Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
February 19, 2020

What skills are most important on your in-house creative team?

What are the most important skills to have on your in-house creative team? Learn how consistency, production, breadth, and the right experience can make your creative team flourish by tuning in. 


Sarah Durham: Hey, I’m Sarah Durham. Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m here today with Big Duck’s Creative Director, Claire Taylor Hansen. Hey Claire.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Hi Sarah.

Sarah Durham: Welcome back.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Thanks.

Sarah Durham: So Claire wrote this really terrific blog. We’ll link to it in the show notes. It’s called: “When to keep creative work in-house– and what your team should look like.” And I thought it’d be interesting to talk through some of the ideas Claire Taylor Hansen featured in this article, but also go a little deeper into this topic because so many organizations really seem to struggle with who to hire in house on their comms team. So Claire, what was your impetus for writing this piece?

Claire Taylor Hansen: I think my impetus was my own personal background. I have worked at many nonprofits in New York as an in house designer, and I’ve also worked on the agency side. So I really firsthand have witnessed the skill set that is needed for both jobs and the shift that needs to happen with your skill set. If you’re working in-house, it is at a nonprofit versus if you’re on an agency side or a freelancer. I’ve done that too. So these types of different hats and roles and skills are just always on my mind and especially now that I’m working at Big Duck, when we’re seeing our brands through and seeing them come to life, it’s become quite clear what is needed to do that well on the nonprofit side.

Sarah Durham: So when you were in-house at nonprofits, you were kind of in it, maybe you lacked a little perspective, I guess. Is that what you’re saying and now that you’re working as on the agency side with clients, you see a bigger picture or is that different? What’s it like when you’re in-house?

Claire Taylor Hansen: I flipped back and forth. So I did agency, in-house, freelance, agency. So it was more that- I wasn’t in the forest and I couldn’t see the trees, it was more just observing the different job functions really. And now that I’m on the agency side, it’s crystal clear and basically when you’re working at an in-house job, you really need to have three skills that are totally unique to that position, which is whether it’s on copy or design, which is breadth, consistency and production. So the interesting thing about working in house at a nonprofit is you don’t want to reinvent the wheel that’s bad for brand. So when you’re an in house designer or an in house writer or when you’re hiring for those positions, you want to find people that are really into breadth, consistency and production. And what I mean by that is breadth- you want someone that’s going to be on the job, whether it’s a designer or a writer that can do a lot of different things and do them all well, a wide variety of skills. So, you want someone that’s got an eye for photo selection as well as someone that can make an Instagram post. You want someone that can write a short piece of copy as a donor email. And you also want someone who can write the name of an upcoming program. That’s going to be a little catchy, but in the right brand voice.

Sarah Durham: Do you have an example of an organization you’ve worked with that has a great maybe in-house person or freelancer who’s excellent with breadth? What does that look like?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah, we just did some work with Queens Botanical Garden and our wonderful client contact there is named Anne Tan-Detchkov and she has an amazing knack for doing it all. So she’s able to put her brain on signage that needs to be in the garden to think about what a bench wrap should look to attract donors to purchase that bench and also to work on kids’ birthday cards. So these are three very different elements, three very different projects, but she’s able to handle it all.

Sarah Durham: The next item in your article is consistency. What’s that about and how does an organization thrive with consistency?

Claire Taylor Hansen: That’s the one that, in terms of this in-house team question, probably, is the most differentiating to working in-house at a nonprofit. This is the element that you really, really want to look for in your team, be they freelance or in-house, but especially in-house. You want a designer or a writer who’s really into systems, who’s really into templates, who’s really into brand. You don’t want someone who thinks, Oh great, this is my moment to show my creativity or my individuality. You don’t necessarily want to find that person that’s hoping to put their stamp on the organization, so that’s a real challenge is to find someone who kind of enjoys the fact that the worksheet they make for an educational program looks a lot like the email that they’re sending out. You want someone who’s able to see across all systems, across all media and connect the dots and make them all unified.

Sarah Durham: I could imagine that that’s inherently the tension when you’re hiring for that position that you want to find somebody who’s got the right creative skills, who shows your portfolio of work that looks good, who feels inspired, who can bring real creativity to what they’re writing or designing. But as you’re saying, sometimes being too creative or wanting to create all the time is actually more of a detriment or liability.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Absolutely.

