This month marks two fairly important milestones in my life. Within the next 30 days I will celebrate both my 30th birthday and my eight-year anniversary at The Coca-Cola Company. I tell you this because it means one thing: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.
When you hit a significant mark like 3-0, you start to analyze yourself, your place in the world and the goals that you may have missed along the way. Have I done enough with my life so far? What does my future look like? Have I really been working as an in-house designer for my entire career? What did I dream of doing when I was in design school? Sure, there’s a part of me that always wanted to be an ad man like my hero George Lois, coming up with ideas at an agency like Wieden + Kennedy. There’s another part of me that wanted to be an apprentice at a design studio, mastering my craft with a design legend like Michael Bierut or Stefan Sagmeister.
I guess those paths just weren’t in the cards for me and honestly, if I could do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing. I love being in-house. It’s taught me everything I know about design.
I find that in-house designers get a bad rap. People in the design world often look at us as corporate stiffs in suits who attend meetings about meetings and work away in our cubicles for a single brand. Sure, I’m late to my two o’clock right now, but corporate America in 2014 is much different than it was in years past. Design thinking is applied to every facet of most modern companies and is valued for its role in winning with consumers.
Companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, and Kickstarter were founded by designers. Gone are the days of the strict dress code and grey cubicle-ridden workplaces where designers answer to faceless higher-ups with little to no design sensibility. Here at Coke, my manager and his manager are both smart young marketers with design savvy. This will only become more commonplace. By 2020, 50% of the workplace will be made up of Millenials who appreciate the power of design and truly understand its importance in building great brands. This will continue to elevate the influence that designers have working from within.
There’s also a shift happening in the role of the in-house designer. A broader audience is recognizing that design isn’t just about how a product looks, but how it works. I thank Apple for spreading the word; it’s made a big difference. Companies like Coke and Target have followed suit and are shifting the perception and importance of design within every area of commerce.
We’re no longer simply craftsmen who are brought in at the end of a project to make it sparkle. We’re leaders who have a hand in building big picture brand experiences and innovative product systems from the inside out. We’re no longer viewed as servicemen, but embraced as thought leaders.
After eight years working in-house, I have business and brand development experience that goes far beyond traditional graphic design. I don’t think I could ever be a designer who’s so far removed from the heart and soul of crafting a holistic brand experience. I love a powerful advertising campaign and a beautiful new restaurant branding system as much as the next guy, but building a great brand from within is far more satisfying to me.
Are there times when I get tired of using the same fonts and working for the same brand everyday? Absolutely. But that’s when I take on a freelance gig for a friend or a family member. Which reminds me, I should probably start working on that gluten-free whoopie pie logo my aunt’s been asking me about for the past two years.
This essay was published as part of AIGA’s INhouse INitiative program.