In my art college, the renowned National College of Arts, our course instructors taught us that the process of designing starts and ends in an organized manner. You are to create. Start with the mind maps, think of ideas, then take a sketchbook and make thumbnails of as many ideas as you can come up with. Choose one or two of the best ones, and that is where you start working on your computer. The computer is just a medium – the design is in your head and goes onto your sketchbook.
Sadly, these teachings don’t always apply when you start ‘working’ in the ‘real’ world. I learned this the hard way while working in an in-house creative department. This is usually how it works: you start working on a sketchbook and the art director and your fellow designers give you smirks and perhaps think, ‘Amateurs! They don’t know the real world yet.’ Invariably, you get to hear things like: ‘ummm you are not in a school anymore, why do you need a sketchbook and brainstorming. Just make it!’ or ‘Okay we need to make a poster. Put red there white here and text on it.’
One of the weirdest situations I came across with involved a marketing person who had a degree in religious studies. She sat with me for four hours telling me, put this color there, that mark here, change the color back to the same, can we add a box somewhere; and it went on. For the sake of making her understand that it’s not her job I kept following the orders. I knew design is a hard process, it can cause brain damage at times and I knew she will reach that brain-dead phase soon and give up. After about three hours she had a headache and went for a smoke. To my disbelief, she came back and was ready to design some more – but only barely. She started calling other people to help her, but wouldn’t ask me, and little seemed to work. Eventually, by the end of it she did realize design is not her cup of tea.
In another interesting instance, a collegue asked me to simply google ideas, grab some free vectors and make a design, asking me what was the point of putting so much of my own effort into it! To me, that was like being asked to rust my brains, to kill my skills and be a photocopy machine.
Raheel Ahson, an NCA graduate and a Senior Designer at Return on Investment (RoI), an ad agency in Jeddah, says: “I suggest one should never work as an in-house graphic designer. You don’t get to make good portfolio there. Your work is mostly the same and very limited, unless of course your employer happens to be in the league of the Googles and the Apples. There is no challenge in an in-house design job as most of the work is routine with no boundaries to push and no creative margin to explore.”
I also talked to Akmal Cheema, who is a renowned communication designer in Pakistan, and is currently working as a brand and communication design consultant, and teaching at NCA and BNU. Discussing why in-house graphic designers are treated more as executor or software technicians rather than as real designers, he says, “One possible reason of this is their easy availability within the company as service personnel. They can be protected from this by bringing in a proper job flow system where every job requires a written brief signed by the head of a business group so that there should be some checks to ensure the quality of work h/she is been asked to produce.”
Sharing his experience, he added, “Once in my career, I’ve experienced something close to an in-house arrangement. When I helped Sabeen Saigol in building RED (Communication Arts), our obvious clients were the Saigol Group of Industries. We were initially perceived as in-house service unit but Sabeen made sure right in the beginning that we should be taken as an independent communication partner and not as an in-house unit. This role can only be played by the management not the designer. But since we were part of the same group therefore we use to go extra mile to service our group clients.”
While writing this article, I wondered if the in-house designers situation was the same in other parts of the world as well. Sanford Farrier, chair of Visual Communications department at Endicott College gave me an overview of the way things were for the in-house graphic designers in the US: “The marketing team gives them the ideas to design and they are merely made to execute them” – this can be the way in-house design happens here as well. Put another way: an in-house designer somehow is not given the same respect or credibility that’s bestowed on an outside design consultant. Personally, I think it has to do with the perception that a paid outside consultant, by virtue of them having a separate design business, somehow has greater design expertise. The success of their business depends on it. There are some notable examples to the contrary – Apple, Rolling Stone, and others – in which the in-house design team has won numerous awards and has become a recognized leader in the design field.”
Globally, especially in the United States, the role and appreciation of in-house graphic designers is the new topic of debate. “To address the unique opportunities and challenges faced by this in-house community, AIGA has partnered with The Creative Group (TCG) to form “INitiative,” a program to help in-house designers make a greater impact at their companies, evolve professionally and connect with a broader network of peers.” This initiative has several projects on the go: INform e-newletter, INformation and expertise, INspiring videos and INitiative events. Bringing the in-house designers to the forefront can help the corporate sector realize the role and importance of a graphic designer. Similarly, the GDUSA has annual in-house graphic designers awards. “It is a unique opportunity for inhouse design, marketing and communications departments within corporations, publishing houses, non-profits, universities and government agencies to be recognized for their creativity, for the special challenges they face, and for their contributions to their businesses and institutions.”
On the other hand Pakistan lags far behind in its level of awareness, understanding and analysis of such matters. The process will take time. As the graphic design industry grows, there will be more awareness and more initiatives to appreciate and support in-house designers.
So, what is a designer to do at these circumstances? Here are a few options:
- You are a designer, a creative individual that has its own sense of design. Just because others think your ideas are not mature enough that’s their problem not yours. You are a fresh mind, a hub of new ideas. They might just be stuck with old, decrepit approach.
- Give extra time to your work. That doesn’t mean working after office hours. That means keeping on thinking of the work at hand so that you can keep sketching ideas and reach a refined stage.
- Talk to your boss to give you a chance to your creativity and think a little out of the box. Give them the hope that you will incorporate their idea as well. Chances are s/he will compromise on a middle ground.
- You are responsible for creating awareness about design. You have a bachelor’s (or more) in visual design – an average person does not. Definitely you know more about it. Think of yourself as a doctor. At times the patient might ask for a painkiller but you have to tell him that it’s a tumor and needs an operation in a very subtle manner.
- At times in- house designers get higher pay and that serves as an attractive factor but do not let it be the only factor deriving you to work.
- Don’t compromise for the second best. Once you start doing that, your design skills will begin to rust. You are the one who is going to suffer not them. If things are really holding you back, it’s better to start looking for other jobs.
There can be many other creative ways to carve your way out. Brooding, or getting yourself down over it is not an intelligent way through. Yes, it can be very frustrating working as an in-house designer in Pakistan and not everyone can adjust to it. If in-house designing is what you want to do for whatever reason, then some diplomacy, patience, consistency of effort and a splash of passion for what you do might just mean seeing your boat sail out into the high seas.
Oh, and as a final note: I must end by saying I have deep respect for those people who have been working in-house and have managed to keep their creativity alive!
By Komal Faiz
Komal is an emerging graphic designer, photographer and film maker. She is a US state alumni, currently working as a communication designer at Women Empowerment Group (WEG). She also works as a freelancer on and off. To add new dimensions to her expression she dances, writes and designs jewelry. Twitter