A Brief Guide To Building Internal Design Teams


When it comes to businesses investing in design teams – from external agencies to in-house creatives – one thing has become abundantly clear over the past few years.

When companies are in growth, they begin seriously investing in design. Historically that once meant long retainers with external agencies.

But now the marketplace requires businesses to be more agile and responsive. And design has never mattered more.

Last year the McKinsey quarterly report The business value of design, revealed design-led companies have increased revenue at almost twice the rate of their industry counterparts.

So when it comes to creating a design culture within an organisation, it doesn’t always make sense to externalise that function.

Therefore we’re seeing that when businesses invest in a creative function, they opt to build design teams internally.

Building an effective and productive team however, requires more than just lumping a couple of graphic designers in front a Mac – It requires building a culture.

Why An Effective Design Team Matters

On the face of it, this fairly typical strategy makes sense – even if makes creative service consultancies (like mine) somewhat redundant

In such a case, a company will take their high-level creative work – the strategic side – in-house, and they’ll utilise external specialists on specific projects. Such specialists will deliver a niche service that may only be needed sparingly.

But this scenario only really works, when the internal design team can anchor the role of design within an organisation, and align their output with the goals of the business.

Without strong design leadership, and a top-down commitment to building a design culture within the business, the internal design team may fail to deliver as expected.

As a result:

  • Creative work becomes unfocused, and subject to the whims of management teams and account handlers – who may not be qualified to run a design project.
  • Creative output lacks co-ordination, leading to issues of time and resource management
  • Design becomes an ‘add-on’ consideration while over areas take precedent – negating the value of building a team in the first place

At which point, the business may look to big external agencies for strategic direction, thus defeating the purpose of building an internal design team in the first place.

So in order to implement an effective internal design team, we need to address the following:

  • Defining the role of design within the business
  • Understanding what the business needs from a design team
  • Establishing values to build a design culture
  • Building processes to manage a studio
  • Finding talent in alignment with the values

Design Of The Times

So to begin, we need to define what design is and needs to be, for a business. This is going to vary from company to company, but it’s a crucial element to consider.

What do we mean by design, and how important is it to the business?

For Apple, I’d wager design is everything. Their product is their marketing.

For a bathroom renovation company, design may be just a function to produce marketing. Their focus might be on SEO and PPC strategies.

We also need to consider what will be required of the internal team. Are they producing creative strategies that drive the business, or art working leaflets?

Will they be building funnel web pages, or designing social media content?

It might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people get this one concept wrong.

I’ve worked in organisations where design was a crucial factor in the business, and was given the same amount of consideration as booking a courier.

And on the other hand, I’ve seen companies throw money at design as a way to fix, deeper, underlying business issues (which of course it cannot).

So we first need to firmly establish they ‘whats’ of our design investment.

  • What does design mean for our business?
  • What does our business need from design?

Value Added Values

The process of identifying what truly matters, should begin to lean into creating values. Values drive the culture of a business.

It’s not enough that on an individual level we have personal values. The mistake often made here, is we assume others share our values by proxy, when most of the time, they don’t.

We have to be overt about our values, and as managers and directors, the inherit values within our businesses. We need to communicate those values, and allow them to steer our ship.

These clear and defined values inform recruitment and team building. They allow us to find people like us. People who share our values, and want to be a part of our story.

When this doesn’t happen, we tend to get scenarios where teams never seem to be ‘on the same page’.

Offices where discontent and arguments are frequent.

Pitches that feel awkward and strained.

Work that lacks cohesion and consistency.

The agency where everyone seems to be working for a different agency – in their head at least.

So here we need to ask ourselves:

  • What are our values?
  • What do we want our values to be?
  • How can we define and share these values?

Whether this is manifested in the form of a mission statement, a single sentence, or a page on a website, these values should be clear, simple and direct.

Another tip here, is not to craft values based on what might sell, but values on what is. Otherwise we end up with more inauthentic, marketing positioning (‘we’re specialists in everything’).

Trust The Process

If values provide the foundation for design teams, processes are the structure that rests upon it.

Years ago while at an agency, I became frustrated with the company’s internal process for approving, and sending jobs to print.

The whole thing was a huge exercise in assumption and perpetual shoulder-shrugging. I decided we needed something more reliable.

I designed an artwork approval system, intended to motivate clients and staff alike to carefully sign-off on work, before it went to print.

Such exercises might seem like wasteful bureaucracy, but I believe that’s a misconception. For when we establish why we do what we do, we need to establish how we do it.

How do we create pitches? What’s our process for creating budgets? How do we write briefs?

This is not to say these methodologies are restrictive – actually quite the opposite. They free up creatives from having to manage every aspect of a project, by automating processes.

As such, they provide a framework that allows for greater creative freedom.

Talent Abounds

With values and processes in place, we have the beginnings of a true design culture. This empowers managers and studio heads, in seeking suitable design talent, to furnish our internal team.

Instead of random hirings for arbitrary reasons, we can attract talent in alignment with our business goals.

We can build design teams that will push our organisations forward, rather than waste resources to fix them.

Our staff become brand ambassadors, for the change we want our organisation to represent.

As design continues to shape the brands and businesses of the future, design teams are a vital aspect of that growth.

Not just in terms of productivity, but in creating rewarding and inspiring environments, allowing us to do our best work.

– Greg Bunbury

Need help in building your internal design team? I advise organisations on how to get the best out of design, delivering value for any budget. Get in touch!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

+ 36 = 40