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In Defense of In-house Designers

If you’ve attended some of the major user experience design conferences over the past few years, you may have noticed a pattern: many presentations are geared toward (and given by) agency designers or freelancers. The same can be said of the design articles written: most concern themselves with newly built sites, site-wide redesigns or storefronts rather than the maintenance of large, established websites.

This makes for an extremely one-sided perspective.

The thought pervading most UX blogs, conferences, etc. seems to be that every designer works at – or should want to work at – a design agency. Perhaps it’s because agencies have more opportunities to work on projects that involve sweeping redesigns or new builds. Or maybe it’s because college programs often suggest internships at them. Whatever the case may be, agencies can actually be very harsh environments for designers.

For one thing, many are focused on sales and profit margins. As Andy Budd (co-founder of the design agency, Clearleft) puts it:

“The agency world is filled with middlemen, preventing makers from driving projects. It’s full of sales people motivated and incentivised by winning business rather than producing quality work.”

So what of the alternative – the stalwart, corporate design teams?

Many successful, “big” companies have chosen to make UX a core competency. Google’s first tenant in their Ten things we know to be true, for example, is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” When talking about their Doodles, Google makes it clear that while they began with freelance artists, Google made the choice to employ an in-house group of illustrators.

It seems as though the designers comprising successful, corporate, design teams are at least on par with their agency counterparts. Why is it, then, that in-house teams are often overlooked, both by their own, internal teams as well as UX agencies and freelance designers? And what can we do about it?

An image problem

Sometimes the biggest roadblock facing in-house designers are the prevailing attitudes within their own company. Pharmaceutical-giant Merck’s Creative Director, Bob Calvano, recently said in an interview:

“Part of [the challenge] is making [executives] feel and believe that we have the capability in-house: [that] we have the talent in-house and we have the technology in place.”

He then generalizes:

The blanket statement may be that in-house teams don’t always get the credit … that the outside agency or design studio may get. We’re trying to dispel those beliefs by explicitly showing the quality of work we do in the capability presentations, showing what … creative looks like.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude at Merck isn’t unique. What Calvano says resonates with my own experience over the years: Business partners tend to automatically give more credence to the word of a design-agency account executive simply because that executive comes from a company specializing in design.

Part of the allure of account executives is that they’re different. They offer a unique perspective at companies where designers (and, in turn, design thinking) make up a relatively small part of potentially thousands of employees. Cathy Fishel corroborates this in her book, In-House Design in Practice:

“You have to remember that designers are often viewed with suspicion because people [in the corporate world] don’t understand what we do…”

So, short of stapling a resume to our foreheads, all we can do is work hard to build trust with our business partners. This is where company culture – and empathy – play a pivotal role.

It’s all about people

Does your company value its members’ or customers’ positive experiences more than the size of their executives’ bonuses? Does it have clearly stated core values and a mission that it truly follows? Is it innovative and willing to risk failure in order to find success?

It might sound as cheesy as this photo looks, but: whether in-house or out-of-house, collaboration is the key to success.

A user-centered design culture is brought about when companies foster both collaboration and mentoring. When designers collaborate with the various members of the project team – including non-designers – they have the opportunity to whiteboard together and bounce ideas off each other. They’re able to see experiences from several different perspectives.

In-house UX designers can also stay with a design effort throughout its entire lifecycle. This is often unheard of in the consulting world and affords a level of business (and user) knowledge that those outside team likely won’t have the time to experience.

And yet, however enticing, the benefits of in-house UX design are seldom recognized. Take the perspective of one author when comparing design agencies to in-house designers:

“Unlike in-house designers, agency people will usually come with fresh and innovative ideas, so even if a company has an in-house department, they might rely in an agency at some point in which they would like to change how things are being done.”

To assume that in-house designers don’t have fresh and innovative ideas is to grossly underestimate the experience and knowledge of the designers who intimately know how a product or service was designed.

Take control

So how might in-house designers work against this stereotype?

Fishel suggests we start by practicing a little bit of self defense; that we relinquish control:

[E]veryone likes to ‘be creative,’ to get involved with what we do. But you often find out that what they really want is control. If you can show people that you are still listening to them and what they do, no one gets freaked out.

Next, we might find an executive champion (not unlike Merck’s Creative Director). This is a great way to start an open dialog about the talent available in-house. When talking about the future of the initiatives for promoting his in-house design team, for example, Calvano says:

[O]f course, we’re going to continue doing dog and ponies, but have them be very strategic. I don’t want to set up outside the cafeteria and hope people stop by. I want to invite the strategic folks, the key stakeholders and have meetings where we have the biggest potential for business growth.

Short of Fishel’s suggestions, in-house designers might follow Cennydd Bowles and James Box practical advice in their book Undercover User Experience Design.

Agency designers, for their part, need to build awareness and understanding of the talent hiding inside of corporations. Those consulting with a large company can start by asking to meet – and subsequently champion – the in-house design team. As we’ve seen, an experienced in-house team can offer a wealth of insight into their product or service.

