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Combatting the “uncool” factor for your in-house design team

If you were to ask recent design school graduates where they want to work after graduation, many will mention the coolest marketing firms and design agencies in their particular city or in New York, Chicago or L.A….some will go for the largest and hippest companies (Google, Apple, Pixar…) , but few will say they want to be part of the in-house design team for the local university, department store, or insurance company. It just isn’t cool to work in-house (unless that “house” is Facebook or Instagram)

One of the most difficult aspects of leading an in-house design team is to convey the benefits of working for a company rather than an agency, in an attempt to hold onto the best people and make the lure of agency job offers less appealing. How is this done? How does one battle the “uncool” factor of working in-house?

Subtler Benefits

I lead the in-house design team at HomeAdvisor, headquartered in Golden, Colorado. Golden is so close to Denver, it really is a part of the city, so when I am talking to people much cooler and hipper than I am, I say we are in Denver. At least it’s a big city, with a major airport, and so it helps me to be seen as a contender. And as much as I hate to admit it, being a contender is important to me. I want to say that the quality of the work, the camaraderie of the team, and the pride of accomplishment is enough, but I am human, and although on some days it is enough, on other days it isn’t: the days that I say we are located in Denver. And so I understand the influences that pull at the members of my team, when they get job offers from agencies that promise them they will be working on large, major, cutting edge accounts. I understand the wistful look in their eyes when they read of hot young designers getting snatched up by firms that boast big name clients on their roster, or the latest Super Bowl Ads. Still, I haven’t lost any of them yet.

I believe I have managed to maintain a loyal and collaborative team through the subtler benefits that an in-house design team provides. There are the obvious things: stability, saner hours, greater job security, no fear that if the client goes, you get fired. But I am really talking about the ability to know more about the company than you could ever learn from a single client at an agency. The intimate knowledge and pride of ownership that comes from seeing your company grow as a result of campaigns, projects, tools and functionality that you have helped to create. And in the case of design, you likely were the “face” of that project. The knowledge that everyone you work with has goals that are aligned with yours and the same ultimate desire: to help us all be successful together. And the ability to have seen different initiatives succeed or fail and learn how that has affected the company or helped it.

Better doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone

We are lucky at HomeAdvisor that the Creative team gets a great deal of respect from our CEO and CMO, and we are encouraged to become part of the larger conversation about how design can affect user experience, perception and ultimately the bottom line. And although we don’t get the luxury of new clients to help us stay constantly creatively fresh, the knowledge that you are always getting better is a good addition. And by better I mean, better at assessing what will work and not work, based on a deeper knowledge of who we are. For a designer, getting better can mean becoming a better artist, or getting better at Photoshop and Illustrator. But better also means better at conveying the visual message or carrying forth the business objective needed to make a project successful. And there is no better place to get better at that than an in-house design team.

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