Inside Job
Inside Job

Part 1 : Jeni Herberger

This past Saturday, I attended the 2015 AIGA Houston #InsideJobHou conference. The event is a one-day conference focusing on insights and perspectives of in-house designers. More than half of all professional designers in the U.S. are full-time employees of corporations and organizations. Yet, the design hierarchy treats this majority as the "dirty jobs" of design. This explains this years’ automotive theme. In-house designers are the grease monkeys of design.

For a while in my career I’ve thought the same. That in-house design isn’t the best work. It’s boring and flavorless. In fact, a recent Art Director opening at AIG required in-house and agency experience. So I felt pretty defeated and boring. But this year was inspiring.

In-house Design : It is what you make it.

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At the conference, speakers touted this as an era when design is an integral part of a company’s success. Jeni Herberger’s lecture was particularly impressionable to me. I decided that I would chronicle her talk and my thoughts about it this week. I will write of other speakers in the coming days.

During Herberger’s talk, she sited a Harvard Business Review article stating:

Design Can Drive Exceptional Returns for Shareholders

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Herberger continued to echo the thoughts of industry leaders. The brand process is more than visual identity and brand awareness. Designers should begin the brand process during product development. They should know sales goals and finally support the launch of the product. Designers involved throughout the process develop more successful creative materials during launch. They understand the product, its importance and the business goals. Finally, having designers involved in product development produces a more customer-centered product. This is because designers are individual focused, human-centered driven, intuitive and understand storytelling. Design is a strategy. Using the Design Thinking strategy, organizations will have competitive edge. Design Thinking focuses on the end-user’s experience. It understands not what they want, but why they want it. You can sum up Herberger’s argument in the following quote:

Change or fail. -Don Fisher

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Three major segments of Herberger’s discussion:

  1. Outlined differences between Marketing and Design and the valuable contributions of each.
  2. Explained the scope of brand. The entire brand process includes position, strategy and experience.
  3. Summarized how to be a successful in-house designer. By controlling time, prioritizing (urgent vs. important) work, being more proactive and being a strategic business partner within your organization.

This week’s note isn’t short. Contact me if I should expand on a particular topic. I’ll post more on the conference in the coming days. Be sure to follow Jeni Herberger on all her related accounts for updates: Twitter and LinkedIn.

Part 2 : Larry Sorrell

The next speaker was Larry Sorrell, Global Director of Graphic Design at Newell Rubbermaid. Sorrell spoke about the work that designers do at Newell Rubbermaid's Design Center. He spoke on designer's capabilities, work flow, brand maintenance and some tools available to designers.

First, he depicted the capabilities Newell Rubbermaid looks for in designers. He broke out a similar chart:

Portfolio of Three

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It's important that modern designers have focuses that stretch beyond design. Their skill set should be multi-dimensional. Yes, during an interview the designer should exude knowledge of design. They should have a varied portfolio that is inclusive of several types of designs. But they also need personality and character. They must have people skills.

I often speak with design students about real world experience. First, I tell them to take an advertising, marketing, business or communication class. More often than not designers learn the how and why of design limited to the art discipline. They usually do not learn about business strategy, communication or writing. These competencies allow designers to become a strategic partner to their business.

Bottom line - designers need to know more than just design.

Adrian Shaughnessy

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The second suggestion I make is for designers to take speech or toastmaster classes. You must speak with confidence when presenting to colleagues or clients. A few months after starting, I presented to top executives. Being able to speak in a comfortable manner allows your presentation to be a success or an utter failure.

Again, designers must have people skills. Halfway through my first interview, the interviewer told me to close my portfolio. She said it was obvious I was knowledgable about design. She had seen enough. What she wanted to know was if I had good communication skills and what my character is like. She wanted to know my motivations, interests and passions. I've worked here for over two years, I love our team. It's important designers have some character.

Erik Spiekermann

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Next, Sorrell spoke about achieving optimal flow. Flow also called "Optimal experience" is a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Sorrell presented a similar chart to the below:


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He explained that the best work involves everyone. And happens when everyone reaches their optimal flow. In his office, they enforce a "headphones on" rule. When someone is wearing headphones, you may not interrupt their flow. It's a great strategy that I employee at work. I started after reading a weekly note about work flow from Travis Neilson. It suggests people are less likely to interrupt when you wear large on-ear headphones instead of small earbuds. I've found this to be true. I wear my large bright red Beats by Dre when I have a large project. 

It's important designers feel comfortable challenging themselves and skilled enough to do their job. Flow: high challenge plus high complexity. 

Finally, Sorrell spoke on brand maintenance. You must view this as a strategic tool of the business. When the brand doesn't work, there needs to be some strategic updating. This in essence is product promotion. Designers should work with a product development team to understand the consumer research. They should work with the sales team to understand the sales goals. Then they may update a brand and gauge their success. Designers should understand the difference between flexible and intransigent brand attributes. For instance, the Sharpie logo is visually strong. People look for the logo when making their purchase. It would not be strategic to update the logo. This is a intransigent attribute. Yet, designers may update color schemes with current trends or to stand out against competitors based on research. The bottom line is giving the customer what they didn't even know they wanted. And track your success in sales. Sorrell gave several examples of how products sales soared after rebranding. I am a little skeptical. The original numbers were possibly taken during Recession Era, when consumer spending was at decade lows. As consumer spending stabilized, it would appear that sales increased year-over-year. I see colleagues take numbers out of context to prove they've done good jobs. Especially, since my company has an extreme focus on employee reviews. So I am skeptical. 

Finally, some tools available to help designers become strategic business partners:

  1. Brand perceptors / Perception management - How a brand is perceived. Usually broken into four major categories.
  2. Market studies - A market analysis studies the dynamics of a market within a specific industry. This helps business leaders understand what a particular demographic thinks about the company's brand.
  3. Competitive shopping – Shop your competitors and understand their products. What are they doing right and what are they doing wrong.
  4. Product audits - Once a project is complete, auditing the product to ensure that it fulfills it's purpose.
  5. Semiotics - A study of the visual assets and evaluating their effectiveness.
  6. Anthropological studies - Studying human interaction with the product of service. Intuitively, designers understand the individual and can relate to difficulties that end-users have with the product.
  7. Needscope - The idea is to study emotion throughout the entire marketing process. A needscope study can help designers understand the impressions of a brand.
  8. Brand pyramid - A brand pyramid plots five step within the customer journey on the way to brand loyalty. Achieving brand loyalty with as many customers as possible produces maximum revenue potentials.

I would wrap up this post by saying that Sorrell laid out what makes a great in-house designer. It's being a mutli-disciplined, capable designer. Someone who works well with others and has a bit of personality. And it's someone who has processes and structure in their work. The perfect designer would understand brand as a business strategy. Finally, Sorrell offered a few tools that help designers excel at understanding end-users. 

This week’s note is long. Contact me if I should expand on a particular topic. I’ll post some final thoughts on the conference in the coming days.

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