Working as an in-house designer

Coffee shop or company lobby? I can’t tell any more.
Working as an in-house designer
There was a time when being an in-house designer was seen as a less aspirational role than being an agency designer. However the rise of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter here in San Francisco the pendulum has definitely swung the other way. 

Having worked as both an agency and in-house creative I thought I would write about the pros and cons of the latter – everything mentioned below is something I have done at some point…


Hipsters now have more time to be hip
The Pros and Cons of in-house design teams
First let’s take a look at the to different worlds to see how they are both different:
Much closer to the decision making process and being relevant
Much better work/life balance (hence the rise of Hipster hobbies) 
– No need to work late nights and weekends on pitches 
– Closer to the brand with a more in-depth understanding of it
Often no need to track time/billable hours
Internal teams often ignore proper creative briefs and process 
Lack of variety in creative work
Google’s rebranding stayed in house and was driven by technology as much as design
Staying creative within established brand guidelines
When you line up the Pros like that it can be easy to see why in-house design teams are becoming increasingly popular as a career choice for designers. However with just one brand to work on your creative horizons can narrow very fast. So what should you do to keep the creative juices going?
Hire people with skills that complement your team’s skills
– Keep trying to push the brand in new ways yet stay true to its core principles
– Study other brands that have adapted in creative ways
Attend AIGA events, Meet-Ups and Creative Mornings
– Expose yourself to other designers and ideas
Enter your work into design competitions
Do volunteer design work for a non profit like as 826 Valencia

– Read design blogs (hey, what a great idea)


three hipsters
“We’re from the agency”
How to prevent creative work going outside the company
Unfortunately most in-house creative teams have experienced the anguish of design work, especially a brand redesign, going outside the company. This usually occurs because the internal team is repeatedly told to stay within the brand guidelines until everyone thinks that’s all they can do. 
To avoid this happening an in-house team needs to:
– Create great work from the start
Be prepared to go the extra mile as agencies work late nights and weekends
Know how your work will be measured as successful e.g. money, clicks, etc
– Wine and dine the various VPs who approve creative work or else agencies will
– Understand the various approvers’ needs first before yours
– Itemize the cost of sending work out to an agency as this may shock VPs
– Always make the CMO look good


Talk internally about your team’s design work as often as possible
How to make your in-house design team thrive 
The success or failure of any in-house design team may often rest on how good it’s members are at articulating how much business value it can bring to the rest of the company. It’s not just dollars saved but more intangible things like making the brand look good compared to competitors or delivering a beautiful keynote for the CEO to present. 
Making it work:
Find channels to advocate for your in-house team
– Do VPs/approvers design favors e.g. something for their non profit 
– Ask if other teams need design work done
– Get your work/team mentioned in the company all hands 
Ask to pitch against the agency if work is being sent outside the company

– Bottom line: do good work


Concept boards from Clorox Digital Labs
In-house agencies
Increasingly something halfway between being an in-house design team and an agency design team has been emerging: the in-house agency. A great example of which is the Clorox Digital Labs but there are many more in the appearing in larger companies.
How do you build your in-house agency:
Hire people who have worked in agencies
Make everyone follow a creative process with briefs (which meet resistance at first).
Provide good customer service: more important than the designs for approvers
Don’t get complacent about working on just one brand
– Bottom line: doing good work is still the most important part





With this new paradigm of in-house agencies being much more creative and cost effective it’s the best of both worlds for everyone involved. Even Apple has recently moved it’s ad campaigns internally – a big step for them after the groundbreaking Think Different and iPod campaigns. In fact the best example I experienced of an in-house agency in my career was when I worked at an online publisher which also had external clients. It was wonderfully ever changing.


Designing a logo in 6 hours

A friend asked me to design a logo for a nonprofit focusing on raising funds in the US for various South Africa organizations who work to preserve endangered species, especially Rhinos (the original name has been altered below until it has been trademarked).

I was very busy at the time so only had an hour here and there to devote to the project. All together it was 6 hours and here’s how I broke it down into small sprints.

But first, here’s the final logo:


I looked at other non profit bodies doing similar work (1 hour).


While sketching I narrowed down a concept fast (30 minutes).


I changed a stock icon bit-by-bit for uniqueness (90 minutes).

RAW_2_iconScreen Shot 2016-01-13 at 10.14.02 AM


Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 10.15.51 AM



I looked at primitive and yet contemporary styles of logos (1 hour).




Next I started looking at color families (30 minutes):


Next came a font study to create a more primitive feel (1 hour):



Voila! The final logo in horizontal and vertical formats (30 minutes).



The Selfie Project: Gentlemen Adventurers

I already had a series of business cards which used the ‘Aviator’ image plus details on one side and 10 different movie quotes on the reverse thanks to It was always fun handing them out as the recipients guessed the movies that the quotes were from. After a while I wanted to take the project further.


One day, while in the local library in San Rafael, I looked across the street at The Belrose Performing Arts Center. While looking at the converted church I had a eureka moment: I could use multiple outfits from the costume shop underneath the theater to create 10 different personas. Seizing the moment I went across and explained my idea to Tori Arnold behind the counter. She was very helpful and I started quickly thinking through 4 different personas and poses on the fly.


