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Inside Out or Outside In

I’ve started this essay a number to times, writing it various different ways but kept scrapping each iteration because in the end it was much too negative. What I want to talk about is uncomfortable.

It’s hard when you work inside a large machine to not get caught up in the gears some days. But a good tact for the essay finally materialized and my hope is that you not only glean something from it, but find it valuable.

Enough of the pre-ramble.

I spent a large part of my career on the agency/studio side of the fence, but over the past nine years I have been working in-house, riding the wave so many creative folk have been on after the financial meltdown in 2008. In-house used to be the place good creatives would go to die, giving up fighting the good fight out in the agency world to settle in for comfort, security and a steady paycheck.

There was a cycle to it: The economy goes south, people run for cover in big corporations to shield them from whatever hardships were coming their way, but as soon as the economy picked back up again, they bolt for the nearest agency to get the hell out of the machine before they got chewed up.

Not so much anymore.

The cycle broke over the past decade. For any number of reasons, creatives with some serious chops are choosing to stay in-house rather than jumping back into the agency world. According to The Drum, Campaign and other industry pubs, this is being felt all over the world. Business has indeed come around to the idea of having top talent inside the borg. They are willing to pay the good salaries and often times contend with issues brought about by creative types because they recognize the value these individuals bring to the company. I won’t belabor any of this here; you can read about elsewhere as this subject all over the interweb.

What I want to dive into are things I have noticed, learned and even acted upon on after years being in-house. Again, enough rambling, just get on with it:

Starting on a positive note: The business world has caught up the Mr Watson’s quip from 60 or so years ago and finally agreed that Good Design is Good for Business. This is a game-changer for those of us who create for a living. Another thought that spurred me to write this essay was something else I read recently. I’ll paraphrase Mr Bill Bernbach:

Creativity is the last advantage a corporation can legally use over the competition. 

A little more cut-throat than Mr Watson’s much kinder, gentler thought, but true. I think you see it more in the UX/UI side of the design business, but it is prevalent everywhere, even in the old, dusty marketing department of your favorite Fortune 500. Good work for good companies is there to be had by good creatives, all under one roof.

Now a negative to the trend: The downside for creative professionals is that corporations are not set up to address the career of a creative. For example: At Schlumberger, my title was Creative Director, a plumb-sounding gig. But if you looked at the back-end of the HR system, my title was actually Marketing Specialist 3. I’ve never been one to get hung up on job titles, but what this actually tells you is that a CD doesn’t  truly have a place in that particular machine. They recognized they needed the work creatives provide, but do not understand how to get it out of people and help them sustain their careers. Notice I am no longer working there.

This leads me to career progression, which most companies struggle with, especially with creative types. Once you have succeeded, where do you go? How do you reward creatives for all the good work they do to move the sales needle or save the company some money? Or both, in some instances.

Marketing organizations, even at large corporations, are relatively flat management structures and there is not much room to maneuver. This is a particularly tough issue when dealing with the Millennial generation who thrive under praise. (That is not a critique of the generation, just an observation, mind you.) The bigger the company the slower they move to change, and trying to get creatives shoe-horned into nice, neat career paths is quite an undertaking. One of which I tried and failed. Career development was not an issue when designers left companies and went back to the agency world when the economy picked up, as mentioned earlier, but this is a critical issue to address as creatives look to have longer careers inside big business. The situation creates a unique opportunity for change.

One plus and one minus. What is a big plus for keeping creative in-house?

I grokked on this and it led me to writing this mad ramble. The one benefit that a good creative brings to the job everyday that is extraordinarily beneficial to their company: Objectivity.

A good creative-type from the agency world brings this outsider’s attitude with them wherever they go. Their training and experience has them always keeping a sharp eye not on the company, but the company’s customers. But it can be a double-edged sword.

Even though objectivity is the most important thing a creative can bring to the in-house table, it is often times the hardest thing to maintain. When you are part of the organization, you have to be able to strike that delicate balance between being responsive to what your boss (or her boss!) is asking for yet still be able to stretch your imagination to push the company forward. It’s kind of like saying “conceptual PowerPoint” — it is an oxymoron. It is tough but it is possible.

