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How to Be Corporate and Still Be Creative

Business, Inspiration | Mar 11, 2010

If you’re like me, you graduated from art school and had dreams of working as an art director at a small agency. You envisioned having your own office on the top floor of a loft with 30-foot ceilings.

Designers would play ping-pong below; people were allowed to drink beer at work; and brilliant ideas would flow effortlessly from your mind into multi-million-dollar campaigns for clients like Nike and Coca-Cola.

In fact, you got a job at a large corporation and were shown to a desk in a sea of light-gray fabric-covered cubicles. Instead of 30-foot ceilings, you have surprisingly low ceilings, covered with a substance that you could swear is asbestos.

You were given a 90-page handbook on how to create drop-shadows and sent off to populate templates for product brochures.

Sounds like hell. But outlined below are a few ways to improve your outlook on work life, foster creativity in you and the business and, most importantly, bring some fun into your corporate job.

 

Accept the Corporate Mindset, and Then Make Your Mark

Image by Tim Patterson

Working for a large corporation comes with many perks, such as benefits packages, consistent pay checks, team collaboration and not having to chase down new business. But it also comes with communications guidelines, branding standards and templates.

To maintain your creativity, you have to look beyond the projects in queue.

Getting used to the corporate mindset is difficult for some (me included), but embracing it and learning where you can and cannot make concessions is a crucial part of success. For example, I once led an initiative to change the way we marketed a segment of our products.

Instead of simply opening the packaging template and dropping in an image of the new product, I designed a template with a new photography standard, new colorways and a new ad campaign to coincide with the product launch. Of course, I produced what the project originally called for, but I was also able to present another option to the client that included a well-researched, integrated campaign that I had designed from the ground up. Damn, was that ever fun.

 

Think Like an Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs are constantly looking for opportunities in the market to offer something new or make something better.

You can have the same mindset in your corporation. Constantly be on the look-out for ways to improve your company’s products, processes, vendor contracts, print-vendor relationships, color-correction issues, design workflow, online-advertising testing practices, conference-calling ability, whatever.

You’ll see problems and holes in the processes of many of your daily workflows. Instead of complaining about them, you could be the person improving them.

 

Seek Out Challenges

Few designers want to sit for hours on end putting silos on images because it’s tedious, unchallenging work.

For me, the best projects are the ones that take me a little out of my comfort zone, and I actively seek those out. Not only do they keep me engaged at work but they increase my skill-set and make me more needed to management and the entire team.

I even like to look beyond my team for challenges, and now people come to me for input on all types of projects, from software implementation to video direction to website usability testing.

Scare yourself and you’ll find interesting ways to learn new skills and bolster your creativity.

 

Become a Free Agent

Want to move to a different team? Let that team’s leader know by offering to help it out!

For months I wanted to move from the print team to multimedia team. Having pretty good knowledge of Flash, I would volunteer for projects whenever they were overloaded.

Eventually, an opportunity to join the team opened up, and because the team leader was already familiar with me and the quality of my work, I was the logical choice for the job. I managed to create the situation I wanted, even though it wasn’t what I was hired for.

 

Be the Go-To Guy

Know of a huge campaign coming up? I can assure you that the creative director will be overwhelmed.

Mention to him or her that you’d like to help out in any way you can, and show an example of what you can do. As with any client pitch, put yourself in his or her position to figure out where you can help out. You might get the opportunity to work on a high-profile campaign or to travel to help direct a photo shoot.

Become known as a person with a wealth of good ideas, and you’ll get to work on all the fun projects. I’m constantly helping the video team when they get overloaded; consequently, I’m often asked to assist with concepting, art direction, casting, location management, etc. Because I’m not anything close to resembling a filmmaker, I find the challenge rewarding and extremely exciting.

 

Befriend Clients

Working in a corporate design department affords you constant access to clients. Make friends with them. Not only will it make communication easier during projects, it will also streamline feedback and approval times.