Surrounded by over 3,000 costumes and a multitude of props I dived into the project by taking selfies. Having art directed photo shoots many times before I got all 10 personas done in two 3 hour sessions.

Gentlemen_Adventurers_selfie_process_2 copy

Each character took about 100 shots to get right with constant checking for light and angle as well as finding the right pose for each persona. Once back on the laptop I culled them down to two or three.


Next I would take my final selection into Photoshop to convert to black/white and alter the brightness/contrast. For the priest I added some shade to the background in order to bring out the bible (actually a diary).

Gentlemen_Adventurers_Priest_constr_1 Gentlemen_Adventurers_Priest_constr_2

I was much more prepared for the second session and finished the Gentlemen Adventurers with 10 characters: the Explorer, the Pirate, the Soviet, the Mummy, the Knight, the Viking, the Priest, the Bandit, the Sailor and the Aviator.

Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_1 Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_2 Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_3

For two weeks I uploaded a new persona onto Facebook with a suitable cover photo.


Next I designed the cards and sent off the 10 different characters to be printed at (100 cards, with 10 different designs for a total of $54 plus shipping). This was the only cost for the entire project!

Capturing images: 6 hours
Photoshopping images: 5 hours
Design layout for cards: 7 hours

The Belrose Costume Shop:

Pacific Sun article on Margie Belrose:

Moo printing (up to 50 different backs per print run):


Branding 101

Branding_header_Wayne_arrowWhy is branding so important?

Tomorrow morning when you wake up, try to count all branded items you see from the moment you wake up until you reach 100. What time do you think it would take until?  When I taught art direction at San Francisco’s Academy of Art I asked my students the same question. Most thought it would be midday. They were shocked when I told them that assuming they woke at 7am it would probably be somewhere between 8 and 9 am.

Why? Almost every item we touch or see has a logo on it. In fact, there are so many we blank them out.

Despite this ‘blanking out’ process, brands still represent a certain intangible something in our minds. We often think of brands as being a physical product but they could just as easily be a religion, a service, an app, an ideology or a blog like this one. All these things represent a world view condensed down into its simplest, most easily understood form, each trying to be distinct from other competing world views. In fact, the more competition there is for the same world view then the more energy is spent differentiating these brands. After all, Coca-Cola developed a more distinct brand when Pepsi started competing with it (see below).

Branding_Lookalikes_1 Branding_Lookalikes_2 Branding_Lookalikes_3 Branding_Lookalikes_4

Just what is branding? (in less than 250 words)

If I ask you to think of something you really like what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s probably not the logo but a warm fuzzy feeling. Great brands elicit this response in us without any of us realizing. Think of Charmin toilet paper vs. Facebook. Both are useful. One fulfills a need physically while the other’s ‘need’ is emotional. Yet why do they make you feel the way they do?

You know the brands so well in the above lookalike logos that you immediately get the joke. This is because part of the branding process is to create an expectation in our mind of what’s coming – whether it’s a drink, a movie, a piece of technology etc., and the product then has to match that expectation. These two steps are combined to form the ‘brand’ in our mind as all those emotional feelings about a product gets distilled down into a logo. The logo itself is not the brand but is often confused for it as it’s an easy way to be recognized in a crowded marketplace like a store shelf.

However, good brands aren’t just recognizable but also create an internal resonance within us. They make us feel good to use, to wear or to be identified with ‘our’ brands. This can be from simple things like whether you are a PC or a Mac person, or it could be whether you wear Manolo Blahnik or Tory Burch shoes. As a result, the accumulation of feeling from all these different brands can form a huge part of how we self-identify in our modern, highly consumerist society.


Start with a story…

For thousands of years human beings have relished listening to stories. From tales of how the gods made the world to watching the bickering of real housewives on Bravo. We are all preprogrammed to like a narrative story with highs and lows, lots of drama and a climax. Similarly in a marketplace filled with brands telling well-honed stories anything short of that merely seems like a gag or a pun.

No one likes to be ‘sold’ to but people do like buying into a good, authentic story around a product or service. Part of that story can be the creation myth of how the company came into being. It could also be the founder’s metaphorical journey in the wilderness with only their vision of how things should be to sustain them, such as Steve Jobs. It could equally be as simple as how a company saw a real need that nobody else addressed. Whatever the story, there should be depth and authenticity to it.

Another aspect of good stories is the actual storytelling process. Here’s where designers, marketers and advertisers come into the equation, as they distill all those complex and subtle ideas into something tangible that can be communicated to large groups of people.


 …then think of a name.

Why did Uber catch on more than Lyft? Or Zipcar over City Car Share? Why did cell phone manufacturer High Tech Company change their name to just HTC? They all give a more distinct name to a brand. Similarly when we meet people for the first time, we learn their names and get a general impression of them quickly. Likewise in a market where there are entirely new concepts or products, it is easy to start imbuing a new meaning into a brand’s name. It may seem like just a word made of a few letters, but it helps create the overall impression as it carves out space in our minds.

