Running an In-house Design Group

In 2009, I was asked to address the annual How [Design] Conference, which that year focused on the particular management issues of in-house design groups. This gave the the chance to think back on my experience at WGBH and try to summarize the pros and cons of that kind of design studio. This is what I presented.

When I got to WGBH (in 1973) it was small, about 175 people, with a design group consisted of 5 designers, one production manager, and myself. When I left (in 2008) we had almost a thousand employees and the groups under my supervision numbered 54 designers and support people. These included the print and video design studio, run by Doug Scott; the interactive design studio, run by Toby Bottorf, and the Creative Services group, responsible for our on-air branding and promotion spots, run by Steve Baker.

Our job was to help define, and then project through our work, the institutional persona of WGBH, and contribute to the success of this business, helping to build its position as a leader in public media.

The fact that we were an in-house design service is of particular interest to this conference. As I have thought about it, being an in-house group — as opposed to an outside consultant — has both advantages and disadvantages. My list includes the observations of many of my staff as well. (Notice how, ironically, some advantages (*) are also potentially disadvantages.)


• you are the brand; you become part of the fabric of the organization you are designing for, not just an outsider

• committed fully to the success of the company you are working for

• aware of the full picture

• understand how the company works and how to get things done

• familiarity with typical problem types and past experience with solving them (*)

• able to build a large family of related materials

• time to establish strong working relationships (**)

• able to coordinate work across media as a generalist (more true in smaller companies) (***)

• convenient for the “client”

• long-term employees build up valuable institutional memory (****)

• work comes to you, you don’t have to “market” yourself (*****)


• lack of professional respect

• perceived as either less experienced or too expensive

• non-designers tempted to do your work “to save money”

• familiarity with typical problem types limits innovation (*)

• being too familiar (“buddies”) with your “clients” can dilute your role as a professional (**)

• unable to end a bad client relationship

• occasional bad results live on in myth

• potential to be pigeonholed in one medium (especially in larger companies); when you are really good at something, that ends up being the only thing you are asked to do (***)

• you may not (and probably don’t) have the right skills for all assignments (***)

• long term employees can get habitual and block innovation (****)

• if you don’t constantly market your service as the “best” available (and prove it) you are sunk. (*****)

So how to balance these traits? Here is my short list:

Design credibility starts at the top

If you don’t have the expressed support of your CEO to the notion that intelligent design and honest branding is an important asset to your organization’s bottom line and public perception, all other efforts will be hobbled.

Redefine the “client” — designer relationship

Design management should meet with all other client departments or groups (at least once a year) to share their individual institutional roles (writing, designing, marketing, etc) and work process, and to clarify that they are partners in the same institutional effort, each with unique professional experience and expertise that should be respected and leveraged. This is different from the problems most consultant studios need to address, since most studio clients expect that the studio is the expert and that’s why they engaged them.

Respect must be earned

Although there will always be the assumption by some that a better service can be had for less money “outside,” there is no better way to deal with that inevitable background noise than to be the best you can be: to be responsive, true to your estimates and time lines, have a see-you-and-raise-you-one level of energy and inventiveness, and to understand what is in the best interests of the company you work for, the problem you are working on, and your audience. And respect the professional skills of the others you work with.

Market yourself

It is tempting to luxuriate in the assumption that as an in-house group work will come to you, sparing you the effort and expense of “looking for work.” But this is a failure I experienced as a manager, being “too busy” to realize that a critical aspect of being understood and respected (and busy/profitable) was to call on your “potential” customers regularly (once a quarter): to see how things are going; to do an audit of the work being done in their area to together determine whether it is on target; show them a recent project done for another area and explain how the approach or technology approach might benefit them; etc.

Start with a creative brief

WGBH recently started demanding for larger projects a creative brief before work would start on a job. This is a form that is typically whose questions are jointly determined by both the designers and the “client” groups and then filled out by the client in advance of project but reviewed and adjusted by the designer before starting a job. It does not say design outcome should be but rather what its goals are. It lays out the basics: the name of the job, the communication or marketing objectives, the due dates, the precedents this needs to reflect, etc. But it also asks some critical questions: who is the ultimate stakeholder who needs to be in on all the key presentations (many projects are started by a junior person only to be stalled late in the game when his/her boss sees it and objects to some key element)? What will success look like? What are the desired outcomes of the project? This simple procedure makes partners of the “client” and the designer by allowing them to jointly agree on the conditions of the project and who does what. It also forces critical thinking and planning on the part of the project initiator, saving $ and time, and confirms the professional territory of the designer/partner.