Finally, in-house designers need to be more visible. If the stigma surrounding their work is ever to change, in-house designers must submit proposals to conferences, attend conferences themselves, blog, tweet, and write articles on issues unique to their work.

Together, we can make our voices heard, spreading knowledge that’s otherwise hidden away behind the grey, cubicle walls of some faceless corporation.

About the Author

Amy Marquez

Amy Marquez is a lead user experience designer for a Texas-based, Fortune 500, financial services company. She's been a design professional since the late 1990s, working in both corporate and freelance settings. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter.


  • Ted Goas Reply

    I’m always happy to hear about other in-house designers. It’s nice to know we’re not alone amongst the agency/start-up/freelance talent out there.

    designers can also stay with a design effort throughout its entire lifecycle…

    Well put! This is especially invaluable with apps that need to be maintained and evolved.

    Businesses “assume that in-house designers don’t have fresh and innovative ideas”. Maybe, but I think it’s more common for business to think they don’t have enough design work to have a designer on staff.

    My gig (not far away from Merck) operated like that for years. When I came on, they had about 15 programmers and 0 web designers. I never found out what made them look for a dedicated designer, but the company operated for over a decade without one.

    I also don’t think that working at “an agency” should give someone street cred. My in-house team collaborated with a large agency on a long design project. As their Sr. Designer led the design, I raised red flags at every stage. When I searched for this person on Twitter, Dribbble, Behance, etc. they were nowhere to be found. Didn’t even have their own site. This gave me the impression they weren’t really plugged into the community or up with what’s current. We ultimately took the design away from them and brought it in house.

    Thanks again for writing this!

  • Frank Reply

    A lot of really great points. I also find that communication and collaboration really help the people I work with truly understand my value in the team.
    Part of my dilemma as an in-house designer is that I find myself spread thin on large design efforts. Time management becomes key, which sometimes means I cannot generate all the valuable artifacts I want for each of my teams.

    • Ted Goas Reply

      I share your dilema too. Often times projects just keep getting piled on since there’s only one designer, so we’re forced to spread ourselves too thin. Sometimes find myself jumping around so much that I never get a chance to put my head down on a project for more than a day at a time.

  • Amy Marquez Reply

    Ted, thank you for the feedback. That’s one thing I tell all the new designers I mentor – go on Twitter, be visible, follow Spool, Zeldman, Wroblewski, Clark, etc.. I send them a catalog list of online magazines and blogs to keep up with.

    I’ve worked in an environment before where I where I was a one-person show. That’s not easy! I’m glad your company is doing so well and that you have strong advocacy within your UX community.

    And Frank, I hear you about the time management. I think the tide is turning. I think we’re going to see more and more support for UX resources. Not just at our own companies, but as a sort of in-house Renaissance as companies begin to realize the value of having design resources who have intimate knowledge of the products and services they are designing for.

  • Brian Housel Reply

    I think some of the friction of the in-house vs. agency paradigm has to do with the fear of failure. Companies are afraid to hand over the reigns to their in-house design team. What if they execute an idea, redesign, campaign, etc. and it fails miserably? It is a lot easier for a business to play the blame game with an external agency rather than have to bring down the hammer on their own people.

    Businesses “assume that in-house designers don’t have fresh and innovative ideas”. Well, they’d probably be surprised to find out that is not truly the case. Many in-house designers are actually covert design ninjas in disguise. However, because companies usually restrict and hinder them to the point they can’t even breathe their creative breath, these talents never see the light of day. Again, it all comes down to the fear factor. Maybe companies should provide an outlet for their in-house design teams to flex their muscles outside their normal day-to-day work. A design playground so to speak, to allow the company and their business partners to “warm-up” to and experience all that they may be able to offer. This may help remove some of those layers of fear.

    In-house designers do have a tremendous advantages over agencies. In-house designers know more of the inner workings of the company and the dynamics of its team of people. They know the future vision of the company and are immersed in its culture on a daily basis. They know their members and customers like the back of their hands and have their positive experiences and interactions with the company at the forefront in their minds when designing. Combine all this with the resources and outside industry perspectives from agencies and you have one powerful team.

  • Trip O’Dell Reply

    I generally have a bias AGAINST agency designers. My work has primarily been in the design of consumer software products, and in my experience many agency designers struggle with the complexity and constraints of the interrelated technical services and platforms required to make an experience work.
    In my experience they often balk at the long-term focus required influence and guide the work of a product team to ship a high-quality UX focused on user needs.
    They aren’t accustomed to being held accountable for the success of the product in the market place, So many of the solutions provided are based on visual design that isn’t grounded in technical feasibility, research-backed user needs, or business requirements.

  • Chris Mears Reply

    I find one of the biggest challenges as a UX professional in any field is making people understand what you do.

    If you are agency side, you have to make people understand you are more then a wireframe machine. If you are client side you have to make sure people understand the value of doing things in a user centered way. If you are doing user research you need to help the users understand why their input is important in the wider design process.

    If you are a UX professional a massive part of your job is either communicating ideas, or communicating your principles and why they matter – be that to a client, a manager or to a user.

    Until you can communicate those effectively then you won’t get recognition from your company (be that agency or client side) or your peers.

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