This is where brands with names that only mysteriously allude to what they do create an undefined but strong feeling in our mind such as Googol, a number represented by “1” followed by 100 zeros. It’s a great way to summarize the enormous possibilities of the search tool without spelling it out. Likewise a combination name like Wikipedia (Wikea + encyclopedia) gets the point across.

While in the past there has been a profusion of descriptive names for brands or companies, the current trend is for something shorter and non-descriptive. Then throw in X’s, Y’s and Z’s to make a version of the name with a URL still available. Hence Xfinity, Lyft and Zynga (the latter is actually the name of the founder’s dog’s name but hey, it works). Also, with a more unique name it is easier to turn it into a legally ownable corporate asset.


Remember the logo is just a symbol for the brand

How a brand’s name comes to life in its most succinct form is often the logo. The two are inseparable. The style of the logo is also used to create an emotional tone of the name: calm or hurried, conservative or risqué, stylized or minimal. Whoever we are there are brands that resonate with us. In fact, Logo Lounge produces a trend report every year showing the changing styles in logos:

For example, the choice of a late nineteenth century script in the Coca-Cola logo effuses a sense of classic Americana. Meanwhile, Apple uses the sans serif font ‘Myriad’ in a stylishly minimal way because it says modern and utilitarian. Pepsi changes their logo’s look with the times while keeping the same name. In fact, in a recent campaign Pepsi has gone back to a nostalgic look like their arch rival Coke.

Once developed, the logo often gets applied to everything that makes up part of the brand such as websites, t-shirts, packaging etc. But good branding is more than just trying to brand a herd of cattle with the same mark (see appendix). As the next section will show, we’re not simple animals and need much more mental stimulation than that…


“Don’t show me logos, show me a system!

We all like to believe there is one overall vision guiding a brand and hence the part of us that has an emotional connection with it. After all, we are all individuals. It all boils down to the fact that everyone that interacts with the brand in any of its forms has an expectation of what it should be. The more complete the brand the more trust we have in it and branding is all about reputation.

As mentioned earlier, any given brand represents a view into the world as defined by that company or product. Branded materials should look like they all fit together as a cohesive whole. This creates a more compelling and complete world view with more emotional appeal. Once you know some of the brand then you begin to have expectations for other parts of the brand. These expectations create desire for more.

Apple is great at creating this desire. They don’t sell cardboard boxes but when you see their packaging you want what’s inside. Even if you only have the box from the time you buy it to the time it takes you to open it, say, maybe 5 minutes. Those moments form part of the expectation for the actual physical piece of technology inside.

Even as we blank out brands that don’t seem relevant to us we have an undefined emotional association with them. It is the total experience of the brand from price to how it meets our needs to how it  matches our expectations.

Branding_JAQK_images_2 Branding_JAQK_images_3 Branding_JAQK_images_5Branding_JAQK_images_7 Branding_JAQK_images_8 Branding_JAQK_images_9

Branding_JAQK_images_6Branding_JAQK_images_4Here’s how: JAQK Cellars case study

Here’s an example of a brand that has followed all of the points above where every point of contact sets a tone before you come into contact with the core product, i.e. the wine from JAQK Cellars.

San Francisco agency Hatch had the idea of creating or ‘hatching’ new brands of their own each year. Their first was a gaming themed winery. Why gaming? In the words of Joel Templin, one of the founders of JAQK “everyone plays games.”

First the name: by taking the letters from the Jack, Ace, Queen and King cards the unique name ‘JAQK’ is formed  – very intrinsic to the brand.

Next is the marketing and the bottles’ labels: the latter are all of high quality with captivating designs often spanning not just the labels, with each bottle telling its own story within overall gaming framework. These labels/bottles are important as they are a key point of differentiation in the wine industry.

Then there is the experience of the product itself: does the wine‘s taste actually match the high expectations set by the brand promise of its promotion and the packaging? I can truly say it does and encourage you to try them here:




It all seems so easy. Right? In a comical way the show Silicon Valley conveys just how difficult it is to work out what a brand (Pied Piper) is and to get it out there in the marketplace. If big companies are spending millions of dollars on all their logos/brands why do we as consumers have such a sophisticated ability to tune out most of them?

Well, maybe it’s because there are now so many brands in our daily lives. They ALL vie for our attention like a crowd of people constantly pestering us to do something. In your head you’re thinking “I don’t have time for this”.

Marketing people want brands that stand out when really they should want their brand to be desired, as this is what good brands do. Hopefully by following these simple steps your brand will have the depth needed to be desired:

  • Define your audience tightly as you are probably not talking to everyone in the world
  • Tell a story of the product or service that is relevant to your audience
  • Set expectations of what the product will do
  • Make the product, story and logo intrinsic to each other
  • Find out if the story is unique or if somebody else is already doing it
  • Always remember, the logo is only a symbol or summation of the brand story
  • Think about how the brand’s story could be told in different contexts
  • Finally, and most importantly, the product must deliver on the expectations of the brand – without this vital step your brand will fail.

Get all these right and your brand will begin to design itself.


Appendix: A short history of ‘branding’

The idea of marking herds of animals had been around for some time before the nineteenth century. However, while huge herds of livestock roamed across the American West and Midwest, the danger of cattle rustling was very real, usually coming with a death sentence for those caught. As a result, ranchers had to put a permanent unique mark on the hide of every animal so they could be distinguished from one another if the herds were intermixed or if the cattle were stolen.

