What the Agency Doesn’t Know

Watch this

Webstock ’13: Mike Monteiro – How Designers Destroyed the World from Webstock on Vimeo.


I really want you to watch this first, if you have not.

It’s more important you watch it than read my post. This talk is AWESOME and INSPIRING and IMPORTANT.

Did you watch it?

It’s a great video. Mike is talking about so many things designers need to hear. But (you knew there was a but) Mike has worked in agencies forever, and has a point of view that comes from that.

So this is my addendum:

Here are the assumptions agency people make about in-house design that are wrong.

  1. All design is done by designers
    Wrong. Anyone who is worked in-house knows that it’s typical for PM’s and engineers to do a lot of the design work. A designer will be hired, and she’ll design a homepage, and a few other key pages Then a product manager or an engineer will reverse-engineer the design of those pages to make help pages, setting pages and sometimes registration and log-in. If both parties are lucky, someone has the sense to build in time in the schedule to produce a style guide, so the hacking can be done better.
    As well, many a designer has come in the next morning to see the work they had finished to their satisfaction was changed and immediately launched. When he asks about what happened, the PM will shrug and say “It wasn’t working and you weren’t here.”
  2. All Design is Done with Equal Care
    Wrong. If a designer did actually design help and settings (those red-headed stepchild pages) she was given so little time to work on them that she couldn’t think through all ramifications. I think Mike would say, demand the time to do it right. And he’s right, it’s well worth asking. If we don’t ask, we don’t get. But sometimes when we do ask, we don’t get.
    When there is no time to do it right and the designer refuses to half-ass it, the page ships anyway. The PM designs it in paint, or the engineer in code. It ships in the middle of the night— see #1. And if the designer screams and waves his hands in the air? They are branded a roadblack, and invited to fewer and fewer meetings.
  3. Being Fired is the Worst Thing that Can Happen
    Nope. Being fired is often awesome, especially if you are fired for the right thing. You can proudly go to your next job.
    The worst thing is that you become irrelevant. You see people meeting on the other side of a glass wall, and with a sinking feeling as they write on the whiteboard they are making decisions you should be part of. You are handed specs, and ask when was this decided, and they shrug. And slowly but steadily your soul is sucked out of you. I have seen this happen to more than one designer.
  4. Design Can Stop the Presses
    There is a moment in Mike’s presentation where I just faceplant onto my desk. It’s when he says I dream of a day when the CEO and Marketing director are sweating bullets saying, “We’ll never talk design into this.” I have been in that meeting. It happens now. And when they say, design will never let us do this, they then say, “let’s get someone else.” And any chance of changing the minds of the team is lost, any chance of slowly fixing the crazy is gone.
    He says we should never design with approval in mind. But the reality is that designs that are not designed with approval in mind are not launched. And designs that are not launched are irrelevant.

So, are we doomed?


It’s not a war. When a company hires an agency there is a them and an us. The Agency has meetings, and then goes off to the batcave to figure out how to meet the clients needs. And when it doesn’t work out, they part ways.

But when the designer lives inside a company, there must be no them and us. There must only be an us. A designer is part of the company, and marketing and the CEO are not the dreaded others, but part of a team.
I have been hired way too many times to “fix the design problem.” The problem is usually that the designers are acting as an agency inside of the company instead of being part of the company. I am told the designers are clubby, arrogant, recalcitrant and almost proudly ignorant of the business of the business. It’s unnecessary and worse, it’s wasteful. When design is part of the product team only in name, the product and the users suffer. So let’s say you are in-house, and you just watched Mike’s talk and you want to make the world a better place, what should you do?

A few hints:

  1. Compassion for Your Team
    Product will be fired when the launch fails in the market; you most likely won’t. Of course they are scared of doing radical things. Make sure your radical innovation or design of heartbreaking beauty or moral stand is vetted and well explained so they have fodder when they go to the CEO. Set them up to succeed.
  2. Act Like the Team
    In many companies I’ve helped, I see the designers stick together. They eat lunch together, go drinking together, and generally move around the building in pack formation. Sadly, when engineering and product are up ‘till 2 the night before launch, they can’t find a designer to save their life (and as I noted, that’s where some really scary design decisions are made.) The designers all left together at 6.
    The product managers, however, don’t hang out exclusively with other PM’s. When they can avoid eating at their desks, they join the team for lunch. They buy whisky for engineering. They pal around with other teams in the company. and if engineering is stuck there until 2 am, they stay with them, sometimes just to QA or make coffee is needed. I’m not saying you have to stay late every night, but respect your team’s norms.
    Most PM’s have no direct reports. They get everything done by influence. Product management is your role model if you want to make real change happen.
  3. Don’t Be a Lone Genius
    You know who can stop the presses? Engineers. Product. Eat with them. Drink with them. Sit with them. Collaborate with them. Pull a PM and an engineer into a room to help you whiteboard out a complicated flow. Just like someone who builds Ikea furniture overvalues that piece of furniture, the person who codesigns a feature overvalues that feature. Which is gold for you, when you want the right thing to launch.
  4. The Cliche that Matters
    Pick your battles. Yes, I know it’s tiresome. But if you are the designer who pulls an all-nighter when it most matters, you will build cred. When the engineer says “damn, I’m blocked because I’m missing these assets” and you say “it’ll be in your inbox in fifteen”, you’ll win hearts. And when the CEO is suddenly wacky and needs a new module before he’ll sign off on launch, yes, do try to understand the why it matters so much, but then make it happen. Build up your social currency, so when you have to say “guys, this isn’t right” they’ll listen.
  5. Learn To Communicate
    To succeed, you must be able to explain, argue, defend, debate and negotiate. If you present your work and simply say “It looked better that way” or “I didn’t do it because it’s wrong.” You’ll fail.
    When I first moved into management, I was reading a book on CEO’s and one was quoted saying “If we are arguing opinions, mine wins.” Never argue opinions. Don’t say “I’m an expert” — prove you’re the expert. Show off your complete thinking and exquisite rational. Take people on your mental journey to the appropriate design.

When you are an agency (or consultancy, or contractor) you are there to solve a single problem in a short timeframe. But when you are part of a company, you are there to solve a host of endless problems with a team and help the company become the best it can be. The goal is always the same in-house or outsourced: great work gets launched. But the tactics must change.

Less showdowns and revolutions.

More teamwork and evolutions.


Add Yours
  1. 1

    as a redhead with a redheaded child I’m getting kind of annoyed at the anti-gingerism of statements like “red-headed step child”, I’m sure that wasn’t your intent but why add fodder to the discrimination?

  2. 2

    I had no idea red-heads were discriminated against today. Do they have trouble finding jobs or got paid less? I know (being Irish myself) that the Irish were.) I also know redheads they suffer from stereotypes around being sexy/voracious and temperamental/fiery.

    My understanding of the term is that it refers to children who were visibly not that of the father, and thus treated as second-class citizens. It’s come to mean any person (or thing) that gets the leftovers. But that refers to lack of official parentage, with red-head being just an indicator. I.e. a brunette in a family of redheads would be a red-headed stepchild.

    It’s a very old fashioned phrase, one my mom used a lot along with “what do you want, egg in your beer” which I never did understand. It’s good to know it’s tiresome to redheads.

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