Equally important, friendship is a great way to nurture “brave clients.” Brave clients are people who get in the ring and fight for your great ideas and secure money or backing from management. So, keep the big picture in mind, and realize that when someone asks you to do something slightly outside your job description, he or she may have the key to the budget that would kickstart that pet project of yours mired in red tape.

You’ll get to know some great people who will be willing to go to bat for you in a crunch.

 

Conclusion

Don’t let preconceived notions hamper your experience of the corporate world. The world may not be exactly what you envisioned, but there are many ways to keep your job fun and interesting. With an open mind, a willingness to execute your ideas and a lot of hard work, you will stay creative, develop skills and advance your career. Who knows? You may even enjoy it.


Written exclusively for Webdesigner Depot by Jason Bowden, corporate-design team leader by day, freelance designer by night. You can follow him on Twitter @jason_bowden or witness his admittedly mindless personal ramblings at jasonbowden.com.

What about you? What strategies have you tried to improve your job?


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  • http://sexidesign.com Melody

    I know from experience for working for a financial services company that sometimes it’s really hard to bring out creativity in that environment but you must push on, because when you surprise them and show that creativity has its place…then they’ll respect you..

  • LieLuge

    really cool post

  • http://twitter.com/crewzta http://twitter.com/crewzta

    What I though were are only supposed to download stock photos and put text over top?
    jk/

    Good read for all the corporate peoples stuck in the everyday grind.

  • http://pixeno.com Pixeno

    Some great points! Such a unique article too!

    :P

  • http://nw11design.com Alberto

    I relate 100% – I was working in the “corporate” and what you describe is what i did to make my work enjoyable and fun, every one started looking for me no matter what project they were dealing with, to me that was huge. Thank you for the post. I opened my own designed studio and moved to Central America.

  • http://www.logolitic.com logolitic

    interesting article

  • Kenn

    Outstanding.

    I preach this stuff. I really do. I find so often that the majority of people do the bare minimum. When you find the gem that really puts in the effort and makes something of their opportunity by doing just what you described… having pride in what you are doing… it is very rewarding all around.

    Nice piece. Thanks.

    And great line here… “Scare yourself and you’ll find interesting ways to learn new skills and bolster your creativity.”

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      Thanks Kenn! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://www.jordanwalker.net Jordan Walker

    Never be late, never leave right at 5pm, work smart and you will climb the corporate latter.

  • http://doctype.tv Nick Pettit

    I think a lot designers look at any kind of constraint and see it as just that. Creativity comes from limitations though. It sounds trite, but I really enjoy creating corporate websites. It’s fun to see what bounds you can push.

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      I agree completely. We outsourced a simple After Effects logo animation once and gave the agency no constraints whatsoever. We simply said, “wow us.” The outputs we got back were terrible! It wasn’t until we gave them detailed art direction that they really started to execute brilliantly. Once we provided boundaries the quality of work went up 100%!

  • http://www.jamesdeangelis.com James De Angelis

    ….Or you could just find a job in an agency?

    This post is very confusing.

    I especially like the part about befriending clients, which is quite possibly the worst advice i’ve seen given here. Giving clients personal contacts is an invitation to them making you their personal contact at the agency, and loads of annoying emails which you shouldn’t need to answer (being a designer). There’s a reason there’s project managers/account managers/suits. It’s THEIR job to deal with the client.

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      Thanks for the input James.

      My philosophy in life is that fostering positive relationships is never bad advice, especially at your place of work. The main point of that paragraph was that working in a corporate environment gives you constant contact with your clients, building a strong rapport with them can benefit communication between the two different areas of the business, which breaks down silos and ultimately heightens the quality of the work you produce.

      The overall point of the article was that by branching out and openly talking to people, new opportunities may become clear to you. For me, pigeonholing myself as only a “designer” is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. If I never collaborated with anybody not directly related to my “design” I never would have gotten many of the opportunities mentioned in the post.

      Besides, avoiding “loads of annoying email which you shouldn’t need to answer” is all about diplomacy and setting expectations with the clients. If they send you an email that should not be routed through you, you simply reply back to them (with the project manager copied) that they need to speak to their account team in order to get their project needs filled.

