The Corporate Designer: Thriving in a Corporate Environment

By Sopeju Ifeoluwa, Founder, Onedabrand

It is fast becoming a common knowledge that design is not just about moving pixels or the use of design software or tools to create beautiful and appealing visuals. Design is basically about solving problems–for humans, companies, organizations or businesses.

If this has become a common or universal consensus, then what is design without a designer? An honest response would validate the relevance and importance of a designer in the grand scheme of things, problem solving. 

In my opinion, designers are beginning to grow in their numbers across various industries and sectors providing valuable solutions to businesses and organizations where they operate in or find themselves. With this, recent conversations are leaning towards how designers are critical to business success and should be part of the decision-making process for businesses and most importantly, have a seat at the C-suite level meetings.

Permit me to digress a bit.

Many years ago, when I opted to specialize in Painting instead of Graphic Design during my first degree, I never knew or thought that I could work as a designer in the corporate environment or in industries/sectors unrelated to design. I felt the biggest place a designer could work would be in the media or advertising industry.

In fact, while I was in university, I did not know about so many advertising agencies until I graduated. Well, maybe because I majored in Painting and not graphic design, so there was no need to research on them.

At the time I was studying Visual Arts at the University, graphic design assignments and projects were executed in the most traditional way you could ever think of—the use of paper, pen, ruler, brush, gouache, etc. No computers at all.  This made me uninterested in specializing in graphic design as I felt it was going to be a waste of time for me, since I would not be able to use a computer and any design software to execute my assignments and projects, coupled with the fact that I never imagined the massive prospects studying a course like that could afford me.

However, in an interesting turn after completing my NYSC, I left painting for graphic design. This was because, at that time, I had become more or less financially independent from my parents. I needed to start making money and  I found out that practising painting would not make me realize that goal of financial independence quickly.

Painting was actually very costly compared to graphic design. For every prospective painting project or gig, there was always the need to invest or spend money on buying painting materials (brushes, canvas, oil colour, acrylic, stretchers, frames etc). Whereas, for every prospective graphic design project, all that was (is) needed is a personal computer (PC) or laptop with a few design software installed (usually a one-off investment) and your creative thinking. Also, the daily and recurring need for design services influenced my decision.

From the foregoing, you would see that for me, at first, deciding to switch from painting to graphic design was more about the needed to survive. Surprisingly, while I began learning design on my own and honing my skills, I landed my first paid employment with The Guardian Newspaper as a Graphic Designer. At this point, I was still limited in my orientation as to what I could achieve as a designer, but things changed soon.

Two years after, I was amazed that an auditing/accounting firm would/could require the services of an in-house designer. After going through the interview process, I landed my second job at KPMG. I spent two years at KPMG before I moved to Deloitte & Touche, where I had one of the best and most fulfilling career experience as a designer. After a year and seven months, I was poached by Visionscape Group but finally bade 9 to 5 goodbye after a short stint at the multifaceted environmental utility conglomerate.

So you see, I have never worked in a Creative or Ad agency (although I honestly wish I have/had such experience), so I will be sharing tips on how to thrive as a designer in an unusual, unfamiliar terrain, from my experience.

As a designer, you can work anywhere, no matter the industry or sector. 

More often than not, to optimize cost, organizations need design services and would most likely employ the services of an in-house designer than outsource their design needs to an agency (ad, design, creative or marketing). So if you are a designer who ends up working as an in-house designer in a (non-design/creative/advertising agency), you are a ‘Corporate Designer’.

Back to the crux of the matter, you may ask, what do I need to do to thrive in such an environment?

In no particular order, the following tips worked for me in the course of my career and time in the corporate world (other designers may have different experiences based on the culture of the organization, company or firm they work or worked with).

1. Be self-aware – Know yourself.

The honest truth is that not every designer is the best fit for certain industries. Some designers would thrive and flourish well in an advertising agency, others in a design agency, some in the corporate environment, and others in industries unrelated to design. In knowing yourself, you need to ask yourself, what kind of designer do I want to be? With this, you are able to appraise your areas of strength, weaknesses and innate inclinations. Some designers and creatives can deal with putting on a tie, suit, and shoe to work while others love casual feel; something as simple as this can affect how you work. The more reason why a deep soul search will help to reveal where you would thrive the most.

