When I became the first in-house designer in ten years at my current company, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had recently moved to Dublin and started a temp job in their marketing department, looking after social media for shopping centres. I quickly started creating designs to publish to the social pages and, as time went on, the head of Marketing realised that is was quite helpful to have a designer on hand. So, they offered me the job as Graphic Designer and my steep learning curve began.
As a newish designer, in a new (to me) company, I was responsible for working with the Marketing team to cover as much of the company design requirements that I had time in my week for. I looked to Google for help in navigating my situation. How to operate as a lone in-house designer without getting overwhelmed. How to set up systems and processes that would integrate with the company and give me the best chance at success.
I found reams of information on dealing with clients as an agency designer, how to get a good brief from them, how to manage expectations, timelines, budgets etc… but very little information relating specifically to in-house design, especially for a non-tech company. And so, 4 years into my journey with Savills I’m now writing the guide I wish I had when I started, in the hope that it will help someone else in a similar position to me, and maybe help you not feel alone in the role you have taken on.
Much of what I outline below might be obvious to some, but if you have been dropped in at the deep end and are wondering what’s next, hopefully this will serve as a starting guide.
This is one of the most important things you can do in any new job, not just as a new designer to a company. Find allies and friends within your company who understand your vision and worth, then work with them.
In your first few weeks, do what you can to meet individually with the heads of departments, directors and senior decision makers for coffees, lunches or even quick 15 minute meetings. Ask them about their goals within the company, discuss any pain points they might have that
you could help with, and just get to know them as individuals. From these discussions you can begin to understand the business needs of each department and how Design – branding, developing assets, design thinking etc. can work alongside and integrate with them.
This is also how to get some early wins and build your ‘social capital’ within the company. Why is this important? Because you will make mistakes. You will miss a deadline or double book yourself or will have to call out sick on the day a big deadline is due. It is inevitable, because you’re human and will not be perfect all the time. Building trust early and banking up social capital will give you some leeway when things like this happen.
The chances are, if you are a company’s first in-house designer, the teams and individuals won’t have a clear understanding of Design beyond ‘making things look good’. You will need to educate them through the design process, through the strategic importance of design to continually build a company’s success. This can be a little tricky, but also massively rewarding.
Education can take many forms, it won’t always be a Lunch & Learn or webinar, although they can be helpful to disseminate more general knowledge about design to a large number of colleagues. Sometimes it will look like taking the time to explain the importance of white space, to go into a little extra detail on why the concepts you are presenting will work for the team/company’s target client or audience.
More often than not, it will be the individual interactions with your colleagues as you work with them to design solutions for them. Being open and transparent about your processes and reasons behind your decisions will bring your colleagues alongside you and help you to cultivate a better understanding of the work you do.
No matter the size of your organisation, prioritisation of projects is always tricky. Do you cater to the projects with clear fee-earning potential, to those projects with a difficult or demanding Director heading it up, or do you focus on the next Marketing launch?
If you are the only designer in a company, set your boundaries and priorities early. How this works in principle will depend on your company culture, some companies are fantastic about protecting their teams and you will only need to agree boundaries with your manager. In other companies, you have to go higher up the ladder to agree boundaries as sometimes the word of you or your manager will not be enough.
Whatever your situation, set expectations on what projects get priority and which ones are either outsourced to external agencies, or can be put on hold should a priority project land on your desk make this clear to the company from the start. The end goal of this is to make sure that, hypothetically, when the demanding Director on the fifth floor drops a full 60 slide PowerPoint presentation on your desk at 4pm, expecting it to be completed by the next morning for a client presentation(!).
If you have a budget or can get the funds from finance, invest in a project management system like Asana, Monday, or Wrike. This system will be your guide, when requests are flying in via e-mail or phone, it makes it very simple to check when your current deadlines sit, see what your actual volume of work is like and what prioritisation your projects have.
For any new department in a company, they must prove themselves to retain their place in the company. For fee-earning departments, this can be a simple matter of showing income exceeding expenditure. For design, we operate on a more intangible level and it is often difficult to assign a value on what we bring to the company.
Pre-empt this by starting early with your metrics. Speak to your finance department about the company’s financial goals, marketing about their strategy etc. Their goals will be your goals; figure out how to tie the design service to the outcomes they are looking for. From your conversations with individual ‘fee-earning’ departments, you should have come up with a list of goals or targets that they need to realise – can you bring Design into any of these?
As for metrics relating just to your design team, there are articles out there that cover these in detail – things such as lead time per project, time spent on amendments, revenue from business pitches etc. can all be tracked, not only to prove the value of the Design service to your business but also for you to see over time where the sticking points or problem areas are and work to resolve them.
Whichever Metrics you use, make sure to confirm them with your manager, get them written into your annual appraisals and set up as KPIs for future salary raises or promotions.
Starting up an in-house design service can be massively exciting and rewarding but it can also be challenging. You will face teams and individuals who imagine design to be nothing more than pixel pushing, who can’t understand that design can have much further reaching strategic importance to the company when correctly implemented.
For myself, the ethos that has carried me well up to this point is to put my clients and the business needs at the heart of the service my team provides. This mindset sets us up to come alongside teams and work with them, elevating the work they do to the next level, and creates a truly collaborative environment which is where design thrives.
Finally, my end goal is that when I hand my position over to the next designer to fill my shoes, I will leave behind a rock-solid foundation both in terms of design and reputation that they can use to continue to build key creative assets for the company.
Ciara is currently a Senior Designer for Savills Ireland, in Dublin. She has worked in or around design for the best part of 10 years. After completing the Design Management Professional Diploma with Design Skillnet and Grow Design consultancy in 2020, she has begun to write a bit about Design from a management perspective.
Rather than focus on the nitty gritty of creating design, her passion is for the processes and thinking that surround the Design function and how, when implemented correctly, they can free up Design teams and individuals to create better work.
Outside of day to day work, she has a love for dogs, rugby and curling up on the couch with a good book.
Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn (/in/ciaranibhrolchain/)
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