The Perils of Doing it In-house

There’s nothing else that causes dismay in the heart of a designer as when a client announces that they will do it themselves. Whether the reason is financial, lack of understanding the true scope of a project, or shift in priorities; the decision to take a project in-house happens.

The dangers are twofold: it won’t get done or it won’t pass muster

In the case of one such client, I am waiting to hear from them after they realize that they don’t actually have the skills nor resources in-house to pull the job off. I don’t doubt that they will reach this point sooner or later. Sadly, they will have wasted a lot of time and likely have gotten frustrated. I hope they’ll still be able to get their enthusiasm up for a fresh start.

In another case, someone with no training has designed and laid out an entire small booklet of about 100 pages. I was asked to look over the file to check that it looked ok. I got the file so that I could make some kerning fixes on the title that the person didn’t know how to do. And I saw that the book had been created without master pages or a single stylesheet. That’s like making 8 dozen cookies, but instead of making the dough once, mixing the ingredients together for every cookie separately. Now, I’m in the midst of assisting as I can with the errors that the printer has called out to be fixed before it can go to press.

Well actually, graphic designers are more than a pair of hands

Because our tools have become so sophisticated, clients have the impression that anyone can do it. And by “it,” I mean use the tools, not necessarily to good effect. In the case of web content management systems like WordPress, most people can pick it up and figure out how to use it once it’s set up. (And I encourage my clients to go this route.) The great numbers of beautiful themes that are available make it seem so easy—as if it’s already designed for you. However, in my experience WordPress is actually more technically complex to set up and customize than it is to create an html site from scratch. And, WordPress isn’t going to plan your site, help you figure out your content strategy, and make your website an integral part of your marketing plan.

Today as I was trying to advise on that job that the printer rejected, I was reminded of the “desktop publishing revolution” from the late 1980’s, when everyone with PageMaker became a designer overnight. It did revolutionize our industry, but what didn’t change is the need for designers to provide our clients good strategy, problem solving, thinking, communication, technical expertise, as well as great design.

Let’s talk about opportunity cost

Professional services from an outside firm is expensive, and clients mostly take a project in-house to save on cost. A website that costs $25,000 from an outside firm sounds like a crazy extravagance when you could have a staff person take on the website for “free.” Sounds like a no-brainer. But, if you think about what is potentially lost as a result of a late and/or mediocre website, the costs of doing it in-house can be so much greater. Let’s say that a professionally produced website that really works for your company might bring in even just one new client that adds $50,000 to your company’s revenue. All of the sudden, that kind of ROI looks like the most sound investment you could make on your company’s future.

Elías García Martínez, Ecce Homo (1930), and Cecilia Giménez's infamous 2012 restoration attempt.
Elías García Martínez, Ecce Homo (1930), and Cecilia Giménez’s infamous 2012 restoration attempt. Click on the image above to read the whole story of how the famously botched painting ultimately had an unexpected happy ending.

Can you afford to take the risk?

Before you decide that you will take that project in-house, make an honest assessment of the skills and resources of your in-house staff.

  • Can that admin/researcher/office manager really produce a professional-quality document?
  • Do you/they truly understand the technical requirements of doing so?
  • Does that accounts person/customer service rep/IT guy who already has a full plate really have the time to redesign the website?
  • How will you support this person with the added workload while the project is underway?
  • What is the accountability for not keeping the project on track?
  • What is the opportunity cost of not having a professionally produced product?

And finally, beware that one of the biggest pitfalls of taking a project in-house is having a junior person in charge of a project because they lack the authority to garner the cooperation and support they’ll need from their superiors in order to push a project along.