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So You Want to Be an In-House Graphic Designer?

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This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be a Freelance Illustrator?
So You Want to Be a Convention Artist?
Example of branding design courtesy of Lauren Magda
Example of branding design project courtesy of Laurén Magda created for the Detroit-based band, TART.

Design and illustration jobs vary widely across disciplines. Today, we’re going to take a look at what the role of an in-house graphic designer entails. I sought out and questioned a sampling of designers who work in advertising, manufacturing, graphic design agencies and more, to see what their daily work life consists of, how they got the job, and what sort of work they produce.

So very often I find it hard to get that peek behind the curtain, or I find that many graphic designers who are active on social media are freelancers. Getting this behind-the-scenes look from several designers is quite a treat, and I hope you find their answers and information informative. Consider this your guide on the role of an in-house graphic designer.

What do in-house graphic designers do?

They design; next question! OK, so it’s not exactly that simple (though that is many a graphic designer’s initial answer). Let’s break down the roles commonly found within an in-house position:

  • Pre-press files for print: Whether a company is sending content to be printed out or they handle the print process internally, designers need to make sure their artwork, designs, layouts, or whatever content they were tasked with is print-ready. Often this may be a designer’s main duty, depending on their rank within a department.
  • Create concepts for clients: As an example, let’s say a design firm is hired to create logos for a client. The designer would meet with the design team, client, and/or art director to get details on the job at hand. From there, they put together logo concepts to be shown to the client or put together in a presentation. No client is shown a single concept or design. They are shown multiple pieces from which to choose, and usually those are edited or expanded upon further.
  • Asset design for the company: When working for a company’s art department, graphic designers are the ones creating print advertisements, posters, labels, brochures, catalogs, logos, etc. If a company has an internal design team, it is their responsibility to create their brand, marketing materials, and  stock art used within the company (unless they outsource or use websites like GraphicRiver, Shutterstock, etc).
  • And more… There will always be more that an in-house designer’s role entails. Since the company is paying designers hourly rates or a salary, they’ve already made a commitment to your time, so whatever design (and related) roles can be filled when advantageous to the company, they will be.
Jam Space branding by Lauren Magda
Jam Space branding, courtesy of Laurén Magda.
"My daily responsibilities really vary day-to-day, but I mainly pre-press files for print, design marketing materials and create custom decals for hospitals and other medical affiliated companies." - Laurén Magda, of BodyPartChart, of Fathead.

What sort of companies do graphic designers work for?

I found the graphic designer role was split into a couple of categories:

  • Within a design or marketing agency: This also goes for advertising agencies. Basically, any company that is sought for design, branding, or creative content in some manner. Usually designers will work together on a team. It’s pretty advantageous to be working not only with other creatives, but in an environment where the role of the company itself is to create creative content.
  • Within a company’s art department: For some this role is also on a team. For others they are alone or with one other person, creating whatever content, design, branding, etc., a company may need. The company itself doesn't focus on creative content.

As an example of the roles of artists within a company that isn't focused on art, such as a brewery like New Holland Brewing Company of Holland, Michigan, a small art team of two people is assembled to create all of their labels, menus, marketing materials, and more. The designers’ co-workers will have a range of positions, and while it can be fantastic to work with people from a variety of departments, the camaraderie found within a large art department or an art-focused business isn't there. Instead, there’s camaraderie found within the company’s focus and goals itself (in this case brewing delicious beer).    

New Holland Brewings Mad Hatter Ale Packaging designed by Anna Lisa Schneider
New Holland Brewing's Mad Hatter Ale. Packaging designed by Anna Lisa Schneider.
"Typically I come in and design assets for events, such as posters, handouts, menus, and product educational materials. I also work on advertisements for both print and web." - Anna Lisa Schneider of New Holland Brewing Company.

What training do designers have and how long do they stay in that position?

Let’s take this in two parts. Firstly, it really depends on the artist, their portfolio, and the requirements a company is looking for within a résumé. My sample size of designers was small, but most had had some form of formal education within the art field.

