5 Questions: Andy Epstein

The evening of Friday, August 26 2011, AIGA Houston presents nationally-recognized “invangelist” Andy Epstein. If you’re an in-house designer in the Houston area, this is one event you won’t want to miss.

Epstein has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues, and was the co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers. As head of AIGA In-house Design, he is continuing his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and business communities. Epstein recently published his book, The Corporate Creative: Tips and Tactics for Thriving as an In-House Designer, and has headed up HOW’s In-HOWse initiatives since 2009.

By way of introduction to Houston’s design community, AIGA Houston’s Andy Rich conducted a brief interview to learn more about his upcoming event, MY BAD: How I Survived the Corporate Cluster Fluster and You Can Too.

Your talk has a pretty unique title. Can you elaborate a little on what the attendees should expect without giving too much away?

Absolutely. Like many designers, I’ve walked into corporate environments with all their enigmatic dysfunction with no training or prior experience to prepare me for the culture shock and how to navigate the craziness I found there. As a result, I screwed up all over the place – with branding, managing teams, finances, workflow processes, corporate politics. You name it – I messed it up.

I figured rather than focus on my successes, discussing the mistakes I’ve made and, most importantly, the lessons I learned, would be of value on 2 levels. First, most obviously, I may be able to help some poor overwhelmed in-house designer avoid making a boo-boo. Second, I want to dispel the myth that there are anointed creatives who do everything perfectly and that life as a designer can be perfect. I’ve seen speakers unintentionally give that impression and it can be disempowering to other designers. Design is messy and practicing design in a company is particularly chaotic – or as my daughter once said – it can be a real cluster fluster.

Tell us a little about your professional background, and how you became such an advocate for in-house issues.

After graduating Carnegie-Mellon (great school BTW), I worked for one of my teachers for a year in Pittsburgh and then went to NYC seeking fame and fortune. I spent 8 years freelancing. Like many designers who end up working in companies, I found myself freelancing for Commonwealth Toy, a toy company, almost full-time and when they decided to start an in-house department I jumped across the fence. From there I went to Gund, then took a huge leap into pharma at Bristol-Myers Squibb and later J&J before coming back to the Gift and Stationery industry by joining Designer Greetings, a greeting card company, in 2009.

I became an advocate for in-house design when I found myself with more questions than answers on how to be an effective corporate designer and design team manager. I scoured design industry publications, organization websites and conferences for advice relevant to my situation and found practically nothing. In an effort to connect with others in the same situation as me, I partnered with Glenn Arnowitz to form InSource in 2003. The more I became involved in promoting dialog and content for the in-house community the more I came to realize that there was a tremendous need for professional development opportunities for the community and that there were numerous avenues to provide it through AIGA, HOW and InSource.

My goal has now become more ambitious. In-house designers are on the front line of the intersection between the business and design communities. They are in a unique position to be powerful advocates for the value of design and design thinking. In-house designers can also literally change the culture of their host companies by showing their non-design peers the power and benefits of the design process and mindset. I want to help make that happen.

You’ve written extensively on the concept of “Brand Blindness.” What is that, exactly?

Ah, you’ve been doing your homework. There are many advantages to being a designer embedded in a company. In-house designers live the brands that represent their companies affording them an intimate understanding of the brand.  This intimacy can lead to indoctrination, though, and in-house designers can end up drinking too much of the corporate Kool Aid. When that happens, they stop questioning the validity of their brand and it’s relevance to their audience and they stop exploring new ways to articulate their brand. They effectively become blind to their brand and all of their design decisions are based on inaccurate and false assumptions and beliefs – not a good place to be.

What can independent or studio designers learn from in-house designers, and vice versa?

In-house designers often function in flatter organizations and have more client and non-designer contact than their freelance or design firm peers. To be successful in that situation they’ve had to develop interpersonal and communication skills that could be of use to independent, studio and agency creatives who may be more siloed and have less client contact.

In-house designers can sometimes become complacent and lose that fire in their belly and passion for design that permeates the freelance and studio design community. It’s to their advantage to join groups like AIGA to keep the creative flame burning bright.

How has your experience with AIGA affected your career as an in-house designer?

Through AIGA I’ve had a chance to meet the most amazing designers who have generously shared their insights and wisdom with me. My relationships with these same designers have also been extremely therapeutic. It can be really challenging working as a creative in the left-brain corporate world of the suits and getting to blow off steam with others who have experienced the same difficulties is a soul-saver. They also inspire the hell out of me.

Register for this event today. Space is limited, so register now to reserve your spot. You’ll also have a chance to win a signed copy of Andy’s book The Corporate Creative: Tips and Tactics for Thriving as an In-House Designer.

By Andy Rich
Published August 3, 2011
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