These squiggly or unique marks were what we would now call brand marks but back then they were called cattle brands (actually a ‘brand’ is the name of the metal implement used to apply the mark to the animal’s hide – see picture above). At the same time, in the crowded cities of the post-industrial revolution, what we now call ‘consumer products’ began to appear. Some were beginning to stand out by emphasizing a distinctness more than just the product itself. Somewhere along the way the cattle brand metaphor was used in context to trademarks and products in the cities, and the branding industry was born.



Designing for B2B 101



The process of one business selling to another business (B2B) is enormous and involves billions of dollars in the US economy ($559 billion according to this study). Yet if you Google ‘designing for B2B’ why is there hardly anything on the internet?

So who are the companies that spend these billions on B2B? It could be anyone from coffin makers selling to undertakers, or, on a grander scale, the likes of Cisco, IBM, Intel or HP selling cloud storage to equally large companies like Apple or Microsoft. It’s a very different type of sell since no one is going to buy a server farm from a banner ad.

And just who am I to talk about designing for B2B? Well, currently I head up the creative for CBS Interactive’s B2B division, dealing mostly with big tech clients so in this post I’ll mostly be looking at designing for these types of clients.





CBS Interactive’s Visualizer 360 brings together all of Brocade’s social media – click images to see original live version (Vica Filatova, Jeff Hill and Rick Byrne)


As consumers, we experience ads or sites that ask us to do something straight away, such as buy now, watch a video or learn more. However, the cost of buying something large like a company’s data storage is too huge to pull off in an online experience and a business still needs to get the message out to its audience somehow. These ads/projects are part of a brand awareness campaign and are intended to get customers on the first rung of the purchase funnel. They are usually hosted around relevant content (articles, videos, white papers etc.) found on publishers’ sites.

For a big splash such as a product launch there are immersive fullpage takeovers (covered in this post more extensively). These certainly generate higher engagement rates, often with many replays of the ad. In catching people’s attention they have both higher close rates and higher brand recall rates when compared to regular banner ads‏ – the two go hand-in-hand.

For a more semi-permanent branding experience CBS Interactive offers its ‘Visualizer 360’ as a sort of one-stop-shop for all a client’s social media, videos and white papers, etc. It can be built once in Flite’s console with multiple units such as a pushdown or lightbox acting as a window to that file. Our major user of the Visualizer is Brocade, who loves how it allows them to consolidate all their social media feeds which are scattered across different sites. The Visualizer can also be hosted on different sites and networks, rather than on a single page that would need ads to drive traffic to it – see for yourself by clicking here.


The Lead Gen process: click the banner, fill in the data entry form and download the white paper (courtesy of LinkedIn)


Building awareness of a new product/service/app is one thing but no one is going to buy 100 laptops from a banner ad. To get around this, B2B advertisers can offer users a chance to download a white paper or similar giveaway in order to get their contact details for a follow-up sales call. This process is called lead generation (Lead Gen).

Simplified, here’s the process:
1. Click
2. Data capture
3. Download
4. Follow up call.

For Lead Gen ads there are a huge amount of clicks on the initial banner ad offering a download a white paper or similar asset. However when faced with the data entry page that follows, users can abandon the process (called The Abandon Rate). To avoid this some kind of warning of the process ahead should be in the text or button/call to action such as ‘Find out how to download’.  This may create a lower CTR (Click through rate – see Measuring Success below) on the initial ad but creates a much better brand experience for the user.

Another drawback of the process is that the user filling in the data can provide false information; except for their email address (usually how the download  link is delivered) everything else can be incorrect. According to Stephen Corby, CEO of Specless, a mobile ad  agency, another drawback is that the process doesn’t work for mobile and tablet users as the mindset for both of these environments doesn’t lend itself to lots of clicks or reading documents. Pinable ads may change this in the future like this.


Fullpage takeover for an editorial feature with IBM sponsorship (Rick Byrne)


The main aim of any of these campaigns is to sell more of a client’s product or service. In order to do this a campaign is broken down into smaller phases (CBS Interactive B2B defines these in 5 steps: Discover, Investigate, Compare, Justify, Optimize) each with its own target impressions, clicks or leads. Since this is a post on the business of business let’s look at the metrics of how online campaigns are judged:

Impressions are a measure of the number of times an ad is displayed, whether it is clicked on or not.

Cost per mille (CPM) (Latin: mille = thousand) is a commonly used measurement in advertising indicating the cost per thousand people who see an ad (impressions). To see just how it’s calculated click here.

Click-through rate (CTR) is a way of measuring the success of an online advertising campaign for a particular ad by the number of users who clicked on a specific link or button.

Cost Per Lead or CPL is an online advertising pricing model, where the advertiser pays if  an  individual signs up for an advertiser’s offer. This is the primary metric used for Lead Gen campaigns.

Cost Per Action or CPA (also known as Pay Per Action, Cost Per Conversion or Cost Per Acquisition) is an online advertising pricing model, where the advertiser only pays for each specified action such as a purchase, a form submission, watching a video etc. To see just how it’s calculated click here.


