access controls, so scanning your badge or iris control – we would probably have one of our brands involved in that.
How does Design bring value to the organisation?
We serve the global product side of the business. We deal with the marketing function on sales assets, whether it be pitch decks, social campaigns, flyers, brochures, cell sheets, trade shows or exhibitions. We also work with the brand function on the brand identity and with the HQ function of the business, which is the promotional side on videos, or internal communications, so we add value across the business.=
What’s your day-to-day flow at Johnson Controls?
We start at 8.30am and check emails and team messages. Each day we have a Traffic meeting at 9am, made up of the department heads plus our traffic manager and traffic function to go through the latest clients’ briefs submitted via our project management tool WRIKE, where we assess the briefs, quote and assign them to a team. Time is our currency. We build with time, so we are able to quote our time on that job and assign a designer, copywriter, or whoever needs to be on it. That is put into the system, they are then notified and it is up to that group of people to carry out that job.
What size is the design team at Johnson Controls?
We have 16 designers with a good mix of senior to mid designers, with one junior designer. We have a broad range of experience and nationalities which means we have a very diverse and inclusive group of creatives.
We have a pod structure, so our team of 48 creatives is split up into Fire, Aire, Blue – which is the digital side – HQ, and Brand. I’m on the HQ and Brand functions so 50% of my time is spent in each. Depending on what briefs have come in that day, I’ll have to block-book out time and schedule in my time to get that work done, as I still do physical design work as well as the management function.
The rest of the day is dependent on how many meetings we can squeeze in. I would get called into meetings that are outside my brief as I am the Deputy Creative Director. If our Creative Director is not available, I would step into that role and give advice and direction to the other creatives on the jobs they have been assigned.
What was your previous experience in design management and what solutions were you looking to find in the Design Management Professional Diploma programme?
The agency I was with started off small. Over the years we progressed and hired more designers and account managers, and client service. I would have been managing that side of the business, as well as managing creatives.
In terms of the Design Management Professional Diploma, I never had any official management training, so I was always eager – especially when dealing with people of the same age and same experience – to have a diploma under my belt that proves I can manage a design team. That was my main reason for applying for it.
I also felt I was a late bloomer in the design world. I felt it was a job, rather than a career or a passion, but over the years I became more passionate about it and wanted to be able to articulate it better, to talk about design as a craft. I really felt, when I saw the modules, whether it was Design Process or Management Value, that it would allow me to better articulate my passion for design.
What were your key takeaways from the Design Management Professional Diploma programme and has the programme impacted your career progression and your day-to-day practice?
It cemented my belief that I was now equipped to be a design manager, to be head of design, and to lead a team of creatives. It helped me hone my presentation and pitching skills. Working with other creatives on the group assignments really helps with the collaboration side of things when working with other creatives within your own team. I learned the correct terminology and the correct process, about how a design department should run. The modules were very applicable to my day-to-day role. I could, one module at a time, start implementing them into my day-to-day work. That was the chief benefit of the course.
What modules had the most impact?
Design Process. We really have implemented that into our workings here and as part of our design playbook that we distribute to new joins on our onboarding, but it’s also something we can refer back to if something goes wrong. We can refer back to the design process, we have it mapped out and have a graphic done – that was an exercise we did very early on in the course. As well as that, Design Language and being able to articulate around design. They all had a positive impact.
What are the most common challenges for designers working in-house?
First is the restrictions from having just one brand to work with.
Johnson Controls will have 600 brands under their umbrella, but they are made up of Johnson Controls; endorse brands where you have to co-brand everything as ‘Johnson Controls and…’; and then stand-alone brands which are allowed to keep their own brand identity and that have their own brand guidelines, while you are still restricted to templates, restricted by brand guardians who say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to certain creative decisions
because Johnson Controls still owns that company. We all struggled at the start with these restrictions and around how creative we can be within the double brand guidelines.
The second is keeping the team motivated in an in-house agency. I’ve worked very hard over the last couple of years in that leadership role to make sure there are opportunities for designers and creatives to express themselves, whether in side projects or if we’re doing a pitch deck or options on key visuals. I will always say, ‘Do a safe version, and do a version you want to get passed’, and sometimes the versions they want to get passed can get through the brand guardians or an element will be taken from it and it gets pushed through, so it’s not always wasted work. It gives them the space and time to express themselves in the creative process, with the expectation of failure, but sometimes getting the win.
Last is corporate politics. There can be so many factors outside our control that play a part in our day-to-day function. It’s just the nature of the beast and there is nothing you can do about it.
Give 3 pieces of advice. Where should design managers start with to embed design as a key business function in an organisation whose core function is not design?
Clearly articulate and explain to people, especially the higher powers in a corporate machine, outside of marketing, how important your brand is. Your brand is your introduction, your handshake, your smile, the impression you leave on people when you walk away, or what people say when you are not in the room. How people outside of marketing treat their brand, in terms of pitch decks and presentations, making sure everything is done right and to the brand guidelines is as important as what suit you wear into that meeting. If I could get one thing across to people outside of marketing, it’s the importance of the brand.
Onboarding for any employee is an important part of their journey – make it seamless for them and provide them with the best-designed documents they could wish for. As said above, first impressions are key.
User experience and customer experience begin with the core basics of design – never underestimate the power of good design. It should be across your business from the sign outside the door to the notepad or pen on your desk to the emails you send out and the logo on your van.
You can get in touch with John Duggan via Linkedin.
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