“Say, you’re [ ... ], right? What is it that you do again?”
“I’m a designer. I just developed an entire campaign for your team last week, remember?”
“Oh! Right! You make things look pretty!”
Encounters like this, which indicate that your internal clients don’t fully understand what goes into the process of design, are a signal that you’re not effectively communicating your worth to your stakeholders. This unfamiliarity with your process as a professional, can cause your stakeholders to disregard your expertise and impose their subjective opinions on your strategically constructed designs, requiring additional rounds of design revisions, possibly weakening the final designs, and creating unnecessary delays to other projects in your pipeline. This only further undermines your efforts as you frequently appear to be in reactive mode, falling behind schedule, struggling to get your ideas accepted, and inevitably not producing your best work.
In-house designers frequently find themselves trapped in this cycle and, sadly, become accustomed to getting trounced upon. I see it with my clients every week. And when someone is brought in from the outside, that person or firm is treated like they suddenly have all the answers. What gives, yo?
The difference is not in the talent, or the knowledge, or the position of those on the outside versus those from within; the difference is in the cultures of the two situations. Although the tide has been turning over the past decade with companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, to name but a few, recognizing the value of in-house teams and giving them a seat at the table, it generally still exists that in-house designers are given very little voice within their organizations. This goes hand-in-hand with unique ‘benefits’ shared by in-house designers, compared to the experience of agency designers or solo practitioners, such as lack of competition, guaranteed clients, an almost complete absence of the pitching process, insulation from stakeholders, and easier hours (usually). But, with the exception of the last one, it is these ‘benefits’ that weaken the influence of in-house designers.
We’re always hearing about “adding value” but if you’re an in-house designer who is constantly being dumped upon with we-need-it-now requests, adding value might not be at the top of your agenda. The irony is, that by changing your focus, you can actually shift the balance of influence to your favor.
Increasing your influence means your ideas are valued more, your input is questioned less, and you have an easier time getting your job done. Increasing your influence means you can finally move out of reactive mode and start focusing more on strategy. Increasing your influence means you actually become more valuable, making a more significant contribution to the company’s bottom line.
To do this, you need to think in terms of 1.) Creating Value, which involves all the activities related to the process of getting your (internal) clients what they need, and 2.) Capturing Value, which involves how you incorporate feedback from your clients and the marketplace after the job is done to confirm that you’re providing something that positively impacts the business.
If you are hoping to be offered a seat at the table, you need to take a good hard look at your process. Doing things the way they’ve always been done is not the path to creating change. As an outside consultant, I am always on the lookout for things I can change to make it easier for my clients to work with me. An early example is how I write proposals. I figured that my clients would want to know exactly what was going to be happening with their projects, and when. Also, they would want to know what each piece would cost, and if there might be other options they could explore that might save them money, or could expand the project for greater results. Since then, I’ve examined every step of the process, from how people find us online, to letting clients know that we’ve received their payment (we developed a set of HTML stationery pages which I installed into my mail app – if you want to see a sample, send me an email). You can (and must!) do the same if you want to change how you are perceived within your organization. List out every step in the process of a piece getting designed and distributed, including (but not limiting yourself to) how you perform the following:
- Accept new requests for projects
- Provide estimates for how many hours something will require
- Conduct research, interview stakeholders and compile information
- Communicate progress towards milestones
- Arrange meetings with stakeholders
- Allocate resources to each project
- Present concepts and explain how they answer the design challenge
- Communicate your process
- Thank stakeholders for their attention and input
- Follow up with stakeholders who are slow to respond
- Accept criticism of your work or reject input from stakeholders
- Proof-read your work
- … and so on.
With your process laid out, it’s time to go through each item and look for ways to improve it to make yourself more efficient, make it easier for your internal clients to work with you, and demonstrate that you are a vital contributor to the business. This will, of course, vary with the nature of your organization; if all your requests are coming from just one person, then deploying an online traffic system that displays the status of every project for every requester may be overkill. If you already have a process for communicating project timelines, then this may not be where you focus your attention. But if projects routinely get plopped onto your desk with a sticky note that says “I need this by tomorrow” then you probably know where to start improving your process. (Remember: when you communicate how long a project will take by explaining how you intend to apply a strategic approach to meeting the objectives of the project, you are educating your internal clients of the value you provide to the organization, but you are also providing more value.)
As you make improvements to how you serve your internal clients, people will start listening to you, and you will find that you are given more respect. Instead of hearing ‘we need this tomorrow” you’ll start hearing “can you get back to me with your time estimate?”
Not everyone will remember all the great work you’ve done. Some people will need to have it pointed out to them before they start to recognize how valuable you are. Circling back with your stakeholders after a project has delivered can tell you if your project hit the mark with its audience, but it can also shine a light on the fact that that your work has positively impacted your internal client’s business results.
When following up with your stakeholders, remember that the quality of the information you receive will be related to the quality of your questions and the attention given them. This means avoiding ambushing your stakeholders on their way to the bathroom with a “Say! How’d you like that design I did?” Instead, schedule a brief meeting with stakeholders to look over the results and to make necessary modifications optimizing these results, and then gather feedback from your stakeholders regarding what they enjoyed about working with you and what you could change to make their job easier next time. Doing so, can create very positive feelings with your stakeholders by 1.) Reviewing the success that your work brought them, 2.) Showing them that you’re interested in improving their results, and 3.) Re-iterating the thoughtful process that goes into developing successful design. Also, this will make you a better designer.
Do you have personal experience with this? Have you run into difficulty gaining respect from your stakeholders, colleagues, or upper management? Share your experiences, and if we can offer any helpful advice, we will.