What I learned as an in-house designer at JUNIQE
Over the last eight years I’ve worked in a variety of studios and agencies, often as either the lone Art Director or freelance designer. Many designers love the freedom of working alone, but as someone who loves feedback and strategic work I always try to find workplaces where I can work alongside others.
I moved to Dessau to join a small boutique agency after earning my Masters degree in 2017. Agency work is exciting – new clients! new coworkers! new designs! I’ve always loved the variety that working in agencies gives you, and the creative approach of the agency I worked at meant that I enjoyed high contact with our clients.
After a year in Dessau I decided that I wanted to try my hand at more longterm, strategic work. I also have to say that although I love living in Germany I found the culture shock of moving from Paris to Dessau pretty overwhelming. I’d spent my whole life living in a city where walking out of your apartment door at any time of day meant walking onto a street covered with people, and now lived a small German village that turned into a ghost town at 4:00 every day. I loved the forests and fresh air that Dessau afforded me, but wanted to live somewhere a bit more well-connected to the surrounding world. Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden and Munich were all on the table, and I spent around a month travelling to meet different in-house design teams.
In the end, I joined JUNIQE, an exciting e-commerce startup specialising in art posters, as a Digital Designer in 2017.
Some of our market research to help us come up with new ideas.
Hitting the numbers
Agencies are interesting because they need to strike the right balance between creativity and business-mindedness in order to maintain a healthy client portfolio. As a designer, you’re often working alongside multiple Project or Account Managers who are focused on maximising the agency’s billable hours and managing resources for a variety of competing projects. Depending on the size and structure of the agency, they might also handle all client communication.
In contrast, in-house design teams all share the same goal as every other team in the company: make the board of directors happy. To do this, the executive team will set, for instance, a revenue target and corresponding KPIs for each department. If each department hits their KPIs you’ll theoretically hit that revenue target, the board will be happy, and your company cooler will stay stocked with icy cold Club Maté.
Each department’s KPIs trickle down to its individual teams, who are then incentivised to work together in pursuit of a common goal. Being an in-house designer has always appealed to me since you have to be much more conscious about scaling and consistency, and generally own KPIs tied to your work. At JUNIQE, those KPIs live and die by our performance on Black Friday.
For any reader who doesn’t work in e-commerce, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year and traditionally marks the start of the holiday season in late November. For a young start up like JUNIQE, it’s typical to do the bulk of your Q4 sales (and in some cases, even your H2 or full year’s sales!) during this magical time period where your AOV increases exponentially as everyone shops for holiday gifts. For that reason, competition among B2C companies is fierce as they try to grab the attention of every potential new or returning customer. That means that as a design team we have to be on our best game and ready to create assets at a moment’s notice as feedback comes in from the marketing team, our data analyst and customers. But we also needed a team structure that would enable us to achieve that.
Getting strategic about teamwork
When JUNIQE was much smaller many campaigns were ad-hoc or pretty small in scale. Each designer was responsible for a single marketing channel – email, social, display, and so on. This meant that we each had deep knowledge of our individual campaign areas and strong working relationships with our counterparts in marketing. But as the marketing and design departments grew, the demand for creatives rapidly outpaced our ability as a team to deliver.
Plus, as any Design department at a rapidly growing startup can probably relate to, the style guide the Design department was using had become gradually outdated – it didn’t account for many of the touchpoints introduced as the design team added members and began to scale their operations. This meant we were each recreating the same type of elements using different styles and had very little insight into what one another were doing. We also started doing multichannel campaigns, which meant that different designers were working on the same parts of different campaigns.
Constantly re-creating elements slowed us down not only during the execution phases but also during feedback rounds with managers, stakeholders and other designers. Everything was up for debate – even the styling of our buttons – since we had no up-to-date brand guidelines to refer to. It’s the kind of exercise that’s fun as a designer (there is no faster way to improve than with feedback!) but pretty taxing on your business stakeholders who need to launch an email campaign by end of day. On average, it took five days for the team to finish a campaign.
These silos and the lack of standardisation meant we were slowly creating incoherent branding across many of our most valuable customer touchpoints. Our longer design cycles also meant that instead of focusing on post-launch optimisation, we were frontloading all of our efforts on the first part of the project and initial feedback rounds. In other words, when Black Friday rolled around things could get ugly.
Process, process, process
Bojana, the design team lead, joined shortly after I did. I was excited to work with her – she was deeply experienced in process improvement and design systemisation, which I was eager to learn about. One day I asked Bojana about ways we might modify our working styles. We agreed that a single designer could be responsible for end-to-end management of an entire campaign. To support that designer, we could work as a team to create a new “living” style guide that would be scalable, empowering our rapidly growing design team to use and expand it.
My first suggestion toward achieving this goal was a team workshop where we tried to visualise just how many inconsistencies were popping up. This would help create buy-in as well as documentation of what we could improve. I had really lofty goals for the first version of the workshop – I’d optimistically imagined that with a single workshop we would solve all of our open questions about workflow, tooling, brand and strategy. Thankfully Bojana pointed out that answering those questions would require a full quarter of workshops, and suggested instead a single, streamlined workshop focusing on establishing design standards.
The process was fairly simple: we printed images from all of our brand touchpoints and hung them on the walls. We then selected and grouped recurring patterns so that we were able to visualise where incoherencies were popping up. This gave us an idea of what some our most egregious issues were (like our many, many typography styles).
Bojana helped the team come to an agreement on the standardisation of each element: typefaces, spacing, colours, icons, illustrations, graphic elements, blocks, layout, templates, and more. We were all experts on the strengths and shortcomings of our specific campaign channels so it was great to be so collaborative.
We then started looking for tooling that could support different workflows plus streamline and sync all those elements within our team and other departments. We chose a combination of Sketch, InVision, and Abstract.
In the end, we were able to create a more consistent branding through all the touchpoints and successfully reduced the time to conceptualise a campaign: from an average 4 to 5 working days for a unique campaign to 1 to 2 working days. We managed to avoid repetitive tasks for each team member so we could focus on new channels and marketing experimentation.
Loving the in-house challenges
My first two years as in-house designer have been eventful. I will always have a soft-spot for the dynamism and action of agency work and can certainly see myself returning, but for now I’m happy with the data and feedback loops that in-house life affords me. I sometimes miss the intellectual exercise of crafting multiple visual identities, but I find the ownership and strategic process management of an in-house career makes up for it.
All videos and images in this article were created by me during my time at JUNIQE. A special thank you to the wonderful Esa McGavin for all of her help with copy editing this post.