Designing in the Corporate Environment
Corporate web design is becoming increasingly common in the workplace. Companies that expand over time are hiring more internal designers every day. This runs counter to the thought in the design community that smaller, quality focused design firms will become the norm. While design firms do typically create better designs on the average, believe it or not, “quality” is often a term that corporate clients ignore entirely when working with their web properties. I’ve experience most of this first hand, and let me tell you, it’s a very strange world inside corporate America, and it’s only getting weirder by the day.
I’ve decided to write this article to help designers such as myself. I started out in small firms, designing really high quality sites, eventually doing it on my own as a freelancer, then on the side while I took a full-time job in photography. Now I’ve moved on and I’m part of a design department in a medium sized corporation. It’s day and night compared to what I was used to. The transition has been hard and I’ve learned quite a few lessons along the way. It’s those that I’d like to share with you.
I’d like to outline this by discussing first some very common problems with designing inside a company environment and then by offering some suggestions and tips to help you keep your sanity. These are things that, had I known them two years ago, probably would have helped me avoided a lot of migraines.
Now, some of you might suggest that I’ve in some way “sold out” by discussing how to work in the corporate environment. I would suggest that you take one look at the current job market and ask yourself what’s more important, your high horse and “artistic values” or putting food on the table? No one “likes” to be involved in a corporate environment, especially artists. Sometimes we have to take jobs that might benefit our families rather than our sense of moral superiority.
At any rate, I hope that the fresh-out, struggling designer in the corporate world can appreciate some of these tips. If you’re a successful, independent, freelance designer who only works with the best of the best, this article probably isn’t for you. You wouldn’t happen to have any openings at your small design firm would you?
The Problems with Corporate Design:
Management IS your client
This may sound completely foreign to artists who are used to having “clients” and juggling them and their crazy demands around, but you really don’t have any in the corporate world. The company, and more directly, your boss are you clients. Their boss is in turn their client. Everyone is trying to make everyone above them on the food chain happy. If the boss is happy, everyone is happy. It’s a hard concept to grasp at first, but you can let go of the “client” mentality right from the beginning. Not only does no one want to be treated like a client, you won’t be able to get feedback and input from “the client” in the first place.
Clients, for as much as designers complain about them, at least usually have a goal. There’s something they wanted, even if they can’t articulate that to you. Corporations simply want things done and usually don’t care how you do it, how long it takes you, or why you picked that particular shade of blue. By the way, you don’t get to charge by the hour anymore, you’re on salary, you don’t even get overtime. If a website takes you 120 hours, you’re still only going to get paid for 40. Just a friendly heads-up. Oh, and that shade of blue, it’s going to change, so don’t stress over it. Speaking of thing changing…
Design by Committee
This is the single greatest threat to your sanity in the corporate workplace. You’re used to making EVERY decision, picking colors, deciding on layouts, designing interfaces. You no longer have the authority or expertise to make ANY of those decisions. Instead, you, your boss, your art department co-workers (if you’re incredibly lucky) as well as random (often bored) employees from the office will form what’s typically referred to as a “design committee”. It’s the committee’s job to “help you” decide on all of the aforementioned things. Unfortunately, because your co-workers are engineers, accountants and secretaries, they’ve never been to art school or had any sort of design training. Quite often, they’re actually opinion is that orange and green go together, words should blink, everything should be at least 24pt font and that most things look awesome in Comic Sans. These are the people you’re going to have to work with. You have a long road ahead of you.
Design committees are bad for two main reasons. First, as I mentioned before, they’re totally unqualified to help you in the first place and second, without the committees approval you can’t move forward. Everyone needs to be happy with a design before it’s given the all-clear. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and that goes doublely-so around a conference table.
I know email is typically a wonderful thing. It’s a great way to communicate and discuss things with friends and co-workers. It is not however, designed to be a tool of mass destruction for your inbox. Since the design committee can only meet every Tuesday at 2pm, the rest of your week, when you’re not working, you’ll be receiving what I like to call “email carpet bombs”. A ECB is when one person sends out an email to someone in the group with everyone else CC’ed in on it. In turn, everyone “replies all” to the email, and CC’s everyone again. This goes on for most of the day, with no one ever bothering to change the subject line of the email. This results in 40 emails with the same exact subject, hitting your inbox within seconds/minutes of each other. I don’t care what kind of email client you have, none of them are prepared to search or index those in any sort of meaningful way. You will never remember which one of those 40 emails was the response you were actually looking for. You’ll spend at least 30 minutes every morning just trying to figure out which email it was that you were supposed to be working from.