Not all, however, obtained a degree or stayed within their degree’s discipline. While a degree in graphic design is a great addition to your résumé, it is not the be-all end-all for working in-house. From interview to interview, a variety of circumstances led to each artist’s position, and the main component that got them where they are today was displaying their skills within their portfolio. 

Additionally, when asked how they found their job, the answers ranged from seeing an advertisement on websites like Indeed.com to networking with other employees within the company.

Heroes of the City poster from Ruta Ett courtesy of Sara Berntsson
Heroes of the City poster from Ruta Ett, courtesy of Sara Berntsson.
"I’ve studied Comics and Sequential art at Gävle University College in Sweden, and 3D graphics for games at the vocational school playground Squad in Falun, Sweden. While none of these have been directly related to my current work, they’ve still been essential to get me to where I am today." - Sara Berntsson of Ruta Ett in Sweden.

Secondly, how long a designer stays within his or her position depends on the company and the artist’s preferences.

In the case of small companies, such as the children’s entertainment company Ruta Ett, located in Sweden, the design team is small and designers’ tasks can vary outside of their position title. They’re already wearing multiple hats, so there isn’t as much of a ladder as you would find within a much larger company where the team consists of junior designers, senior designers, and creative directors. Most everyone I interviewed about their position has held the job for one to three years, having had a job or two before their current one with another company (often smaller or of a similar size).

An additional note to the position itself and acquiring jobs is the role of the intern. Not all companies take them on, but they’re most often design students in their final year or fresh graduates breaking into the industry and looking for job experience to put on their résumé. Adrian Co, a graphic designer working within an advertising agency, notes that interns often work on real projects within a company alongside full-time graphic designers, and are often critiqued as one would be in a classroom setting, so they’re not only experiencing the job but also still actively learning.

An ad for the Isuzu Auto Show created by Adrian Co and his team
An ad for the Isuzu Auto Show created by Adrian Co and his team.
"They usually are studying Advertising or Graphic Design. [...] We screen their work and critique them so they could learn something." - Adrian Co, a graphic designer at an advertising agency, on the role of interns.

What media do designers use?

Most designers will find themselves using Adobe Creative Suite, Corel Graphics Suite, or similar digital applications. Many designers work with vector programs (most often Adobe Illustrator) since it’s the most versatile for print, web, and broadcast media. 

Whether working for a company like Stardoll creating assets for virtual dolls, as Anneli Olander-Berglund was, or designing web content for a small, unnamed company in Michigan as Jane Foster does, vector tends to be the format of choice. That's because a designer who is on the company’s time 40 hours a week wouldn't have to redo the work for each format the company or client needs.

Additionally, graphic tablets are a key tool for designers. Traditional media for many graphic designers, unless specified by a company or a client, is often limited to the sketch and conceptual stage of a project, if used at all.  

Star Doll Level Complete screen designed by Anneli Olander Berglund during her time with the company
Star Doll Level Complete screen designed by Anneli Olander Berglund during her time with the company.
"I did introduce traditional media to my old workplace and it was very well received at the offices abroad and outside clients, however there was always a struggle against the company's fear of moving away too much in the "style" they had branded themselves with that was basically all vector." - Anneli Olander Berglund, formerly of Stardoll.

Conclusion

The role of an in-house graphic designer varies. Working in advertising, mobile games, marketing, and various product design, graphic designers are an important asset to many a company's success. An invaluable asset, the graphic designer that works within a company, versus freelance, will have steady, reliable work either at an hourly rate or on salary. Alternatively, they may find a larger volume of work in a smaller time frame than could be expected for a freelancer, who can define or negotiate their own work time frame.

Regardless of the pros and cons of positions, graphic designers come in all varieties, making the career path as unique as those who follow it. Understanding some of the common job roles, requirements for positions, applications used and more may allow you the tools necessary to start or even continue along this and related commercial design paths for a long-lasting career.

Many thanks to the designers interviewed for this article. You can check out some of their portfolios in the links below:

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