Sarah Durham: Anybody who is great at that? Who are the champions of consistency you could give a shout out to?

Claire Taylor Hansen: We loved working with the New York School of Interior Design because it allowed us the opportunity to work with, their amazing designer, Chris Spinelli. He is a master at consistency, but the most incredible thing about him is he is able to make things consistent and in brand but yet so creative and so beautiful. So that’s the ultimate pinnacle of the goal. He recently just created a branded magazine for the school that a few years after we completed the rebrand is still just as consistent as it was before, but is manifesting the brand in a whole new way. So he’s incredible at that.

Sarah Durham: It’s hard to do that too. I mean, if you’re living with it every day, I sometimes like to say that just at the point when you, the in-house are getting really bored with it, that’s when it’s probably starting to work externally. You know, external audiences aren’t paying that much attention and if we’re not super consistent with what we’re sending them, odds are good. They’re not going to connect the dots between the gala invite, the brochure, or the news, the this, and the that.

Claire Taylor Hansen: So true. And you want the person on your team to be the one that’s saying, no, lets keep reinforcing that color. Let’s keep reinforcing that typography rather than the one that says, ugh green again.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Your point about being a process person or a systems person for consistency echos something that I wrote about a bit in my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, which is coming out in November of 2019 depending on when this podcast airs, it might already be out and it’ll be available on Amazon, but one of the things I wrote about in that book is the importance of having clear systems and processes because without them and without an in-house person who champions them, you can’t really ever get any kind of sustainable momentum. You’re just reinventing the wheel every day and it’s inefficient both internally but also externally. It’s not building awareness and mind share.

Claire Taylor Hansen: That’s so true.

Sarah Durham: So what’s the third piece in your triumvirate of of skills?

Claire Taylor Hansen: The third piece is a bit more common sense. This will resonate with all of the folks that are listening to this. In the nonprofit world, it’s production. Your in-house team or your external freelance designer, both are costing you money in some way, whether it’s budgeted as an in-house expense or a line item in your external budget. You need someone who can do work quickly and get a lot of work done. You don’t want someone who’s going to be agonizing over a design piece or a piece of copy for hours and hours and hours. It’s the nonprofit world. That’s the reality of the sector we’re in and so that should be a requirement of the job.

Sarah Durham: Production almost feels to me like a dirty word with creative people sometimes. I’m not exactly sure I’m right about that or why that is, but I guess there is something that strikes me as off-putting to creative people about the notion of production, which isn’t necessarily creative. It’s about speed, efficiency, consistency, making sure that things are aligned, making sure that there’s consistent spacing between words or sections. How do you reconcile that as a creative person? How do you embrace production or encourage people on your team who are creative and have potential to maybe work faster or more consistently. How do you get them to do that. And do you have any examples of people who you’ve seen who are great at doing that?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Well, ideally you want the same kind of work ethos and willingness to roll up your shirtsleeves. I think that’s a common factor that you want in anyone that’s working in-house at a nonprofit, be they in development, be they on staff, be they in a visitor services capacity or in any role. The thing that unites nonprofits is I think folks need to be able to kind of get the work done. In the creative position, there should not be a repugnance for production because that’s the kind of bread and butter of getting things out the door. And you actually want to find folks that kind of delight and take pride in it. Because one fun thing about the nonprofit world is you’re really creating, I think, very tangible objects sometimes. So be they an email or a poster or a sign, it doesn’t matter. Nonprofits takes on many shapes and sizes and communicate in many different ways.

Claire Taylor Hansen: But you’re actually reaching people, you’re talking to people and a lot of design and copy jobs don’t reach that end user, don’t reach that audience person directly. And so the way to reach them directly is through producing production, the materials. And it’s essential that especially the designer know how to do these skills that are less and less commonly held skills. Like knowing how to save things for web versus print, knowing how to size things appropriately, knowing how to prepare things for the printer. Not all nonprofits, nonprofits vary widely, but some still rely on print technology. And so when you’re hiring your in-house designer, if they have no knowledge of print versus web and they’re fresh out of school and are young and bright eyed and bushy tailed, but don’t realize that there’s totally different requirements for print versus web, that’s a problem.

Sarah Durham: So are freelancers a better option for production? Or is it possible to find those people and get them in-house?