If you were in the B2B industry which one would you like to be seen as?


Selling cool stuff to the average consumer can be a lot of fun. However for a multi billion dollar industry B2B is often not seen as cool nor targeted to cool people. B2B is commonly seen as boring and bland, like the businessman on the left above when really the industry should see itself as more like the guy on the right: cool, playful, modern.

This is the B2B conundrum – everyone in agencies regards it as something that has to be done as opposed to something they want to do. I have found that consumer clients work faster and are more on top of the details than Enterprise (B2B) clients.

This may be because of the longer buying cycle and the fact that agencies are populated with people who would rather be working on something else more hip. Creative teams dedicated to B2B can get bored and lose their edge – they’ll need to find other ways to be to creatively challenged or they’ll leave. Rotate them out with consumer clients over time or give them more creative freedom on RFP mocks.



Office’s elegant and creative Smarter Planet campaign for IBM (courtesy of Lisa Friedman at Office)


Just because the B2B Conundrum exists doesn’t mean that it is all bad. In fact IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign is a major B2B project done right.

Ogilvy & Mather New York asked the San Francisco based agency ‘Office’ to develop a visual vocabulary for the launch of the Smarter Planet campaign–an entire visual language system that would illustrate how IBM was transforming the world’s most important systems such as food, energy, transportation, healthcare, education, and banking. Here is a description from Office’s website:

The design challenge was to create a visually arresting language that was as bold as the ideas they represented. How do we create something that will grab people’s attention and engage them so they want to learn more? How do we distill complex essays into one clear visual concept? And how do we represent these big, complicated problems in a way that’s approachable?

The Office team was inspired by the creative vision that designer Paul Rand developed for IBM in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Rand’s work was about boldness and clarity, and had a “wink” that created an emotional connection with people. These became the team’s driving principles.

The resulting pieces give a playful feel to all the parts of the campaign from essays to giant posters to banner ads. A lot of thought has gone into each of the icons as manifestations of different aspects of IBM. Visual cliches were avoided with the assumption that their audience is made up of smart and creative thinkers. Even if their audience doesn’t look too deeply into what the image represents it is still very appealing to the eye and in the online world where the eye roams the finger/mouse follows.


Animated banner ad for aimed at CIOs and IT professionals (by Rick Byrne)


– B2B tends to have a more male bias especially in tech
– This is not an excuse to be one dimensional
– Enliven ads with better design and copy
– Where possible, use endorsement of specific industry leaders for more clicks

– The B2B process is long so break down CTAs into smaller actionable parts
– CTA for awareness ads should be succinct such as ‘Learn More’ or ‘ Watch Video’
– For lead gen the CTA wording should warn the user about the data entry process

– Avoid obvious stock photos – they look very inauthentic
– ‘Native’ ads use the site’s own look and feel to deliver authentic sponsored content
– Images/videos/names of endorsing experts in the industry drive more interest

– Avoid product imagery in ads unless done in a very eye-catching way
– Most servers look very similar and aren’t likely to sell based on looks
– Ads should be led by a product feature (either copy or images) for memorability
– For tech clients add a techy feeling and/or abstract imagery – let the copy do the hard sell
– Avoid visual clichés for tech such as circuit boards, cursors, streams of ones and zeros etc
– A great many B2B clients use blue/gray palette as it’s ‘safe’–perhaps too safe


What makes designing for B2B so different? Well, nothing really, except for the mindset of those involved. To paraphrase JFK, “The only thing we have to fear is fear (of boredom) itself”. This often arises when everyone involved in the B2B industry plays it safe because they are appealing to a committee of business decision makers. Yet this committee is made up of individual human beings, each with their own aspirations and limited time. Lose sight of that and you will be permanently dealing with the B2B Conundrum.


Design careers 101: Get the job you want


All of the incredibly good illustrations in this post are © Lunchbreath


Chances are that if you’re reading this post then your title in work is one of the following: Executive Creative Director, Creative Director, Associate Creative Director, Design Director, Creative Group Head, Creative Lead, Art Director, Senior Designer, Middleweight Designer, Graphic Designer, Flash Designer, UI Designer, UX Designer, UI/UX Designer, Communication Designer, Visual Designer, Art Production Manager, Brand Identity Developer, Broadcast Designer, Logo Designer, Illustrator, Visual Image Developer, Production Designer, Production Artist, Artworker, Motion Designer, Motion Graphics Designer, Multimedia Developer, Layout Artist, Interface Designer, Web Designer, Packaging Designer, Junior Designer, Associate Designer.

It’s a bewildering array of titles isn’t it?

When I moved from London to San Francisco I discovered that in the US titles were much more important in a designer’s career. Previously the work in my portfolio and level I operated at was the key to my career. What my employers called me was far less important. Amazed by the cultural difference in the same industry I decided to write a ‘how to’ article on the jumps between key stages of a designer’s career.