      Finally, going into a relationship assuming that a client is going to be annoying is probably not the best way to approach a service based business. Without clients there are no such thing as designers, right?

  • http://www.trufcreative.com adberg

    Great article, Jason. Making a mark in a large company definitely depends on everything you stated in your article. As someone who spent their first 12 years at large agencies, you are spot-on and I can relate, particularly to the notion of preconceived ideas about the corporate world.

    My experience in that world has been invaluable in furthering the success of my own company and the way I view clients and the world. It’s reality. Granted, I will never go back, but I would never trade all the the blood, sweat and tears for all the design awards in the world. It’s an education that all designers should have. Just being a “great designer” is a small part of the equation when it comes down to it.

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      Thanks! Great comment! I especially like this line, “Just being a “great designer” is a small part of the equation when it comes down to it.” I believe that the modern designer has to know much more than design. Among other things, we need to know aspects of global business, marketing, production, and even some psychology.

  • http://rachelnpepper.co.uk Rachel

    This describes my situation exactly, I work within quite strict brand guidelines and when it was first introduced I really struggled to find a way that worked for me, I was for the first year doing, the plonk in the image and text and you’re done.

    Working within a brand is challenging but a true creative will always find a way to break out. Of course you can’t break the rules until you understand why you are breaking them.

    Little things like improving an image, or making suggestions to text or colour choices can make a huge difference. Then there are the bigger things like is this really the best way and finding a solution that works better.

    I think students of design should have projects where they have to work within brand guidelines, it really does push you to find out how creative you really are.

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      “I think students of design should have projects where they have to work within brand guidelines, it really does push you to find out how creative you really are.” Thanks Rachel, I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.algozone.com Anatoly Gilderman

    Great points!

    I have been in the same company for three years now and to be honest I am a bit overload because I have dual positions. There were times that I feel unhappy with my work because of the work loads that I have but then this is what I do for a living and I have to find a way to make everyday a fun one.

    Good thing though that my bosses are not strict and they just let me do my assignments my way so long that I will achieve our goal.

  • http://3circlestudio.com/ Justin Carroll

    I think you’re right, there are ways to rethink design hell. And if that’s what you’re made to do then you’ll work that system and win. But at the end of the day if you’re hitting the alarm clock and kind of puking in your mouth at the same time then I say get the hell out of there. Start freelancing at night and flip it into a full-time gig. So, as cliche as it sounds – life is too short. If you’re in design hell and don’t know how to get out, email me and we’ll talk about it. We’ll make it happen.

  • http://hexacreative.web.id Hexacreative

    Be yourself and don’t afraid what you do, if true and best for yourself.

  • http://naveenmamgain.deviantart.com Naveen Mamgain

    Your absolutely right! Rt now i working on out of domain company. Even everyone respect my work and take opinion but somehow i feel it’s not the place to work. But your article really boost my moral.

    thanks thanks a lot

  • http://www.loveishs.com/ tanya

    Really interesting article and vry informative :)

    • Ranjith

      Good article

  • http://www.tonycgil.com TONY Gil

    I’ve worked in corporate environments almost my entire carrier. Luckily I’ve been fortunate to work with other creative designers. Together we keep our selfs motivated and inspired by have things such as weekly critique sessions. We bounce ideas around on how to improve our work. It’s always good to get a fresh pair of eyes on something you’ve been working on for days. One thing I wish we did more is to simply get out as a team and visit museums or take part of team building exercises. Individuals can also take it upon them selves to stay inspired. I personally like to visit my local book store and look through design magazines or simply surf the net and subscribe to design blogs. I love design and it’s important for me to keep motivated and inspired in order to continue being innovative.

  • http://webmasterjigar.freehostia.com Jigar

    Great Post..

    Thanx..

  • http://www.scollindesigns.com Kyle Scollin

    Having read so many blog posts about Freelancing, its really nice to read one about corporate life which I’m about to enter. Should be an exciting job, but definitely different from freelance work.

