The Creative Team of the Future

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Collaboration and Continuous Learning Keys to Inhouse Design Success 

By Diane Domeyer, Executive Director of The Creative Group

Corporate creative teams are being tapped for a wider variety of projects and playing a more strategic role within their organizations. So how are in-house designers rising to the challenge? To find out, The Creative Group partnered with AIGA for the Creative Team of the Future, an annual research project that explores trends affecting creative teams and professionals.

This year, we surveyed more than 800 in-house design professionals and interviewed industry veterans to get their take on the state of the industry — and where it’s headed. We’ve partnered with Graphic Design USA to give you a preview of the findings, which will be published in full later this year and made available on the TCG Blog (blog.creativegroup.com). Here, we reveal three key trends for in-house creative departments to keep on their radar and what each one means for your career.

Trend 1: 
Creative Teams of the Future Will Break Down Silos

As in-house creative teams continue to evolve from service providers to strategic partners, the ability to collaborate with other departments is increasingly important. During the next 12 months, many in-house designers we surveyed said they expect to collaborate more frequently with their public relations/corporate communications and information technology (IT) colleagues, in particular, and anticipate working with their business operations, human resources and legal departments about as often as they do now.

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Our survey also revealed that in-house creative teams are increasingly being looped in at the initial stages of a project, evidence that collaboration is happening early and often. In the next two years, nearly one-third of respondents believe they will always be brought in during project kickoffs; another 59 percent expect to be included in planning meetings at least some of the time.

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While closer collaboration is likely to raise creative teams’ visibility, earn them additional respect and lead to better results for the business, working with other departments —especially at first — may pose challenges. Research from The Creative Group and Robert Half Technology shows common obstacles to collaboration between creative and IT colleagues include making time to meet, communicating clearly in meetings, managing competing priorities, keeping projects on track and getting people to follow up.

Similar problems will likely arise when in-house designers interact with employees in other departments within their company.

Creative professionals of the future will need to overcome these issues to break down silos and further position themselves as true strategic business partners. Ashleigh Axios, digital creative director at the White House, says she teams up with many other departments within the White House and federal agencies outside those walls. Recently, she’s taken the initiative to improve collaboration by scheduling ongoing, in-person meetings with these groups to build rapport and educate them about how her busy three-person creative team works. For example, Axios might host a brown bag lunch explaining how to submit work requests and what prep work should be done in advance so her team can start on projects quickly.

What this means for your career: As various corporate departments become more interconnected, creative teams of the future need to be open to collaborating and take an active role in working through challenges like bridging communication gaps and managing competing priorities. Getting buy-in from key stakeholders before initiating a project, tracking deadlines with project-management tools and creating detailed meeting agendas will help keep teams focused and on track. Setting aside time to educate other departments about how your team works and what services you do — and do not — provide also can help you build strong relationships before the work even begins.

Trend 2: 
Creative Teams of the Future Will Be Well-Rounded

Even as the economy improves and hiring heats up, creative teams remain relatively lean. Fifty-five percent of in-house designers we surveyed said they work on teams with five or fewer employees; another 26 percent belong to teams of six to 10 people. While creative teams are garnering more respect, it seems companies are still acting conservatively when adding staff. As a result, when hiring for full-time roles, especially, companies seek well-rounded individuals who can provide value from a creative execution and strategic thinking standpoint.

Mariana Bukvic, design director at Nike+, says she looks to hire creative professionals with strong critical thinking skills who are well versed in the latest design processes and technologies. “Nike is a super competitive brand and we nurture people who are passionate about innovation with purpose,” she says.

Axios describes her ideal candidate as T-shaped. These are “people who are strategic thinkers who can establish a vision on their own and based on input from folks around them (vertical), and who can execute in a thoughtful, refined manner (horizontal),” she explains. Our research also points to the potential benefits of being a generalist versus specialist. Forty-eight percent of in-house designers said it will be more advantageous in the next two years to have a range of skills rather than be very talented at one thing.

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This is a trend The Creative Group has been seeing firsthand as hiring managers seek out talent who can wear multiple hats. While large in-house teams may have distinct print and digital factions, the line is more blurred on smaller teams, where individual contributors often have a broader range of responsibilities. As a result, many print designers are finding that they need to acquire technical and social media skills to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world.

In fact, creative professionals across the board feel the heat: 91 percent of in-house designers we surveyed said they are very or somewhat concerned about keeping their skills up-to-date and marketable as they advance in their careers. Gaining digital proficiency — in areas such as user experience design, web design and coding — are top of mind. Respondents also said they’d like to hone non-technical skills, including motivational/leadership, project-management, communication and interpersonal skills, in the next year.

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What this means for your career: Creative teams of the future will rely on members of all ranks to help drive strategy and execute on those visions. In order to remain relevant and marketable, creative professionals need to identify skills gaps within their companies and take the initiative to find ways to fill them, whether it’s through formal training or taking on additional responsibilities to meet new business needs.

Demand for hybrid positions like print/digital designer, user experience/user interface designer and digital marketing manager will continue to grow, too. Hiring managers will be looking for candidates with knowledge of coding, content management systems, search engine optimization/search engine marketing and social media across all job titles. So, no matter what your specialty, it can be beneficial to expand your knowledge base in these areas.

Trend 3:
Creative Teams of the Future Will Pursue New Skills

While 38 percent of in-house designers we surveyed said their companies are very supportive of their professional development, the majority of respondents said their employers could do a better job of encouraging their career growth. Although professional development should be a priority for any manager, creatives who want to grow within their current or another company must take it upon themselves to develop new skills — whether on or off the clock.

Carlos Estrada, an information designer at Herman Miller, believes the key to ongoing success as an in-house professional is being flexible and open to growth. While he began his career as a print designer, his focus has transitioned to digital design projects, along with project, traffic and people management over the years. “Designers need to be futurists,” he says, suggesting that if a new area of design interests you, pursue it for fun to develop your skills, and then add it to your work repertoire.

What this means for your career: Creative teams of the future will put an emphasis on continuing education, but it’s up to individuals to explore these options. Employees need to work with their managers to complete skills assessments, identify relevant courses and carve out time if they want hypothetical training opportunities to become a reality.

To keep your skills sharp, find out when budget planning happens and ask your boss to build in training funds. Be on the lookout for classes and conferences and bring them to your manager’s attention. Seek out opportunities that will propel your career forward outside of work, whether it’s attending association meetings or local TED talks, taking classes at a nearby college, or asking a creative friend to give you a primer on a software program that you’ve been meaning to learn.

Inhouse designers are under a lot of pressure to keep up with rising workloads and play a more strategic role in their companies. But it’s also an exciting time to be part of the in-house creative industry. Those who make a commitment to breaking down barriers, taking on different responsibilities and learning new skills will be prepared to succeed. To learn more about the Creative Team of the Future, and to read the latest research, visit creativegroup.com/ctf.