This can be a tricky one, but it usually applies to specific design project requirements. Sometimes you’ll get a project that might be specialized to only a small portion of the company. An internal webpage just for the Sales department, a login form for HR, something of that nature. By the vast wisdom of your design committee, they’ve decided to also include “Marge from accounting” on the team because she’s an “outside opinion”. Some times outside and impartial opinions can actually be helpful if you’ve been looking at a problem for so long that you can’t see outside the box anymore, but in the corporate world, it’s simply one more person on your team that you need to get up to speed as fast as possible. This often leads to a lot of first-round “I’m lost” or “I don’t get it” statements. If a design committee hears from your outsider that they don’t understand what you’ve made, they’ll think they (and more accurately, YOU) have failed in the implementation of the design and therefor the entire project needs to be re-evaluated and sent back to the drawing board.
This happens more often than not at companies that only invest partially in their technology infrastructure. I’ve had instances where I’ve been told that we can’t install a certain type of software on the server because it’s still running Windows NT 4.0, or we can’t upgrade the database servers because Accounting is using some piece of software that needs a FoxPro database to run. Sometimes it’s the physical machines themselves. Your first corporate “work station” computer might be running Photoshop 7 on Windows XP SP1 before you beg for an upgrade. Your “server” might also be a cobbled together old Windows 2000 box with a couple extra network cards in it. These are the kinds of things to prepare yourself for. Not everyone will have a brand new machine, running the latest OS with the best software. That leads me to…
Yes, this is the IE6 part of the article, and I have a real life example of the horror that can arise from having an office full of old, dying machines.
Now, I chose the high-road on this one. I made a plea to the IT department to first upgrade our timesheet software and then everyones browsers. I got the ball rolling by pointing out the security hazards involved with staying in the dark ages. You might not be so lucky. I’m absolutely NOT saying it’s ok to design for IE6. Let it die. If they can’t see it, I would suggest the same road I took. If that doesn’t work, hell, carry around your laptop with you and show them all one at a time what your website looks like “in the real world”.
This, in my opinion, is a scam. There is no such thing as a project manager, except perhaps in construction. Those folks are call foremen, and they have a tougher job than I do and I wish them all the luck in the world. We’re talking about designing websites. You, as the designer and coder, are the only person qualified for the roll of “Project Manager”. You will, however, never been one. You are a worker bee. You work. Your boss, or a random middle manager from some other department, will be the “project manager”. You will not have final say in anything. Get used to it.
There is, believe it or not, an entire “school” and governing and licensing body, solely devoted to the training of project management personnel. I strongly believe that this too, is a scam. There is not one single thing that can be taught in a class room, virtual or otherwise, about managing people or projects that can’t be taught more accurately in real life. You simply need to have the combination of organizational and people skills, to let your people work to the best of their ability, in order to be considered a good manager. Unfortunately, we here in the US believe in a different sort of management hierarchy. As my father always says “they promote the idiots and the assholes in order to keep them out of trouble”. Middle managers have always been useless, and having classes to help them manage projects better is an insult to managers with a brain everywhere.
This is the last, but sadly most common, problems I’ll mention. Because of all of the above reasons, the odds that you can make it to the end of a project and only create one design, are nearly a billion to one against. At some point, someone is going to say something like “I wonder what it would look like in red” and from then on, you’ll be doing two versions. One blue, as you designed, and one red, as Ted from Sales suggested. Now, you may get lucky and do both versions, but be able to quickly eliminate one at your next meeting. It does not however, let you off the hook from making new versions of anything else someone might suggest. You will also hear the phrase “show me a couple options” from managers, meaning that they don’t like something, but they can’t quite but their finger on it. It’s also summed up in the old expression “bring me a rock, bring me a rock, any rock… no, not that one.” You can, and will, end up making more designs that you’ll throw away than ones that you’ll actually use. This is incredibly common. At one point I’ve personally be working on four complete and functioning websites, only to have all four shot down and the group to ask for “better options”. Not only were all four totally awesome designs, but I spent the time to make them all actually function.
This is a hard lesson to learn, but an important one. Unless they ask specifically to see them working, send screenshots. Trust me.
Solutions and Suggestions:
There is good news however. You can actually survive all of what I’ve already talked about with your sanity intact. The key is two-fold. First, you need to understand the limitations of the corporate world, the people in it, the non-creativity inherent in the system and the constraints in which you’ll be expected to work. Secondly, take up drinking, or any other stress and aggression relieving activity, like paintball. I took up both.
I do however have a few tips and suggestions for those weary travels on that tough corporate road. I have successfully used all of these in my own work environments. Most of them work quite well, but don’t underestimate a good deal of luck either.
