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My challenge on the value of solo/small teams of in-house designers

Better Business

April 26, 2019

I am throwing down a challenge to companies with in-house design departments – take your annual budget for your in-house designer or small design team, identify the outcomes you have achieved over 12 months with that person or team, and talk to an experienced agency to see if they could achieve the same outcomes with the same money.

My bet is that you will get more for your money by outsourcing if you have an ongoing relationship with an experienced team.

I am confident of my bet because there are different motivators for design studios and in-house designers. My studio is motivated by profit and that requires us to be as efficient as possible. Experience makes us smarter and quicker but our manufacturing background makes us pretty clever at developing processes that deliver better efficiencies.

In-house designers aren’t motivated by profit and they are much more likely to have office politics impacting their priorities. Someone will be having tantrums if their needs aren’t being met, maybe the ‘big boss’ expects their word to be final on every design decision and the designers aren’t usually part of the management team so they miss out on being part of the decision making process.

Different motivations create different outcomes.

A guaranteed fail/fail situation is the junior in-house designer who works alone. My first job was as a solo designer but fortunately I was working with engineers so I had colleagues with complimentary skills. The engineers taught me about collaboration, manufacturing, and real world production and design processes. My education really began when I started my first job.

No company would hire a freshly-minted law graduate to be in-house counsel because that role requires experience and knowledge to inform sound decision making.

Design is the same.

And it is always preferable to have that experience gained elsewhere under the tutelage of more experienced lawyers. We all know that smart people are smarter for their range of experience.

Design is the same.

So why would anyone employ a recent design graduate and leave them to work alone? I have had clients tell me that they feel good giving a graduate a job, or that this person needs a hand to get started in their career, or that they think they are capping their costs by choosing a graduate. Noble but completely misguided sentiments.

Designers need to work with other designers. The creative process is so much more effective when it happens out loud and with feedback. The simple act of explaining a situation to a colleague can triggered that delicious ‘aha’ moment – no colleagues, no ‘aha’ moments. I can feel when there is an idea lurking that needs to be teased out. That’s the time to gather the team to talk and draw.

We recently employed a graduate, a mature age man who brings lots of life skills but who knows very little about producing work. He thought he had a reasonable grounding of knowledge when he arrived but soon discovered that reality and study are separated by a vast chasm. He’s in learning mode and will be for some time but we know that our investment will pay off.

It always comes down to money in the long run – as it should because we are all in business to make a profit or at the very least, stick to a budget.

The only way you can have smart, skilled, knowledgeable people working for you is if there has been an investment in developing that knowledge and those skills. Either you make the investment or someone else does. But much like running your own superannuation fund, you need to know what you are doing. Unfortunately, much like running your own superannuation fund, many people think they can do-it-themselves despite not having any relevant skills.

Paying a junior designer to try to teach themselves what they don’t know is not an investment. It is not a good strategy for any business to take. Budgeting the same amount and employing experienced designers to undertake the same work is a much more robust strategy.

Are you up for the challenge?

Image credit: Photo by Clarence E. Hsu on Unsplash