A continuing training budget is critical

Like marketing, it is easy to overlook the essential efficiencies and skills that are the result of mandatory training (and the budget to support it). To stay sharp and to be on top of technology and work flow is hard and it costs money but if not dealt with regularly and routinely, one day you will find that all of a sudden you really don’t have the right skills for the job.


As part of the program, I was asked several specific questions related to the theme of In-house design groups:

assumedly How do you stay on top of design trends? Do they influence your work?

If you are awake and living in this culture, it is hard not to be aware of the design trends around you. Reading the design periodicals and teaching are two sure ways to stay connected to what’s hot. Countervailing forces to being significantly influenced by new trends are ones own innate “handwriting” (the forms, form language and color sense that are sort of hard wired in everybody); the inevitable default preferences established during one’s training and by the influences of one’s mentors early in your exposure to the field; and by the purpose of the organization you are working for/with.

For example: I was fascinated with the sudden shift in the late 80’s and early 90’s towards a grunge, punk, snow-boarder graphic aesthetic. But there I was at WGBH, the public broadcasting station in Boston. Our educational mission was aimed at two very distinct audiences: the preschool and K-8 crowd, and the over 55 set. The Burton Snowboard look was not the perfect look for Masterpiece Theatre or Frontline, or Zoom, or for the teacher training videos we produced, or for the fundraising literature we prepared for our membership drives, or for the proposals we sent regularly to the National Endowment for the Humanities. So we didn’t adopt it. Around this time I witnessed a sharp drop-off of WGBH work accepted into the AIGA designs shows.

I think it is important to be aware of how the culture is shifting and to understand how and when to change your language, but “trends” are often best adopted for “trendy” purposes.

How do you deal with internal clients who don’t “get” design?”

This is similar to the question the legal department might ask: how do you deal with internal clients who don’t “get” what a contract is for? You have to tell them in a way they can understand and appreciate as a “skill.” This is not necessarily easy.

In my experience, most problems with “internal clients” arise when both parties forget that (unlike relationships with “external clients”) they are both trying to solve the same problem for the same “ultimate client,” the company or organization your are both working for. Most people in that organization are there because of some specific set of skills and expertise (fundraising, editing, writing, engineering, legal affairs, etc). So when somebody in membership development winds up with a budget, part of which is for the creation of a brochure or a website, and they come to the design group for some help doing that, they come with the mind-set that they are the “client.” And everybody knows that “the client is always right.”

That aphorism applies to most studio/agency relationships but not to in-house groups. When it comes to making the right call on a design choice the client may not be right. Both the designer and the “client” bear responsibility for working out an understanding that each of them has a specialty, a unique set of skills the institution has paid good money to staff. The best result is where each specialist understands the limits of their expertise and respects those of the other person.

There are several ways to facilitate this. One is to visit each other’s departments; the host department prepares a careful explanation of their specific responsibility within the company and how it supports the mission of the organization; explains their thought process and their work process; walks through a few projects as examples of that process; and explains what success looks like for them. Armed with this background, mutual respect is much more likely.

Another useful tool is the creative brief. The design group should require that before starting a job the “client” draft a brief that would include: the purpose of the project/piece; the audience; the key message; the gross timeline and budget range; the ultimate stakeholder (likely not the person who you see as your client but some other person or persons up the food chain who must be in on the initial goal setting or the whole thing is likely to blow up later when they finally see it); and what action or end result will define success for the project. This brief does not describe what the thing will look like, but rather what it will be like and be for. The designer should then collaborate on the final draft of the document (confirming, for example, that the goals seem clear and the constraints of time and budget are appropriate) which will then be shared with the “ultimate client.” This establishes from the beginning that the requester and designer are a team, committed to the same outcome.

The brief can be used to critique the design direction as it develops. If the designer ends up designing something that satisfies the criteria of the brief (usually stated in non-design/aesthetic terms) then it can be said to be a good design. In any case, should the the “client” disagree on a design direction or feature, this process tends to grant the benefit of the doubt to the designer (as the expert in these things). Should an impasse persist, the decision is bumped up to the design head and the person to whom the “client” reports.