It can be hard to work out how to market yourself when starting out 


So who am I to talk? Well, I’ve been working for 20 years as a designer, art director, ACD and lately as an independent ACD. But lets go back to those early days when I was a designer starting out. With titles like Junior Designer, Associate Designer or Production Artist that first job often involves putting together the finished deliverables such as Flash banner ads, coding a web page or preparing InDesign files for printers. At this level it’s all about learning the nuts and bolts of how the process all fits together. The role involves a lot of being told what to do and rising to the occasion.

Like a fledgling star you want your moment to shine and move up the food chain, so to speak. If something creative or challenging comes along in work then take a leap and volunteer to take it on. If it doesn’t come along in your job try something else – I know one designer who got a full time job based a series of nightclub flyers he did in his spare time.

Failing that, have a look at responding to some design crowdsourcing sites: not for money but to get some work in your portfolio. Pick something that captures your imagination. These are the design areas that you can show some flare in. You can even pick from a great many projects to find something that reflects your current skills or stretches them further. You can also pick projects from industries which reflect a specific job you are going for.


To the outside world this is what our average day looks like – if only…


There seems to be two paths for most people after being Production Designers. Some choose to be career production people while others strive for something much more creative. This post is aimed at the latter group. They are the ones who are shocked at the lack of creativity that their first job entailed since it probably involved filling in missing bits from an art director’s sketch (or lack of). Photos of designers reflect this and tend to involve them looking at designs or their computer screens. It’s as if they and the work are one.

To progress onto being a Designer (Visual Designer, Interactive Designer, Production Artist, Web Designer etc.) you will have to show mastery of the design software of your chosen field (banner ads, motion graphics, UI, print etc.) before moving away from them being the core of your job. While these skills defined your previous role the one you are aiming for (designer) will involve projects now starting with a blank page a with well-articulated problem in front of you. Most agencies have a non-profit client so volunteer for that work or find your own non profit clients – there must be one that matches your interests.

Similarly, I was at a talk once where a presenter said designers have to develop their own ‘Hot Rod’ project. What’s that? Well, if you needed your car fixed and you knew of two equally skilled mechanics located beside each other and charged the same amount which one would you pick? What if you found out that one of them built hot rods in his spare time? Now it’s obvious which one you would choose. Likewise in the design market there are so many designers with similar portfolios it becomes hard to choose who to hire.  


Every art director’s dream


When I taught Art Direction in San Francisco’s Academy of Art I told my students that they would be devising concepts and then becoming the champion of those concepts. In order to generate successful concepts an art director has to see the bigger picture, think things through in order to see the problem clearly and then devise a suitable solution. Have a look at the site Hovering Art Directors – there are lots of hands on chins and either expressive or folded arms.

In doing all of the above you end up managing projects from start to finish. Everyone else has a part to play but you are the director – hence the title. With that comes the shift to taking responsibility for deadlines, resources, a client (or a group of clients) and implementing high standards, all while co-ordinating with designers, production, photographers, developers, illustrators, printers etc.

In order to make the transition to art director a designer needs to stop not waiting to be told what to do and start thinking about the problems the ACD/CD is facing and how can you start helping. Think things through like they have to do and offer solutions. Design with more creative uniqueness in mind.* Start thinking on your feet more, volunteer to take on more problems, aim to present to your concepts to clients.

* My own view is that the more the unique the problem then the more unique the solution.


Sadly this is the stereotype of CDs – I always give credit for other people’s work


A huge amount of an ACDs/CDs day involves constantly providing answers, being in meetings, approving work, motivating team members and one-on-ones. You have to champion creative ideas, support the creative team yet tow the company line and advocate the clients needs in order for the business to grow. As a result it can be lonely at the top.

I didn’t mention “do really creative design work” as most ACDs/CDs are not actually designing anything any more. They often steer other’s design work, suggest solutions or clearly define a problem. Their personality is driving the team towards increased creativity. As a result photos of ACDs/CDs tend to have them looking straight at the camera. This partial involvement often causes them to take much of the glory should the project go well (see Lunchbreath’s cartoon above). The opposite is true if the project goes badly.

An ACD/CD also has to stand back and look at the biggest possible picture – where the business is going, improving the relationship with the client, building a creative team. Out of all the positions mentioned in this post this one has the highest stakes. You are responsible for the entire creative output of a firm/agency without any buffer zone. This really puts your head on the block. Perhaps it is finally having the greatest say (or greatest ego) but I have never worked for a CD who has not been laid off or fired at some point unless they were one of the company’s owners.


Guttenberg was not the inventor of moveable type – he just made it more accessible


When I was in the military we were always taught to think two levels up in case that person was killed or wounded in action. This may seem like an overly dramatic example compared to the world of design but a similar process will help get you to the position you want since we all have those emergencies where suddenly we are pulled off one project and shoved onto another. Basically if you are a designer you should be thinking what is the Creative Director/Associate Creative Director really looking for or hoping to achieve. If it’s “they want to look good when they are presenting your ideas to the client tomorrow” then you should be working backwards from there i.e. what will impress this client in particular, what rationale will be easier to present to them and what is the key takeaway to make it a memorable presentation.

It’s not just beginning to understand what the person two levels above really wants but thinking at that level on a daily basis. Soon it will effect everything you do. It’s not about needing the permission of a title to start thinking at the level but ‘being’ at that level. In some situations you will grow and thrive. In others you will create waves and may lose your job. Either way you will be true to your aspirations and not waiting for the day when someone grants you permission to think at a higher level.

