Thriving: In-House


I’m well into my fourth week at my new job and yesterday I had one of those moments where I realized that this job has taken me completely out of my element. I feel like on the grand journey of my life/career, this is one of those scary caves of uncertainty that I must enter in order to come out the other side with more knowledge and experience than I had before.

This week I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences between working in-house at an established retailer, and working in-house at a startup. I realized that the way we market the product, the way we kick off projects, and even the hours we keep are very different from what I’m used to.

A huge majority of my background is in retail. If you’ve followed along, you already know that I’ve contracted for some great companies like Sephora, Benefit Cosmetics, Charlotte Russe, and Sears. They all had similar structures and similar cadences for working. You hold a kickoff meeting to start a new project, and usually a timeline is put in place as well as a list of deliverables. People are assigned to each step and check-in meetings are scheduled (if necessary). Someone usually shares with you the “big idea” and you then work on the concept either closely or separately from the copywriter. If the copy has been pre-written and approved for you, it’s even better.

Because of the nature of retail, usually you repeat this process from start to finish over and over depending on how often you complete your projects. It’s predictable, which gives you a good estimate on how you can pace yourself daily and weekly.

So far, working in a startup world is very different. Every day could be a new mini-project and things might get interrupted for something that suddenly takes higher priority.

The deadlines then become “get it done as fast as you can” instead of “get it done by the end of the week”. It results in this agile work environment that seems to organically move in different directions at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, while this might sound a little chaotic, it lends itself nicely to fast growth and learning from mistakes quickly.

This is something that larger corporations can’t do. It takes a long time for changes to be made because so many people have to weigh in and office politics get in the way.

At small startups, there are a handful of people you have to run your ideas by (or in my case, the ones 15 feet from me) and because the company is so young, they are willing to experiment and take risks more often in order to learn what works to gain the most engagement.

Another different aspect of working here is that there is no established “brand”; You’re creating it every day. They don’t want to define things and have rigid barriers as to what they can and can’t do. For a company like this, whose main goal is to gain users, they adopt a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach, and then whatever sticks becomes folded into the brand. At first I felt really uneasy about this approach. Coming from a branding-loving, guidelines-making background, I worried that a brand with no set styles in place would soon become chaotic and confusing. But then I thought about it and realized that a company that responds to the likes and dislikes of their user and adapts to that is the most basic idea behind user centered design.

Working In-house


As I reflected on all these new characteristics, coincidentally I attended an AIGA SF event called Thriving: In-house last week with my senior designer, Marek. The panel was led by 3 in-house designers (Rhiannon Bell, Creative Director at ZyngaKyle Locke, Design Director at YouTube , and Paco Viñoly, Design Director at Square), as well as a brilliant moderator, Amy Hayes Stellhorn. All four of them had a wealth of experience on the challenges and perks of being in-house and gave some excellent actionable pieces of advice that we can start doing now without the approval of anyone.

It was really good to  be in a room with other designers who had similar “pain points” like:

– not being seen as expert
– struggling with not knowing who owns the bottom line, which results in office politics fighting for final say.
– establishing process across international teams
– speed vs quality
– how to measure and report on success
– choosing between a series of least bad options
– making something look pretty vs value (having it actually mean something)
– balance of being a manager vs having some hands on design work.

The panel talked about some things that they do to “nip in the bud” that feeling of becoming stagnant.

Putting work up on the wall – This is great so that people in the office not only put a face to the great work that is happening in the company, but they also see the process and are more inclined to talk to you about the work and get a better sense of the process and how much time and effort is invested in it.

Send out a design digest – This can be incredibly inspiring and can be as simple as an email with links to cool new stuff you’ve seen. The goal is to get everyone invested in good design and to see it and be inspired to be better and more innovative.

Listen for pain and boredom –  Sometimes companies turn a blind eye to the pain and boredom going all around. You can hear people muttering to each other in the kitchen that the company is doing bad practices or expecting too much, but if the managers ignore the problem, the culture will suffer and so will the work.

Doodling in a meeting – One of the panelist said that doodling during meetings helps creativity and they often used the “telephone” type game where they draw one line and pass it on until the paper is filled. While working at Sears, our team would pass out individual cups of play dough and people would make things during meetings. My art director got really into it and would ask us to challenge her with a new foods that she would have to sculpt in miniature form. It was her way of letting her mind relax at work for a few minutes.

Using data to back up your point of view – One thing the business side and stake holders love is data. They want “for sure” solutions all the time. If you provide research that explains the best practices and reasons for your design decisions, it gives your work more to stand on than just visual appeal.

Getting the stake holders to quantify what success looks – Sometimes success isn’t as cut and dry as “making the sale” especially when multiple departments are taking credit for it. Getting the success numbers down on paper gives you something to strive for, as well as something to point back to when someone wants to make changes that don’t reflect the company’s goals.

These are just some of the few tips that came out of the hour, but it gave me a better perspective about what kind of challenges I’ll face in this new territory and how to handle them.

I’d love to hear any challenges you’ve faced in your journey in-house or some tips on how to overcome any mentioned.

Stay tuned!




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