Keeping yourself at arm’s length from the company while being inside is your superpower, allowing you to see things how they are, and more importantly, how things can become. The only way to do that is to not be totally immersed in the company culture. Not drinking the Kool-Aid can be very hard to do. And it can cause you problems, as noted above. Being at odds with the prevailing winds can make your life in the office difficult. But remember this:

Conformity kills creativity. 

If there is any one take away from this long piece, it is that. One last story:

I got in hot water with the VP of Marketing at PULSE when I worked there. In full transparency, he gave me a project and I totally misunderstood what he was asking for. So much so that two other people sided with me on this matter. But he was angry with me for NOT delivering what he desired. He called me into his office to scold me. While berating about willfully disobeying his direction, he called me “subversive”. He did not mean it as a compliment, but that was exactly how I took it. I said “thank you” and thought I might get fired.

I always strive to create positive change in all the things I do, trying make situations better for the company and its customers.

If you plan to work inside a large corporation, be subversive. Stay objective in all your creative work while you look to push the company forward. Fight for that change. Maybe that’s why so many creatives are staying in-house?

There are Only Two Kinds of Design

I discovered a podcast called My Favorite Album that is about music critics, or other smarty pants-types in the industry, talking about albums that had a huge impact on their lives — the records they go back to time and time again. Being a self-proclaimed music snob, I’ve been choosey about which episodes I’ll listen to, but the other day I listened to the episode of Scott Sharrard discussing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Sharrard played in the Allman Brothers Band, and in his view, Kind of Blue had huge influence on the direction Gregg and Duane took the group.  What?

How do you get that? This southern jam band’s biggest influence is the modal, cool qualities of one of the most signifiant jazz recordings of all time? How is that possible?

Sharrard went on to explain how this cosmic duality is possible with an amazing quote from Duke Ellington. As Duke elegantly put it… There are only two kinds of music — good and bad. Let that soak in for a minute.

When I heard Sharrard relay the quote, a revelation hit me almost immediately. There are only two kinds of Design, good and bad. What’s the difference a print ad, a package, a sign system, an app, a website or anything else that a designer would make? The only differences are the tools used or skills needed to execute the design, but the underlying concepts and principles of greta design are fundamentally identical. For all you specialists out there, let that soak in.

I’ve spoken about this elsewhere in the site, extolled the virtues and praised the benefits of being a generalist. Looks like I have Duke Ellington to back me up on this one.

And the best logo of 2018 goes to…

No one.

I look forward to Under Consideration’s Brand New list of the best reviewed logos at the end of every year. What an incredible disappointment 2018 was. Little was interesting, revolutionary, and worse, most of the marks reviewed revealed a disparaging amount of parity.

There are a few marks labelled as brilliant, which I would rate as fine. But nothing that made me think “I wish I had done that”. Which, by the way, is what all Designers should secretly strive to do.

This was the best reviewed logo of the year?

It’s strange. So few logos have concepts, and if they do, they are so abstract or inwardly focused that in reality they actually are quite self-defeating as marks.

And the typography is so bland. Nothing but sans serifs, so many, that even as a trained, practicing designer I am struggling to discern one from the other. Think about how this affects the everyday, uneducated audience. Can they tell one from the other? For all you youngsters out there: Choosing between Gotham and Helvetica is not a concept.

Okay, the 1970s type desperately needed updating, but…


WOW! Hope no one got hurt during the redesign.


Why this is?

One thought is the internet, the source of all good and evil in the world. It is so easy for the design community to look at and share ideas, see work instantly. You used to have to wait 60 days for the next issue of CA to come out to see what was fresh, new and cutting edge. You had time to absorb and think about the work rather than be reactionary.

What worries me is that more designers are simply following trends rather than trying to start them. That’s a seriously dangerous way to design, folks. What’s trendy and cool today is stale and dated tomorrow. And the last thing you want is a logo your client spent $20,000 mounting to the side of building looking dated six months from now.

Another thought is two-fold. One, are clients wanting to follow the herd, to be the same. Be safe. It is much easier to go with the flow rather than forge your own way upstream against the current.

What a sad commentary on the state of branding in the fashion industry.


Along those same lines, are designers doing a good enough job of pitching truly innovative logos. 2018 might have been a banner year for logo designs, only the work never had the opportunity to see the light of day because the designer’s presentation skills are lacking. It’s easy to sell what a client expects — you have to work to sell the new.

