Is it better in than out?

Attracting the best design talent can be difficult for in-house design teams, which sometimes complain that consultancies stigmatise them as being boring and uncreative.

But the news that Sainsbury’s is expanding its non-food product team to 200 people, incorporating 16 designers, has renewed the debate about the merits of in-house teams.

‘There is no need for these teams to be decrepit or boring, and it is possible for a non-creative company to recruit great designers,’ insists Cisco director of customer experience, and in-house design champion, Clive Grinyer.

‘To me, in-house design is absolutely the way to go, and what Sainsbury’s is doing is incredible.’ It shows that the company believes in design. Also, it will probably look after its staff a damn sight better than most consultancies. The challenge is for Sainsbury’s to keep its staff invigorated, fresh and creative.’

It is hard to know whether there is a growing trend towards in-house teams, but as well as this landmark move by Sainsbury’s, Hamleys has recently taken on its first-ever in-house toy designer.

Asda has also reported a ‘dramatic’ growth in its in-house home and leisure product team over the past three years, with its complement of eight designers set to become ten in the next few weeks, according to its general manager for design for home and leisure Susie Gibson.

From a designer’s perspective, Identica chief executive Franco Bonadio is familiar with the reality of working both in-house and for external consultancies. Until last year, Bonadio was global creative director at The Body Shop. He cites many advantages for designers working in-house, ranging from the mundane – benefits such as private health care and fewer working hours – to the creative.

‘There is a great sense of teamwork when an integrated project comes together,’ says Bonadio. ‘Also, you are able to see your work right through from start to finish, in contrast to consultancy work.’

Additionally, he claims that some elements of working for a big retailer can turn the heads of even the most ambitious creatives.

‘Ultimately, you get to understand the commercial politics influencing design projects, with more access to senior management,’ he says. ‘At the very top of the ladder, you can have a deep impact on company policy, and really shape the brand.’

Retailers are arguably more reliant on design than any other sector, with multiple touch-points to design including interiors, facias, window displays, products, branding, packaging, websites and communications. With such a heavy year-round reliance on design, it is no surprise that some retailers are keen to keep things in-house.

Flying in the face of those who argue that in-house design teams are less creative than consultancies, Gibson says, ‘We are very focused on our customers, and having our own in-house team allows us to take what they want into consideration a lot more, creating unique products that are specifically targeted at them.’

She adds, ‘We have occasionally used freelance designers, but the benefit of keeping it in-house is that we know what our customers respond to, as we are tracking sales all the time and working very closely with the buyers.’

Similarly, Sainsbury’s head of general merchandise, Richard Jones, told Design Week that innovation and fast reactions to trends were the key motivators in expanding the in-house team (DW 24 April).

Grinyer also observes that, ‘In-house designers become brand guardians of the business they work for, whereas external consultancies can find it difficult to drop their own brand values.’

But the fact of building just one brand is an inescapable downside of working for an in-house design team. ‘It can get boring as you complete seasonal campaigns year after year – I was on my fifth Christmas campaign by the time I left The Body Shop, and I just thought “enough is enough”,’ admits Bonadio.

And bored staff tend not to make creative designers. As Bonadio points out, ‘External teams will work to beat their competition, often putting greater effort into a project. Also, fresh, naive thinking can be good.’

‘You shouldn’t write consultancies out of the equation,’ Grinyer concedes. ‘The place for outside consultants is in looking to the future and keeping you smart.’

Sainsbury’s insists that it will not be ousting any of its packaging or branding consultancies from its roster, despite bringing the disciplines in-house and ceasing to work with its product design groups.

‘This is a meritocracy, and as long as they perform well, they will stay,’ says Jones.

However, as retailers expand their own-brand ranges and come to value design more – and if the economy continues to wobble – top design directors and brand managers may find it harder to resist the charms of a steady job with opportunities to shape the corporate images – and even the policies – of multinational businesses.


In-house design – the facts



  • A total of 35% of the creative workforce is employed in the non-creative sector 

  • Retailers employ more designers than almost any other non-creative business sector 

  • Using in-house designers is cheaper: £23 090 is the mean annual income of designers embedded in non-creative companies, while those in creative occupations earn £24 370

Source: Nesta’s Beyond the Creative Industries – Mapping the Creative Economy in the United Kingdom, published January 2008

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