  • http://www.creativeindividual.co.uk Laura

    This post has come at a good time for me. I’ve been working in a small-ish place for a few years now – it mostly deals with computer and network engineering, so there’s not a lot of other “creative” people around to bounce ideas off, and sometimes I feel really stuck in a rut!

    Reading this article has helped me because I could see the things I was doing, like working a little out of my comfort zone – such as complex bits of coding; but then could see where I was missing the mark, like perhaps not making myself known to management as much as I could. And I see now how that has been counter-productive, because I do want to expand my skills and knowledge and make my day-to-day job more exciting.

    I really enjoyed the way your wrote this post Jason, thank you.

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      Glad you enjoyed it Laura, and especially glad to have helped!

  • Almu

    i´ve been working in an agency for 2 years, before i moved in different places, and now i find that this place is killing my creativity!! My boss doesn´t let me talk with any client, any! I have not even talked to them! and my job is to design their stuff.
    YES, IS VERY IMPORTANT TO TALK WITH THE CLIENT!
    I never get the idea they want, but my boss´s. I never agree with him, and all i do is change my designs. When is finished and the client is happy with it, my boss wants to change always something!!! Is so frustrating!!!
    I have an 10 years of experience and never felt so bored about it, and all i want is to be freelance!!! hehe!
    I feel happier reading this posts!!! They give me strength!!!

    And yes, my vision of my own office is exactly the one you described!!
    Thank youuu!!!

  • http://www.pushpsds.com Glenn Sorrentino

    Great points – self motivation is something that you need to improve upon over time.

    My problem is that at our agency we don’t have the time to cross-train, though I have enough time to do so. Everyone is so swamped that it’s hard to do anything in collaboration.

  • http://www.simonday.com Simon Day

    I’m guessing I probably work in one of the Worlds biggest web teams (currently around 1,000) and when I started I was also pigeon holed into HTML and CSS. As time passed I offered help in other areas I was highly experienced in and now my roles regularly include usability advice and planning, wireframe building, SEO supporting, cross browser fixing and so on.

    Certainly a lot more varied and a lot more fun :)

    • http://jasonbowden.com Jason

      Thank you Simon, that’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about!

  • http://pollyfolio.com/ Polly

    I can’t really relate to this situation, because I work at home (couldn’t stand the corporate environment, it’s definitely not for me). But I think it’s a nice positive way to look at it. Great article!

  • http://www.alejandroperazzo.com Punta del Este Real Estate

    nice article, i work as a designer in a real estate company in Punta del Este Uruguay.

    I spent most of the time making google + blocks plans superpositions, and propertyes packages presentations and all that kind of stuff, that its kind of borring. when i have some thime i like to improve the design of the website for example and other stuff, but i really liked to have more time ='(

  • http://www.alejandroperazzo.com Punta del Este Real Estate

    forgot to mention that i also spend a lot of time helping my work mates that are sellers and that kind of stuff. most of time my help resumes to an ENTER KEY PRESS or TURN OFF and ON the printer

  • http://riverboxx.com Christy

    Refreshing point of view! Over 20 years, I’ve worked in small to mid-size agencies, corporate environments with up to 15,000 employees, and I’ve been a freelancer. The only issue I’ve bumped up against is currently I work in a small company where new ideas and fresh approaches are shot down–there is one individual who wants to see only his ideas executed. They are very stuck in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” I too have tried to present a new idea next to the same old same old, and while it is well received, they are very attached to the old ways and are not open to tests. I quote: “Change is not good.” Eek! It is disheartening to reach out and strive, only to be shot down every time. It takes a toll on the creative spirit. But I like all the ideas presented here and they can definitely be applied across the board. Ultimately, though, the office culture will decide whether any of it will fly. Thanks for the creative reminder!

  • http://logos.xpertd.com logo desgin

    nice article i like it thanks for sharing it……:)

  • Pablo

    great post!!

  • Clauzen

    Nice, really nice article….it make think about so many things and ideas for not give up and continue working in new ideas!!!