Have a Strong Outline & Plan of Attack
Since you’ll never be able to actually be the project manager of a project, you must, at the very beginning, establish that you’re there to get shit done, that you’ve done this before and that you have a plan. This is really hard for artists. Most of us simple “do” things as they come to us. We work best at the last minute and under pressure. We don’t write business plans or action items. Well, it’s time to start. Remember that you’re playing a different game now. You can’t play football with the rules from baseball just like you can’t play starving artist in the corporate world. Send memos, write outlines, make action items, assign jobs to members in the group. By asserting your dominance in the project at the beginning and, more importantly, keeping everyone busy, no one will have the time to question why you’re the one running the show. This is the hardest thing for the quiet, introverted, artist type.
The one caveat to this plan is that YOUR plan actually has to work. You can’t give everyone some fake BS plan and then go do your own thing. Try and keep it simple at the beginning. Start with your goal. Why are you redesigning the corporate website? Are you not getting enough traffic, does it need a graphic refresh for aesthetic reasons? These are important things to nail down at the very beginning and try and stick to. If you’re only updating the look, then you’re keeping all the content, and if you’re keeping all the content, no one can suggest they rewrite/reorganize entire sections. Try to write down the goal and scope and make sure everyone is on board.
This might sounds similar to the scope and goals I just mentioned, but this is even more specific. This is how you’re going to define colors, fonts, sizes and the general look and feel. That way, when anyone has the notion that “it would look better as…” you can point to your design document and say that, while that’s a very good idea (always pad their ego), that wasn’t the direction you were going. It’s important to agree that everything will be Arial at this point, rather than having the “Comic Sans” discussion later.
Perhaps this is just an extension of my own personality, but I always try to “teach” a little as I go. Most people don’t have an art background, they don’t know what looks good, that’s why you have a job in the first place. That’s why there’s an entire world full of web designers, photographers, artists, painters, interior designers and product designers, because the other half of the world is full of accountants, engineers, IT professionals and administrative staff. Those two sides of the world need to work together and that’s one of the first things you need to figure out. Just remember, most things that you’re saying to them, they won’t understand. Try and help them, and not in a condescending “art snob” sort of way. Tell them about color theory, tell them around the golden ratio, about the rule of thirds. Help them to understand and they’ll feel smarter, they’re learning the “tricks” of those crazy artists. Be nice about it. If you can get everyone to agree one some basics, you’ve got a great foundation to discuss the rest of the project with them.
This is an obvious result of your situation. You have two choices. Be patient, explain things clearly, try to make your opinions know in a nice, slow, constructive way, OR go insane and be carried out on a stretcher after to try and feed your neck tie into the paper shredder. Those are really your only two options. If you’re not patient, you’ll have high blood pressure, no sleep, a caffeine addiction and unhappy friends and family because they have to put up with your grumpy ass. Take a breath, count to ten, whatever works for you. Pick your battles and remember, this is not YOUR website. It’s not your baby, it’s not your pride and joy. This is going to be a corporately designed march through design death valley and the sooner you just let it go and let it happen the happier your going to be. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t stand up for your designs, or your design decisions, but you need to realize that sometimes you’re not going to win. You have to be ok with that. If the CEO of the company comes down and personally demands Comic Sans, you had damn well better give it to him. You can suggest politely that it’s not really the best idea, but after that, let it go. Or go nuts. Your call.
IT is your friend
Make nice with your IT guys. They are, more often than not, just as over worked and underpaid as you. They have to put up with viruses, broken email servers, the broken laptop from the VP who needs a powerpoint off of it this instant, and any other computer horror story you can think of. These are also the guys who would love to upgrade their equipment but for some reason can never get their budgets approved. You can work together for the greater good. You’re going to need fast computers, a high-speed connection for uploading content, modern operating systems with updated browsers, and these are the guys that can help you out with all of that. Be the champion for upgrades and innovations in your design and make sure that the IT guys are on-board with it and have your back. If you suggest they upgrade to a new server to handle the traffic your new uber-site will no doubt get, you had better talk to them about it BEFORE bringing it up in a meeting. If you’re both on the same page, then two people making a compelling argument for new hardware is a heck of a lot better than one.
At this point, you’re convinced “they” are all idiots. It’s ok, they are. You know it, I know it, every other artist knows it. Breath. Ask yourself if it’s really worth the fight. If yes, then go for it, make your case and hope for the best. If not, then chill. You tried to tell them, you tried to change their minds, they didn’t go for it. It was their call to make. Who cares. Go home, have a beer, and collect your sweet sweet paycheck at the end of the month. Pro tip: Take whatever design you thought worked best, and save THAT work for your portfolio, not whatever they ended up going with. With the way the web works, whatever site you work on today will be down, redesigned or completely different inside of two years anyway. You may as well just keep the ones you like, no one will ever be able to see if live anyway, even if you did like the end results. I can count on one hand the number of designs I’ve made in the past 15 years that are still online. Two. That’s it. Chill. Breath. Go have some green tea or something.
