Leadership: Best Practices and Process for In-House Creative Leaders
At the request of InSource, Brandie was asked to write an article for in-house design teams. Once the Brand & Design Manager at Shearman & Sterling, Brandie knows the challenges in-house designers face. The following article outlines fives steps to managing the in-house process.
The Knox Design Strategy team continues to collaborate and consult with, in-house teams. Here’s Brandie’s article, but be sure to grab a copy of the book! Follow InSource on social media for a chance to win a copy, through their Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook pages.
Managing In-House Design: A Better Working Process in Five Steps
Great design – and successful designers – thrive on information and process. The creative process may seem free-form and spontaneous, and to some degree it certainly does need to embrace moments of pure creative thought, but in fact it is only with information and a clear method that good design emerges.
When I first joined an in-house team in 2004, I noticed that the firm lacked an internal process for design team workflow. There was a feeling that the design team could and should handle projects “on the fly.” Projects came in without briefs or timelines. As a result, the design team had no clear process for getting the basic data they needed to ensure a clear direction and efficient workflow. Furthermore, every project was labeled “urgent” since the firm had never developed an understanding of how long the design and production process for any given project might take. In addition, they did not plan far enough in advance to ensure that projects could receive an adequate amount of attention and resources.
With information – accurate, thorough, thoughtful, designers know the Who, What, Why, Where, When and How of each design project – back-end and front-facing. Who are we designing for? Who has the information we need? Who is approving the project? What content do I have? Where will the design live or be distributed? When are my critical deadlines? When will it launch? Why are we doing this now? How do we hope this project will alter the conversation about our business?
Process provides parameters, clear metrics and a way to check-in with the goals and needs of each project.
The following simple steps will set your internal client’s expectations, manage team workload and ensure a successful product.
1. Create Project Forms or a Project Brief.
For small projects – event and seminar collateral, pitch materials, posters – a short, basic project form outlining specific criteria for your project:
- Medium (digital, mobile, print)
- Sign-off personnel and requirements
- Content requirements (Who will provide, proof, approve content?)
- Project dates (internal sign-off dates, launch dates)
- Production, distribution or publication method
For larger, more complex projects, work with your client to determine goals and objectives, target audience, etc. This process need not be as extensive as a brief you might develop if you were within a design firm working with an external client, as you have some understanding of the brand, but particularly with one-off projects, it ensures that you and your internal client are operating with the same ideas, goals and expectations of creative approach and next steps.
A high-level, simple outline will help answer many upfront questions – often, your internal client may not have thoroughly thought through some of these questions. The criteria outlined in the form will ensure everyone is on the same page when a project gets handed off to another designer on the team. Get your project started on a positive note.
2. Establish a Timetable.
Be proactive, not reactive. Work with your client to determine timeline, including design and production, whether print or digital. This ensures everyone on the project team is clear on their required deliverables (yes, that includes your internal client), and is kept up to speed when there is project creep. It also helps the client to understand going forward how much time needs to be allocated to any given project or a given phase of a project. Many clients need help factoring in the time required to work with external teams – writers, illustrators and photographers as well as printers, programmers and mailhouses.
With larger projects, a timetable helps you manage your entire workload, which also means that you can align your work process against foreseeable milestones in each project. With a clear project timetable, you can clearly set expectations about when projects can start and how to distribute work among the team.
3. Present Options.
It is incumbent on the design team to provide the internal client with options in the earliest stages of the design process. Depending on the project, this may mean developing multiple concepts or just a number of layout options. Presenting options ensures that you remain flexible in your own creative process, and gives the client the ability to see how the problem can be addressed in different ways. It also means you are less likely to have to “go back to the drawing board” as the client sees that you are actively considering different ideas. In addition, it occasionally establishes that one design direction is clearly preferable and can often get everyone excited and on the same page about a design.
Two to three options are ideal (never more). But this is critical: These design directions should be presented to your internal client in the form of an in-person meeting. You should walk your client through your design choices and explain each option. Don’t take the client into the weeds of your design process and every color choice, but give them an opportunity to understand why each design direction addresses the needs outlined in the creative brief. Give them the “why” and “how” of each direction. Then leave room for a lot of discussion. If your client is in another office, do this by phone or Webex, but do not simply send it by email and ask for feedback. Your dialogue with them is important.
4. Develop Templates.
It seems obvious, but when I first went in-house there were no consistent templates for routinely produced materials such as event collateral, typical brochures and newsletters. Even now, I find many in-house firms I collaborate with lack templates or style guides. Developing a series of templates streamlines production time, ensures brand consistency and helps cut out the client’s desire to art direct a single project or produce a one-off.
5. Establish a Sign-off Methodology.
Particularly for print production, I soon realized that “final sign-off” was a bit of a willy-nilly process. Who signed off before running a large print job? Who was responsible for approving final content? A simple sign-off form encourages a level of detailed review in the process. It can be fairly simple. Start with:
- I have thoroughly proofed and review the content
- I approve the design concept
- I approve the layout
- I approve this final proof; production may proceed
Attaching this to your final proof, requiring the responsible internal party to review and sign does typically prompt the internal client to review with a keen eye.
Expect that it will take some time – months or even years – for a process you establish to become firmly entrenched within the firm.
You may want to prioritize the roll-out of each element or, alternatively, establish the entire process at once and present it to key stakeholders within your organization to ensure their buy-in, commitment and support of your team. In addition, establish regular check-ins with your internal client and design team to ensure that the process is working. If not, shift gears. Figure out what isn’t working and why. Listen to your client if they are having difficulty with any element in the process.
The goal is not to add meaningless bureaucracy but to create a methodology that benefits all. A clear design process is the best means for ensuring that the firm maintains the integrity of its branding and in its communications with its audience.
With a clear working process in place, you and your clients will find that design is a more enjoyable and successful part of the business of running their business.