Whether you get a chance to display this higher thinking in your job or not, start a blog or website on the area of design that is most of interest to you (especially if you are in a more stifling environment). Use it to demonstrate your ability to think like a leader, which will put you in the drivers seat and get you where you want to go. It also shows everyone else what you are capable of – a key step in getting the job you want.


Recruiters have seen so many portfolios that few things are new to them.


When it comes to titles it’s recruiters who have the clearest idea of what each title means and what a designer should be capable of. It’s their bread-and-butter so they don’t want to get  it wrong with their clients. However, different companies have their own idea of what each title actually means and they don’t want to take a chance at stretching someone to a level above their current one. You may feel you are quite capable of the job in question but the design industry places such a heavy emphasis on titles and it may become a barrier to your career progression.

An anecdote from my own career really illustrates this view in the design industry’s job market: in a previous job most of the creative staff had a range of titles (Art Director, Senior Art Director and Associate Creative Director) but all did roughly the same work. The title translated to the equivalent of a position one step lower in other companies or agencies. In a bizarre twist of fate years later a recruiter mistakenly sent my details back to the same firm again for another ACD position (I had left as an ACD). The firm asked “why had I taken a step down in my career by becoming a Senior Art Director after leaving?” I had to explain that despite the title, the next position was actually a huge step up in responsibility. This point became a big stumbling block for the ACD position in question as contrary to reality, in their eyes my career had gone downhill after leaving them, not uphill.

Since most design salaries are tied to a particular title the latter becomes the gateway to the former. As a result hiring managers and recruiters are very title centric when looking at your résumé. In the agency world everyone moves around so much that the market reaches its own equilibrium and balances out. Companies who don’t have creativity as their core business tend to pay lower. Jumping from one to the other can cause a shift in title and/or salary. In this case look closely at the creativity of the work and the level of responsibility to gauge what the job really entails.


Volunteer for creative side projects but beware of these common pitfalls that come with them 


While I have detailed some of the main aspects of the various stages in a designer’s career there are key things to do at every level that will help you ultimately get your ideal job:
– Ask yourself what your boss or their boss is thinking about and act accordingly
– Start your hotrod project (this blog is mine)
– Rise to the occasion when a challenge comes along
– Always try to meet other creatives (they may recommend you for a job)
– Go to design events to see what is going on in the industry*

Think of yourself as not just being the title you currently have but instead acting the part of the position you want to be. Others will start to see you that way too. Only you can decide to be the person that you want to be whereas anyone can just make a title up. Mine previously was ‘Grand Poo-Bah of Art Direction’. At that time the designer beside me held the title ‘Zombie Killer’. Another’s was ‘Superhero’. After all, they’re just titles.

* Meet-Ups or AIGA events (panel discussions on design, studio tours, design competitions)


The Creative Process: The Shower Effect


30 Rock: Jack Donaghy appears to Liz Lemon in her dreams as her Shower Effect

There are plenty of banal ads out there selling all sorts of things. They pander to the average person. But then most people aren’t average and they certainly don’t think of themselves that way. To get through to them creatives hear a litany of creative briefs asking for ‘outside the box thinking’ or for something ‘impactful’ that ‘cuts through the clutter’. Designers and copywriters are then wheeled in to come up with more creative concepts. The bigger the problem the more creatives are added as though it’s a battle of attrition–metaphorically like the troops trying to fight their way off the beaches on D-Day.

Usually the actual process involves doing research on a project, followed by a brainstorming session which produces a certain amount of results. Yet despite all that someone has a sudden vision of the solution in it’s totality the next morning while in the shower (or other non work place). This has become so well known that there was an episode of 30 Rock devoted to this process (The Shower Principle above). In this post I attempt to answer the two big questions around the Shower Effect: why can’t you plan for this moment and how can it become part of the creative process?


Edison famously said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

To give the Shower Effect’s it’s full context I’ve added it into the 5 common stages of the concepting process as defined by David Perkins in his book The Eureka Effect:

1. The Long Search: The deep thinking, experiments and gathering of information conducted when launching into the project. This is best illustrated by Edison’s methodical search for the right material for a light bulb filament which took years. Inspiration came when he thought of using the carbonized bamboo of fishing rods to create the filament (hence the visual cliché of a light bulb turning on to represent a flash of insight).

2. Period of Little Progress: Since, for most concepts, the low hanging fruit are already taken there is a period of stressing about getting beyond what is already out there e.g. the Wright brothers struggled for years with no success.

3. Precipitating Event: Something happens to bring about the moment of insight. For most people this is being in the shower. Similarly Archimedes saw water overflowing from his bath tub that gave him the vision of how to measure the volume of an object.