Things To Avoid At All Costs:
This is at best an insult to your design and at worst it’s a dangerous road to travel down. The second you let other people bring in “designs” they like and compare them to yours they’ll become fixated on the bright, shiny widgets and not what you’re trying to accomplish. Now, I’m not say that you can’t look other places for inspiration, most of the time that’s actually quite helpful. What you should try to avoid all together is a group “hunting” expedition into the wild of the internet to “find” a design that you like. It’ll steer your group and all it’s discussions from that point forward. If you go to Apple, and everyone likes that website, and you try to do something “similar”, they’ll never be happy with it because it’s not exactly like Apple. Instead, try setting goals or features you want. For example, list that you want a feedback form, a slider on the home page and icons for categories, then, if you happen to discuss other websites you have context to do it in. You can discuss how they did X but you’re going to be different and try Y. If they see X before you have that conversation, they’re going to simply want X and want to know why you can’t deliver it. They won’t understand that you don’t want to get your ass sued for plagiarism.
What’s even worse that stealing random website ideas? Stealing the look and feel of your closest competitor. This happens. More often that I care to admit. People become so obsessed with what the other guy has on their website that they lose all focus on their own. “They have widgets, we need widgets!” Ok, but we’re rewriting content for section A, not redoing the front page. “I don’t care, give me widgets!”… That project is doomed from the start. Not only will you spend months making widgets, but you’ll never rewrite that section, your content will be out of date and you’ll have a widget that doesn’t quite work right because it wasn’t designed for YOUR site in the first place. Avoid “studying” the competition at all costs. Stress that your company is so awesome, it should be a market leader, not a follower. Copying websites make you look like a follower. That usually puts them back on track.
Too Many Shiny Buttons
As I mentioned before, you can easily get caught up in what software developers call “feature glut”. It’s the opposite of “feature creep”, where features get added slowly over time. If you focus on simply adding “cool stuff” all at once then you run a real risk of making an entire project of just that. Listen, I’m all for the latest stuff. I love it to. I want to use it everywhere, but you’ve got to walk the line between bringing your company into the 21st century and having load times in the “minutes” range. Have a couple cool things, but don’t go nuts. Does your railroad shipping company really need a chat room? These are the questions you’ll need to ask yourself.
This is mostly me. I hate non-standard web development. Nothing makes me more angry than a website with a flash navigation using some beta version of Flash that I’ve never heard of. Stop making pages that only work in IE. I don’t care if that’s what the boss uses, make it work in IE, Firefox, Safari and Chrome. Make most of your design plain old regular HTML and CSS, or, if you’re using a content management system try to keep it simple, don’t load all sorts of extra scripts you won’t need. If you’re especially lucky, you might even have some say in the CMS. Steer clear of CMS systems based on any specific language or platform. For example, WinUberCMS 4000.Net is probably not going to play nice on a Linux box running Apache. Do yourself a favor and stick with more commonly known, well supported and open source CMS systems. You’ll thank yourself later.
No one said selling out to the man would be easy, and if you’ve spent any time in the corporate environment, you’ll know that’s especially true. If anything, I’d almost say that working for a large company can be at times harder than working independently. Look, I’m not trying to be a downer, but eventually the freelance “business” you have with your two college buddies isn’t going to keep the lights on. At that point you’ve got to put on your big boy pants and either get a real job, a better job, or take that huge risk and go out on your own. For all of you who have done that and are successful, I applaud you. You deserve a standing ovation and I don’t want to take anything away from your accomplishments. You’re a huge part of the industry, one that I respect very much. It is an unfortunate reality however, that some of us need to take corporate jobs from time to time. I used to feel really horrible about it. I used to feel like I sold out, like I was somehow not the artist I used to be. I was really depressed about it for a long time. Then I realized that I made a decision that was best for the people that I love, and that it was simply nothing to be sorry about. I make good money, I get to work on cool projects and for every nightmare project that I’ve outlined in this article, there are dozens that I’ve enjoyed. I didn’t sell out, I upgraded.
I wish everyone in corporate design, in corporate art departments and in “design committees” the best of luck. Just remind yourself that what you do between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday does NOT define you as a person or as an artist. Just remember to breath, be patient and above all, don’t panic.