Claire Taylor Hansen: For production it’s not at all the case that freelancers are a better option. You just want to make sure that, for example, if you’re a nonprofit that is all digital and you don’t create print materials at all, then someone who has a print portfolio, it’s not necessarily essential. But if you’re a nonprofit that creates signage that creates still mailings that does that type of work, then when you’re looking for your in-house designer or if you’re outsourcing to freelance, you might want to look for those types of projects in their portfolio so that you can be assured that they can do that production work that you need done.

Sarah Durham: I’m imagining somebody who runs a communications department at a nonprofit who’s trying to build their in-house team, you know, they’re growing their in house team and by the way, we have a lot of thoughts about how you should do that. In fact, we just produced an ebook in 2019 about teams that has some suggestions and some structural things. So let’s take this fictitious communications director and they’ve decided that they need to hire an in-house designer or maybe add to their in-house creative team. What I’m imagining based on your advice- you’d want to see in the portfolio of a potential employee is a wide range of deliverables. Like somebody who had worked on a lot of different things. You know, you’d be looking at gala invites and flyers and postcards and posters and annual reports and maybe microsites and visualization. So that would be the breadth piece. Then we’d want to see consistency that for one organization they were able to produce a lot of different things, but they all hold together clearly. They all use the same colors, fun styles, and then production they look good, they look tight. They don’t look like they were designed by some random person. Right? So I’m imagining that kind of portfolio would be preferable to the portfolio of somebody who’s got, for instance, beautiful logo designs or like a beautiful, huge website design. I mean that’d be awesome to have. But the person you hire in-house only ever gets to go through a rebranding process or a big website process once every gazillion years. Right?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah, perfectly put. So it’s interesting. You’re not necessarily looking for the portfolio that really razzle dazzles you with its creative spark. You’re looking for like a suite of materials that all really hang together and then, depending on what your nonprofit creates or produces or needs, looking for that type of work.

Sarah Durham: Great. All right, so any other parting advice for people who are mulling over what to have in-house on their creative team?

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yeah. Well there’s just this kind of greater question of when to keep things in-house when you do have in-house designers and writers and when to look elsewhere. So, you can turn to a freelancer just because you literally don’t have people that you’ve hired to do that work if you’re a smaller nonprofit or if you’ve made the decision to outsource. But if you do have in-house teams, when then should you look outside and not use your in house designers? We would say that the decision to move outside of your in-house team should be for things that are kind of beyond your day to day work. So what we’ve just talked about with breadth, consistency in production, that’s for your day-to-day communications. You’ve hired that person for breadth, consistent in production to create those materials day-to-day. But what happens when you need to elevate above the day and day for like a capital campaign or some other very special initiative or to rebrand the entire organization? For moments like that, the exact skills that you’ve hired for in your in-house team are going to be a disadvantage because they haven’t exercised those muscles about creating something new or innovating. And so at those moments, that’s a great time to look outside of your walls, be they literal or metaphorical and to find some outside expertise.

Sarah Durham: That’s a great point. What are the confines of the projects where that comes up? And I often imagine that they are the projects that are very high risk or high reward and have a very long shelf life. So typically I encourage nonprofits to not use their in-house people to design the logo, to rename the organization, to build the website, you know, design from scratch. And of course it’s easy for me to say that and perhaps sound self-serving because we run an agency that does that, but it’s more so that in-house people so rarely have done those projects enough to have the right level of expertise, both in terms of what it takes to execute, but also what it takes to herd the cats that need to be herded. The consultant can come in and get buy-in and get people on the same page and say no in ways that in house people can’t. So even if you’ve got an in-house person, in fact, we have a client who’s one of these right now, he’s been through several big rebrands and several big website projects and out of the gate he decided not to lead that work internally. He decided to hire us because he’s seen over and over again how hard it is for that in-house person to be taken seriously enough. Even if they do have the chops.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Yes, and it can create a big strain.

Sarah Durham: Yeah.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Those are some factors to consider.

Sarah Durham: All right, good. Well, I think we’ve dug into some nice stuff here. Some good examples. We’ll link to the ebook I mentioned and Claire’s blog and any other great resources we have in the show notes on this podcast. Claire, thanks for joining me.

Claire Taylor Hansen: Of course.