4. Cognitive Snap: The falling into place of solution: this is the crux of the Shower Effect.

5. Transformation: New means of seeing problem from that point on.


The dream of brainstorming: this only exists in the world of stock photos

The reality of brainstorming: note the reserved body language

If you’re reading this you’ve probably been in a brainstorming session at some point. You’ve seen how a group is gathered in a meeting room for one or two hours with the hope that with so many people battering away at the problem a definitive solution will be reached at the end of that time period. A profusion of ideas are generated to be honed down afterwards. However there are two big problems with this approach…

The first is that brainstorming produces consensus not uniqueness. Individuals feel that they personally are being evaluated as if in a test and tend to clam up (Evaluation apprehension). Individuals also tend to match the productivity of others in the group tending towards under contribution rather than over contribution (Social matching effect). In brainstorming sessions anyone can easily coast along during the session with minimal input to the group (Free riding) while all the time thinking they are making more of a contribution (Illusion of group productivity). Brainstormers also tend to listen more closely to the louder or more senior people over those who have neither of these qualities (Blocking).*

The second big problem with brainstorming is that while there may be many ideas at the end of session they mostly lack any depth. There is no one person sweating it out during a deep dive into the subject. Research indicates that the act of listening to others actually stifles creativity. The best concepts have something of their originator in them. That’s the part that resonates with us. After all ads/branding/designs have to connect with individuals in a deep way, something that committees can rarely achieve.

*All phrases in brackets are the psychological terms for these effects as defined by  Stroebe, Diehl & Abakoumkin in “The illusion of group effectivity”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18 (5): 643–650.


Simple ideas with a lot of impact usually come in a flash and need little explanation.

The average day exposes us to an enormous amount of ads/messages which we mostly screen out. This means that it is harder to come up with something that connects with another human being in a meaningful way. Part of fertilizing the brain in order to reach these connecting creative breakthroughs involves a deep dive into the subject matter.

The inward soul searching is necessary to rethink a product/service: how it’s used, how it makes something more convenient, how it’s held, it’s intrinsic appeal etc. Applied to that is the pressure on the individual to come up with results for whatever reason: a job, peer jealousy, profits, a patent, ownership etc. Somehow in all this someone has to pour their soul into the project in order reach another person’s soul. Think of Van Gogh who told his brother that no painting ever sold for as much as it cost the artist to make it.

This doesn’t mean that the solution will automatically come after all that work. It’s more like your brain is facing the problem across a no man’s land of the mind. You keep probing, looking for a weak point in the line for a breakthrough. However, as Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind so without this preparation the sudden moment of realization that is the shower effect would never happen.


I often have A-ha moments during meetings on other projects: this post-it note sketch is for HP Airprint

The period of frustration in the digging deep phase primes the subconscious perfectly for the A-ha moment. This hardship fertilizes the incubation period of the idea just before the transformative insight. Like a giant connecting of the dots the solution just seems to fall into place, just not when or where you want it to.

But why showers? Well it doesn’t have to be a shower but could be any activity not connected directly to the problem at hand. A night’s worth of the subconscious mulling over the problem also helps connect the dots since we have hundreds of dreams a night are bound to throw up more strange scenarios. One of them is bound to be right. But then it’s often lost again. By the time we are getting our head around the day you are probably in the shower already. The lack of concentration needed to perform this physical act means and the lack of outside stimuli leaves the mind is completely free to wander. Suddenly the solution emerges from the subconscious to the conscious: A-ha!

But how is the vision so complete and not partial? A study by Dr Mark Beeman of fMRI brain scans during these A-ha moments reveals a huge explosion of activity in the right hemisphere. It’s as if the seeds of scattered thoughts are sown across the brain during the deep dive phase, to be incubated by sleep followed by a sudden blossoming all at once in a single solution.


It’s not just taking a lot of showers

Routine is the Enemy
– Take a break and talk to someone you don’t normally talk to.
– Other people may provide unexpected insight into the problem.
– Switch off fully to the problem when not working on it.
– Mix up the usual routines you do as you’re working.
– Time pressure may help to edit out the bad ideas.

Intuition needs to flow
– Do not over think things as you will end up second guessing everything.
– I used to listen to audiobooks to occupy the second guessing part of brain when painting.
– Now I watch murder mysteries to keep my mind in puzzle solving mode.
– Outside projects help to get your mind out of its usual pattern of thinking.
– Ji Lee, CD of Facebook and Google Labs, got these two jobs due to projects outside of work.

Finishing up
– Work backwards from the final vision to fill in the main steps.
– Think about the approvers and how they’re likely to react too to the idea.
– If you can’t explain the idea in 30 seconds then it may be too complicated.
– Creativity appears in clusters so dive into the next project quickly.
– Don’t get caught in the rut of thinking the same lateral solution will work for everything


Jack Donaghy’s nightmare: listening to multiple Liz Lemons’ problems. It turns out to be his shower effect

No matter where the creative process takes you there’s still the need to dig deep in order to prime your subconscious. Although the Shower Effect is unpredictable, following this simple formula will help:

Deep dive + frustration x primed subconscious during sleep = A-ha solution

The main thing is being open to letting it happen. It doesn’t have to be a shower. Erich, a designer I used to work with, came up with all his breakthroughs while going to the bathroom. It happened with surprising certainty. In the episode of 30 Rock ‘the Shower Principle’, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) works out that listening to all of Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) problems gives him enough of a break from his own to allow flashes of insight to happen. Have fun and take a shower.