Originality is never an easy sell.

Or it is this march towards simplification. Again, a trend. I’m all for minimalism and brevity, but there is a breaking point where the simple becomes simplistic. Minimalism does not mean dumb-down.

Or, are designs over-intellectualized to the point where the designs are deconstructed so deeply that at the essence, there is nothing left of the design.

All of this is disturbing. I thought perhaps that it was just me, that I’ve gotten old and cynical about these things. Too much reverence for the work that has come before me and not enough insight into what is currently being produced. I waited two full weeks to publish this post with the intention of reviewing the work again, looking at it with fresh eyes and making sure it isn’t just me being an old codger. Unfortunately, I think my opinions on the marks of 2018 may have diminished even further.

Lets’s work to make 2019 is a better year for logos.

The Rich Visual Feast, Part 2

As stated in a post published in 2017, an artist should always strive to create “The Rich, Visual Feast” according to my printmaking professor, Lynwood Kreneck. I want to revisit this idea.

Over the holidays I saw two of the most visually compelling movies I’ve seen in a long time: Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and The Favourite. Both were complex stories, but in all honesty I would almost like to see them both again but without the sound, just soak up the movies purely with my eyes.

Of the two, I prefer Spiderman for a few reasons. Visually, it is hands down one of the finest pieces of animation I’ve ever seen. The characters had such life and volume, yet were still had that cartoony look. Almost hyper-real, like Speed Racer from a few years ago. What really got me was the dot patterns — the moire patterns — you seen in old comic books due to the poor printing quality. Those dots were overlaid on most of the movie, although they would become more pronounced at times when the light hit them the right way. In all, the effect added so much more to the overall picture. It was breath-taking.

I am not really into period pieces, but agreed to see The Favourite because my wife loves these movies. Much to its credit, it was beautiful to watch. It is one of those movies that had me feeling uncomfortable the whole time, but afterwards we have yet to quit talking about it. These sumptuous, opulent costumed people in this ornate castle not being satisfied living out these extraordinary lives, despite the reality that there was a war with France going on, and the rest of England was suffering terribly. The story was filled with this kind of duality that you only come realize upon reflection afterwards.

That is ultimately the difference between the two movies. One was an instant hit of pure visual pleasure while the other presented itself in such a way that it compelled me to not only sit through it, but I still cannot quit thinking about it. There is an interesting lesson here about how to use visuals to tell stories and how powerful visuals can be.

Now, which one is my favourite?

You Know You’re a Designer When…

In March, I went for an eye exam and after confirming that my vision was in fact getting worse, and went to select a frame to hold the new prescription. I’d been wearing these modern Oakley frames and wanted to go for a different look. Something more bookish is what I had in mind.

As I went with the optometrist’s assistant to choose some frames, I was instantly drawn to a pair (blindly of course because I did not have my glasses on), put them on and loved them.

Easy, but one problem.

Out of the hundreds of frames to choose from, I had selected what had to be the most expensive frames in the store – a frame by Prada that cost well over $700, and that is before I put prescription lenses in them. I put the Prada frames back and selected another pair that I could afford.

This ability to pick out the very best of the very best is something I am quite good at, only I wish I had the finances to support these choices. I have been known to walk into a store, find a sport coat I love, look at the price tag and see that it is a couple thousand dollars.  “Champagne tastes on a beer budget”, unfortunately for me.

So what does any of this have to do with knowing when you’re a designer? Everything.

It’s more than simply having good taste. You will know you’re a Designer when you can innately spot the best of the best, whether it is design excellence, spotting inherent talent in someone or seeing a problem along with the solution to solve it. You’re a Designer when you don’t have to even think about these things because you are in tune with the world enough that you can make sound choices. Often times these choices will lead to creating a positive impact on the world.

Some people can do this quickly, like while they are still in school or shortly thereafter, while others have to grow into it. Neither is right nor wrong, or better or worse, it is just the way people are. The key is this: That you develop the ability. Being able to discern the truly excellent from the good is a key element to helping give you a unique voice as a Designer.

In the end, I ditched the frames I bought in March for a pair of Ray Ban’s (pictured above) in early December. Very simple, lightweight and comfortable – all excellent qualities. Just wish I hadn’t been blinded by the Prada’s in the first place.