The Corporate Designer's Survival Guide

A designer in corporate life is not that easy. It does has it pros and cons, but the reality is not only will you have to do good design work, you will have to navigate the corporate ladder as well as all its related traps and pitfalls. Many in-house designers almost wish for the worry free environment of working in a studio where they can just focus on doing the design work. Well worry no more this survival guide is your key to getting ahead!
Before we continue though, I like to state that my use of the term “Designer” here, is in a very broad sense. This is because in-house designers can be actually found residing on many levels or in many roles within an organization. Some examples include:
1) Traditional design types working in in-house studios,
2) A Design manager that relate to stake holders,
3) Project managers who manage design consultants,
4) Product managers with-in marketing departments,
5) R&D engineers who manage innovation,
6) and finally very Senior Managers that problem solve with creative methodologies
Therefore for the sake of this discussion, they will all be clumped together as a “designers”. Furthermore I do hope that this article could provide an interesting perspective should you be a consultant or freelancer that has to work with corporate representatives. This could highlight many considerations that could get in the way of getting your designs approved.
With out further adieu, I present what I think are the fundamental “soft” and “hard” skills a successful corporate designer needs to have to survive the corporate jungle.

Reports to the Top

If a company is serious in successfully implementing and using design as a strategic competitive advantage, it must run its design/creativity think tank from the top. Hence the designer needs to be either at the top or at the very least reporting to the top.
While I understand this is never entirely possible in most corporate organizations, the designer would need to somehow position himself to at least report to a decision maker of some standing. The worst is for a designer to be pigeon holed under the Marketing or Engineering departments. As these departments achieve different functions, it will be likely that designer will not be operating at peak efficiency.
If you are working in a situation where reporting to the top is not possible, then you have to see if the reporting structure can change, of decide if you are happy to be working under such conditions.

Have a Strong working Partnership with the Top

Despite the frivolous nature people often gripe about the Fashion industry, the one thing they have perfected is the management of working relationships with designers and talent. I’m surprised, why we don’t try to learn from that aspect of that industry.
In the recent Fall 2007 Style and Design supplement to Time magazine, one common recurring theme that I found in the business of Fashion is that CEOs of fashion brands are “Partners” with their Creative Directors. This partnership is often highlighted as the reason for the success or failure of any Fashion brand.
Sure like in all partnerships (or marriages?) there are fights and disagreements, but the point here is both partners understand that their’s is a close working relationship and good communications between each of them is vital. Does Steve Jobs speaking to Jonathan Ive many times a day sound familiar? Well they have been doing that in the Fashion industry for many years now.


A successful corporate designer is also a master of anticipation. This is often a result of the 2 above points, which is essentially a great relationship with the person that steers the organization, and the designer involved cleverly puts this information to good use.
The ability to anticipate means the designer is able to understand and combine corporate DNA, senior management’s plans, design trends, and predict or anticipate directions an organization can take. This is especially important when it comes using design as a strategic competitive advantages.
In other words, the designer would have already thought through or researched all possible design strategies so that he can be effective during corporate discussions.

Always Ready to Move

A successful corporate designer that anticipates well, is always ready to move when faced with a new design challenge from management.
It is unfortunate that, despite designers getting in very early in the planning stages, the decision to move in a design direction often comes very late. A good designer that can anticipate well will be ahead of the competition when it is time to move. The market waits for no one.

Keeps busy during down time

In this hurry to wait, wait to hurry environment especially in large organizations, the thing to do in between corporate approvals is to keep at the trend research or development of other project work. This again allows successful corporate designers to be well positioned and prepared when it is time to move.

Gets the buy-in effectively

I’ve written extensively on strategies on getting the buy-in and approvals for your design work. But needless to say this is one of the most import assets of a successful corporate designer. The ability to work with all stake holders, often heads of the different departments, and then develop a product that satisfies all their criteria is of paramount importance.
Do check out my extensive 2 part article on “Why do I always get rejected? 10 Tips on how to get the design buy-in“.

Are Entrepreneurial and Understand that Cost Matters

Many scoff at the idea of being entrepreneurial within an organization, but for successful corporate designers this is a very important trait to have. This simply means, being in the mind set to see business opportunities and having the ability to apply design strategies to take advantage of it.
Not only that, they would also be savvy enough to understand the cost impact their design decisions would make to the organization. Better still, they can turn this design cost into an advantage, by selling their ideas in the language that the business can understand.

Understands that Design should make the Company Look Good, Not the Designer

Finally the successful corporate designers understand that their work is but a cog of a greater system, and design here should not just be about personal expression. He understands that his design is a representation of the organization, its people, its believes and most importantly its brand. It is in reality a much bigger discussion, and should never only be about the design.

  • DT

    July 22, 2008 at 10:04 am Reply

    Hi sssj,
    Thanks for the kind comments. Please keep in touch?

  • sssj

    July 22, 2008 at 9:35 am Reply

    Hi DT,
    Only found your site recently and it has been really helpful to a young Industrial Designer grad working for a large corporate. A lot of these things they don’t teach you in design school and this has been like a ‘cheatsheet’ for how to it could work…
    Thanks and keep up the good work.

  • Saikat

    December 10, 2007 at 7:41 pm Reply

    You are welcome! 🙂
    Thanks for all the great posts!

  • DT

    November 29, 2007 at 11:22 am Reply

    Hi Saikat,
    Thanks for your complements! I look forward to more of your comments in the future. Take care.

  • Saikat

    November 27, 2007 at 5:37 pm Reply

    How did I miss this!
    This is a great post! Some of these points ‘everyone’ knows, at least theoretically!… but some are quite insightful and difficult to experience from my level (as I am a ‘pro’ only about a couple of years)….and these top tips are surely going to help.
    I really liked your analogy with the Fashion industry! I have always looked for another industry model which can help the present (at least the corporate) Industrial Design setups to improve. Fashion industry has been right there but I never looked at it like that!
    Thanks for the great post!

  • DT

    November 7, 2007 at 7:16 am Reply

    Hi Drew,
    Thanks for visiting and for your comments.
    Yes I agree that last point is the hardest for me. As designers we put so much into our work that is very hard to detach from it. The only way is to grow “hard” but the problem with that is the design work will suffer.
    For me, every time a design or project gets axed, something inside me feels it. It is sad but that is the harsh reality of working not just in a corporate world, but in consultancies as well.
    The only way to counter it is to understand that design exists when many other considerations have taken place and the trick is identify all of it and make it as part of your design brief as early as possible.

  • drew kora

    November 7, 2007 at 2:03 am Reply

    Great stuff, DT. I really appreciate the concept brought out in the last point. Sometimes we break that rule without thinking about it. I mean, creative professionals take their work personally, we love our jobs, and our work is a reflection of ourselves, so doing a reality check, remembering why we’re doing what we’re doing, goes a long way.

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