In-house teams and design consultancies: how to get the best out of each other

In-house and studio-based designers share their tips for working together to ensure that “no one feels imposed upon” and “valuable experience is shared”.

“Be conscious that you both have something the other doesn’t have,” says Laurence Honderick, head of design at BBC Creative, the broadcaster’s in-house creative team.

The sheer variety of briefs that BBC Creative generates – which Honderick has previously spoken with Design Week about – means that the team often works with external studios to get the job done. These projects might be anything from campaigns to full identities.

Working with external teams means projects benefit from talent and expertise “outside of our usual scope”, Honderick says. But it’s also a process that requires “special care”, he says. Both teams need to be on the same page. “Expectations around how the collaboration will proceed must be clearly established before the real work begins,” Honderick adds.

Getting the balance right is crucial – neither team should feel imposed upon. So how can in-house teams and studios get the best out of each other?

BBC Two ident designed by Superunion and BBC Creative and animated by Kijek and Adamski

“Fully engaged in the creative process at ground level and in real-time”

The BBC Creative team tends to be “very hands-on” in their collaborations, Honderick says. For example, when it joined forces with Superunion to create a suite of idents for BBC Two, design director Josh Moore was embedded at the studio’s offices for the duration of the project.

Moore’s secondment meant working at Superunion several days a week. This allowed him – and by extension, the BBC Creative team as a whole – to be “fully engaged in the creative process at ground level and in real-time”, Honderick says. Given how fast the project moved, this was critical, he adds.

For Honderick, this establishing of expectations is taken as seriously as the work that follows. “Otherwise the agency may arrive on day one with an assumption and crew geared towards providing a completely independent, full-service solution and it would be unfair to unpick that in real-time, not to mention inefficient,” he says.

Hulu identity work, designed by DixonBaxi and Greenhouse

“An open, frequent level of communication is key”

Aporva Baxi, co-founder and executive creative director at DixonBaxi, similarly recognises that a need for upfront communication first is crucial. When his studio works with in-house teams, he says the first step is a meeting “on their [the in-house team’s] home turf”. This is done to get a “sense of their world”.

Each project is different – but this first meeting is a good opportunity to “listen and learn as much as possible” Baxi explains. After an initial meeting with the team, what comes next is the practicalities, Baxi says. It’s a similar process to the one undertaken by BBC Creative – a newly unified team needs to define its overlapping areas of expertise, alignment on phases, deliverables and the ways in which they will work together, he says.

From there, it’s all about communication. For the studio’s recent rebrand of Hulu, DixonBaxi set up multiple communication channels between itself and the streaming service’s in-house team, Greenhouse. The two groups met for different aspects of the project on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, he says.

“We also had an open Slack channel and live Google documents for each part of the work,” he says. “We find an open, frequent level of communication is key and we use all the technology we have available to make it as seamless and proactive as possible.”

Timco branding work, designed by True North and the in-house Timco team

“There’s no point in thinking you know best”

Beyond communication, an understanding of how the work will be used post-delivery is key, according to True North’s senior designer Victoria Pinnington and creative director Steve Royle. “At the end of the day, it’s the in-house team that will be utilising the design work we’ve all created,” Pinnington says.

“There’s no point in thinking you know best, and creating an identity, set of assets or other kind of design system that ends up not being fit for purpose,” she continues. The studio’s recent rebranding project with Timco is a good example of that, Pinnington says. The building trade supplier has its own in-house design team, which is usually charged with creating assets and communications, as well as designing packaging for the company’s various products.

Elements like colour palettes and typography needed to be carefully considered, she says. If they were difficult to use, this would only serve to make the job of the in-house team harder further down the line. Royle adds that playing with the rules and design systems developed by the collaboration is a crucial part of preserving the work once the project is over.

As part of the project’s “handover” process, Royle explains that the two halves of the team met in person to work on example briefs. “There are always things that have to come out in practice and we acted as the sounding board to help shape the work together,” he says. “It can feel a bit school art lesson-like, but working together to decide how the application of these assets and systems will actually look in real life is useful for both sides.”

BBC Two ident designed by Superunion and BBC Creative and animated by David McLeod

“It’s always refreshing to have your paradigms rattled”

Pinnington, Royle and Baxi all state the need to avoid forcing ideas onto in-house teams. “If people feel imposed upon, then that creates friction,” Baxi says. “Agencies have to remember they’re in a proactive partnership.”

That said, Honderick says studios shouldn’t be afraid to question their in-house counterparts. “My personal favourite thing about working with an external studio is when someone comes from the outside and challenges something that I take for granted in terms of the way we do things or think about ourselves,” he says. “It’s always refreshing to have your paradigms rattled by someone with a different point of view.”

Ultimately, he says, BBC Creative chooses its external teams by who is most relevant to the project. Honderick says desirable traits could be anything from craft specialisms to scale, perspectives or relevant strategic experience. Whatever it is, he says teams should be comfortable to encourage all sides of the project to “push the work further”.

Carlsberg work from Taxi Studio and Carlsberg’s in-house design team

“We’re all on the same team”

Learning new things and being challenged can happen on the studio side too. Taxi Studio operations director Ellie Wilson says the nature of working “designer-to-designer” can make constructive challenges helpful for everyone. “Be open-minded, you can always learn something new from working with new teams, so listening and keeping an open mind will almost always lead to the best creative,” she says.

The overall process of partnering with an in-house team is a rewarding one, Baxi says. “You get instant expertise and immersion into the brand,” he explains.

Wilson believes there is an added benefit of already knowing the partnership takes design seriously. “You know the brand invests in and respects design as a discipline and a craft [if there is an in-house team] and that’s a very good starting point.

“We don’t allow egos, we’re all on the same team,” she says.

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  • mike dempsey April 25, 2021 at 3:16 pm

    Really? It took a ‘team’ to do the Carlsberg job.

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