In-house/external design mix can be a good thing

The move by Boots the Chemists to bring in a full-time creative director is indicative of the way retailing is going. High-level design jobs are reported to be in the offing with a number of high-street names – WH Smith, Ann Summers and MFI are among those mentioned recently in this context.

The jobs vary from fulfilling a design management function such as that held internally by Colum Lowe at Homebase until recently, or externally by John McConnell at Boots, to heading an in-house design resource. But in either case, they indicate an acceptance that design is important to the business and a welcome swelling of the ranks of design champions on the client side.

Of course, it isn’t all good news for consultancies. Cutting costs and wielding greater control over the brand are cited by some retailers as reasons for boosting in-house design resources, the implication being that buying in external consultancies is expensive and risky. Work previously handled by external consultancies, possibly on a roster, might thereby be brought in-house.

Nor is taking creative services in-house always the best use of design and some in-house practices can lead to a watering down of design’s potential to inform customers and shift products off-shelf. Boots, for example, is believed to be looking to create a design manual of sorts, setting down rules as to how its branding should be applied to packs and other items, a move that might limit its ability to respond to fashion or customer aspirations in different markets for products as diverse as laxatives and lipsticks.

On balance, though, for many companies using design regularly a strong in-house team and judicious use of external consultancies is a good thing. In-house teams bring consistency and a deep understanding of a company’s culture and customer needs to the party, while consultancies can add the extra spark because of their broader experience across client businesses and sectors and wider knowledge of the market.

Getting the best out of both demands mutual respect and shared objectives and it is an essential part of the job of an in-house creative head to facilitate this. The trend has been for an external ‘overseer’ to be entrusted with this role – Mary Lewis’s consultancy with Marks & Spencer’s packaging team, Richard Seymour’s with Lever Fabergé and, indeed, McConnell’s with Boots are well documented.

If that has changed, so be it, as long as the current spate of in-house appointments brings in the right designers and the balance between in-house and external design is maintained.

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