2. Be willing to take up roles unrelated to design.

All through my career in paid employment, my bosses came to realize that I offered more value other than the role assigned to me as a designer. Case in point, while I used to work at KPMG, 95% of my daily activities was nothing related to graphic design. I was seconded to the Research and Knowledge Management unit which was meant to be for a few weeks, but I ended up spending two years and more in that role. This was in addition to my role which still including churning out design materials for the company.

It was quite a struggle for me to settle in that role, but I took up the challenge. I have got my former boss-turned client to thank for this. Many of the skills that I have acquired and developed today aside from technical design skills were discovered and harnessed in that role.

My writing improved, my communication skills were sharpened, and my confidence level was groomed, as I was attending meetings with my boss and managers at senior management level. This afforded me the opportunity to know more about other aspects of the business, which I probably would not have been interested to learn about.

The experience gained can never be traded for anything. The advantage of gaining other soft skills in addition to technical skills is that you are not just seen as a designer or pixel-pusher, but you are seen as a problem solver—ready to help your organization achieve more. It is one thing to be a great designer, but it is another thing to be perceived and seen as one who solves problems for the company.

3. Offer value beyond moving of pixels.

During my stint at Deloitte, which happened to be the most fulfilling experience in my career, I never knew what my colleagues (senior and junior) saw in me as I did more of creatives and visuals for the firm. However, in less than six months of resuming at Deloitte, I was nominated for three awards out of the six available categories, namely, Proud and Passionate, Differentiating Deloitte, Innovative and Shows Initiative. From the feedback received, most of my colleagues said it was well deserved and that I should/could have won the three, but for the sake of giving other nominees a chance to win.

Much more than these, I was co-opted into the Strategy Team for the firm. At the time, I was the only junior staff on the team which had managers, senior managers, associate directors and partners. You will thrive if you’re able to bring something else to the table other than the role you’re employed for.

4. Be approachable and build strong interpersonal relationships.

I ensured that in the delivery of my task, I was friendly, warm and approachable. My interpersonal relationship with colleagues and partners from different divisions was one that worked in my favour. I was basically the go-to guy for anything design-related.

My experience working in the corporate environment taught me patience, tolerance, understanding, communication and empathy because I had to interface with different arms of the firm on a daily basis. This leads me to the next tip.

5. Go the extra mile, reasonably.

I understood that I was employed not just as a designer but as a problem solver to help the company and firm achieve their goals and objectives. There were times where I would have to go out of my way to ensure that a proposal submission meets deadline or an article is published in the dailies amongst many others. However, I ensured that it was something that was reasonably within my power to. At some other times, I would have to explain why certain things were not possible and feasible given the time constraints.

Being a designer in such an environment is not for the faint at heart, if you ask me. If you are only concerned and interested in nothing other than pushing of pixels, you would be missing out on making an impact. You need to understand that you are in a different space, totally different from an advertising, design or brand agency. Like I mentioned earlier, there is a need to be self-aware. Know whether you are cut out for such or not. Do not be desperate to get a job anywhere, you may end up in a place that is not a fit for you.

I remember when I moved to Visionscape from Deloitte, a designer was employed to replace me but surprisingly, after several months of search, interviews and recruitment process, the designer resigned in about a month after and went back to the agency where the person came from. Weird? Strange? Unbelievable? Well, it is not. The designer just could not cope with the environment, the so-called ‘regimented’ creative environment in that short while.

Conclusion

Are you finding it difficult and struggling to thrive or survive in your role as a designer in your present workplace? Feel free to apply these aforementioned tips. Be open to learning new things different from design. Be adaptable. Offer more value beyond pushing pixels. Have the right attitude and personality.

These tips are based on my personal experience which worked for me and saw me thrive during my time in the corporate environment. It might be different from other experiences so if you have other thoughts aside from the ones I shared, feel free to contribute to the subject under discourse.

Thanks to Tunji Ogunoye for providing such a platform. I have learnt quite a lot from the articles written by fellow designers and have been inspired by the profiles of amazing designers and creatives in the industry. Thanks once again for providing value through this platform.

I wish you all the best and look forward to an astronomical growth for designers and the design community at large.

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