In-house creative agencies and design teams have become increasingly common within brands of all kinds over recent years, but their structure, dynamic and level of influence within the business can vary significantly.
Compared to the marketing department forging a collaborative relationship with an external creative agency, an in-house team must find its place alongside other departments. And it can play a role in fostering a positive design culture, while broadening awareness and understanding of the creative process for everyone.
“Brilliant creative work will be recognised by the creatively talented in any organisation, but the real merit sits with outside teams being able to recognise it,” says Louise Troen, recently appointed global CMO at self-hypnosis app Reveri. “The relationship between these teams, and the ability to see themselves as one function to deliver one successful output, is the most important culture that any business can set.”
Troen has experienced various in-house structures in her past roles as VP marketing at Bumble, Formula E and Headspace. “It’s most powerful when there’s acute collaboration between creative, strategy, product, media and comms – and a clear understanding of what the creative work is trying to achieve,” she says.
ENCOURAGE INTERNAL DESIGN CULTURE
If more departments are meaningfully involved and invested in the design process, things run more smoothly and buy-in comes more easily – the trick is to get the balance right. “There’ll always be individuals who are ultimately accountable for the success, but the point is to make each person feel they hold a component of that responsibility,” explains Troen.
“If we all win, we all feel empowered and motivated to keep learning from each other,” she continues. “Too often, teams sit in silos with completely conflicted objectives. At best, a culture like that breeds independent work that isn’t cohesive or integrated. At worst, it encourages internal competitiveness.”
“It’s about shifting the culture internally,” agrees Alexia Danton, designer advocate at collaborative design platform Figma. “User-sensitive problems, business-centric problems and technical limitations should be integrated as part of a whole problem, not isolated to be treated separately. Seeing them as complementary parts of a layered, complex problem makes for more exciting challenges for everyone. It also brings better solutions, for end users and the business.”
FIND THE RIGHT CHAMPIONS
Before joining Figma, Danton spent several years as part of in-house teams, including as a product designer at Parisian public transport operator RATPgroup. In her experience, particularly in larger, older organisations where the design function may be buried, internal champions can be effective to spread the message.
“Often it’s better if they’re not designers, because they’ll be able to reach more people that you cannot reach yourself,” Danton explains. She gives the example of a front-end developer who understands and appreciates design systems, plus speaks the language of engineering. But it could just as easily be someone in any role who appreciates what design can do.
“Look for innovative people; the kind of people who read up on the latest trends,” she advises. “These tend to be the people that also look to move culture. They may not have a design background, but they may have a sensibility for it, or understand its business value.”
EMPOWER STAKEHOLDERS TO PARTICIPATE
On an operational level, involving key stakeholders in the conversation at key stages throughout the design process, rather than just presenting iterations for review and sign-off, can benefit the whole organisation in the long-run.
“Their perspective is going to be helpful even if their part of the project isn’t being worked on yet,” advises Mallory Dean, a designer advocate at Figma, who has both in-house and agency-side experience as a UX and graphic designer. “We should have cross-functional chats at all stages of the design process.”
But it’s vital to strike the right balance and empower those people to give constructive input. “I’ve worked at organisations where stakeholder input has been so useful, and others where it’s a political play because they hold the final approval card,” warns Troen. “Feedback is critical to optimise work, but it’s important to deliver it in a framework that doesn’t burn out teams, compromise the momentum, or hinder creative builds.”
This means setting subjective preferences aside. “Park your ego, and allow the best creative for the brand, consumer, product and platform to sing,” advises Troen. “It’s a delicate dance, and too many stakeholders have personal input without thinking about the target audience, or the positioning of the work,” she continues. “Designers need the strength to push back. It always helps to have specific brand guidelines in writing to refer to.”
SHARE WORK EARLY AND OFTEN
One of the most practical ways to educate different departments within an organisation about the value of the creative process is to show its inner workings – warts and all – through regular work-in-progress (WIP) updates. “Folks are scared to do this, but it actually moves things faster,” suggests Dean at Figma. “If we try and perfect everything before we share it, we just end up wasting time and getting too attached to ideas.”
“One of our breakthroughs in my old company was systematising how we shared things,” agrees Danton. “As creatives, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come across as masters of our craft. But sharing WIP is a valuable way to build empathy with non-designers. It helps product managers and developers appreciate the systemic thinking behind the work; that it wasn’t just sheer creative madness. It also helps focus not so much on the aesthetics, but the overall experience.”
Danton’s advice is to share updates at every relevant point of the process. “During calls, in emails, in shared docs, via instant messaging – any time there’s a reason to pull non-designers into your work,” she says. Sharing one-click access to the project files in Figma, for instance, helps make WIP updates more seamless and natural, without the need to spam people with attachments and cause version-control nightmares.
“The most common barrier to success is not defining process,” adds Dean. “Not only for design, but processes for organising and sharing files; collaborating with developers, researchers, and writers; providing feedback in critiques; presenting work. The more you streamline this, the faster and more aligned you’ll be. It sometimes takes trial and error to see what style works for your team, but you’ll never regret making time for it.”