A Bright Future for In-House Creative Professionals

Illustration of a road leading toward the sunshine.

Alex Center, design director at The Coca-Cola Company and a member of AIGA’s In-house INitiative steering committee, explains why the time is ripe to consider an in-house creative career.

While this year’s Creative Team of the Future research takes a close look at topics such as collaboration in the workplace, emerging roles and skills development, we also want to share a big-picture view of the in-house landscape with you. And who better to give an honest assessment than Alex Center?

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Center is a design director at The Coca-Cola Company and leads the strategy and creative vision for brands such as vitaminwater, smartwater and Powerade. He’s also a member of AIGA’s In-house INitiative steering committee, a group devoted to addressing the unique opportunities and challenges faced by in-house creative teams. Here, Center talks about in-house life and what it will take to thrive in a corporate environment.

What advice do you have for designers who want to pursue and excel in an in-house creative role?

Alex Center: My best advice is to find something — a brand, a business, a movement, a yogurt company, a service provider — that you have a strong passion for. Working in-house, you’re going to wake up thinking about the same mission every day, so it’s important that you have a whole lot of heart for it. Also, know early that you’re going to have to put your ego to the side. In-house work is not about celebrating the singular designer or individual; it’s about achieving a goal through the power of collaboration. It is definitely a team sport.

What skills and attributes do you think will be necessary for in-house career advancement in the future?

You need to have an equal understanding of brand- and business-building. Designers are now in leadership positions and are being asked to tackle the vast challenges that modern companies face. For years, we’ve been vying for a seat at the table and now we have it (which is actually a little daunting). Skills that make us unique as designers — like empathy, the ability to think holistically and systematically, and a level of taste and craft that allows us to execute with simplicity and ingenuity — will be invaluable to businesses.

From your vantage point, how is the in-house environment changing?

It’s changing drastically every year. I think this moment is the most that people have ever talked about in-house design. There are so many talented designers working inside of companies and so many companies being founded by designers or building in-house teams. It’s a crazy, exciting time for in-house creative professionals, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m finding that people who never considered working in-house are starting to think, “How do I go work inside versus outside?” As long as companies are valuing design and using it as a weapon to win, we will continue to see in-house grow.

What unique opportunities do in-house creative jobs provide that others don’t?

I think that inside of every designer is the ambition to make an impact on the world that we live in — I know that’s what motivates me. An in-house environment is the best place to create that impact and truly feel like you are building something. I admire and respect the work that agencies do, but at the end of the day they are always at the back seat of the businesses they work for. I like to drive the car.

What most excites you about working in-house?

I love having my hands in so many different types of projects at the same time, while working toward one mission. The more aspects of a business that people are involved in, the better they can be at solving problems and designing experiences. In today’s world, every single human interaction with a brand needs to make a connection that is relevant and honest. Whether it’s a coupon or the future of how we consume products, it’s one ambition. Connecting those pieces and being a part of the complete puzzle is what excites me most about working in-house.

Why do you feel in-house creative professionals have a bright future?

We live in complex times and I don’t see it getting any simpler. Designers are needed to figure out how to make the complex simpler and create solutions with the end consumer in mind. In-house used to be the place where you would go at the end of your career to get a big paycheck and achieve better work-life balance, but not to be in a position to make great design work. In the future, in-house will be the only place to make great design work.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We are all really lucky to do the things we do every single day for a living. Don’t ever forget that. And follow me on Instagram at @thealexcenter.

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