Starting an In-House Design Team

Companies are investing heavily in their in-house design teams. I hear it’s something of a trend, so maybe there are folks out there in starting the same journey I’ve recently taken. When I started at Herman Miller, I was a digital design team of one at a big furniture company. Our company has a long and storied history in design, brand and art direction, but we had no experience designing for digital platforms generally or with the discipline of UX specifically. Now, four years later, we’re a team of ten designers and UXers. We’ve lead transformational efforts on our global website, digital products, and eCommerce. So here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, your mileage will of course vary.

I get it, spending hours on spreadsheets to assign every nickel and dime isn’t as fun as running a creative team, but its more important than any single design decision. If you’re really lucky your company will be spending lavishly on an agency retainer. That makes the value of an internal team easy to quantify. Consider cannibalizing all or some of the agency spend to fund internal positions. Explain the business will get more output for less money. It should be easy to beat most agencies overall cost.

Getting a team off the ground will mean giving a lot of presentations. You’ll probably be collaborating on tight deadlines with “business people”, not designers. For better or worse PowerPoint has become the Lingua Franca of business presentations. If that’s true at your company, you better learn his to use it, and use it well.

I know, I just told you to cannibalize your agency spend, but you’re still going to need help from time to time. I recommend hiring outside studios episodically from project budgets, instead of setting up a retainer from general operating expenses. You’ll need to find a host of reliable external partners you can tap on short notice, so do capabilities interviews with them before you need help.

Slowness is the number one complaint I see leveled at internal creative teams. When people complain about timelines, the root cause is excessive workload. What’s your plan when that happens to you? What will you when there is a short term spike of work? Will you see it coming? Who do you talk to when that spike of work extends for months?

Not everything is going to work out, so don’t promise that it will. Let leaders at your company know there are real risks, and outline mitigations. Not only is that good planning generally, it also means when something goes haywire, and something inevitably will, no one will be totally surprised.

When something goes right let people know. Keep a list of accomplishments. Did your project capture a pile of valuable leads? Did a marketing initiative score valuable earned media? That kind of thing is great for establishing internal credibility, it can put a real dollar value to your work.

Many people at your company will see you and your team as a cost, not as a strategic asset. You can prove them wrong, but it will take time. If you start small, track your wins and help the business grow you’ll find a lot more support for moving on to more significant problems soon.

Design Leader, Sporadic Writer.

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