CreativeCorporate loop

The Gap Between Corporate and Creative Culture is Closing

Design talent changes companies, companies change design talent
By Linda Quarles

The talent landscape is always evolving. With social media providing new levels of transparency and changing expectations of creative and tech talent, companies need to start competing not just on their customer experience, but on their employee experience as well. The next generation of talent with in-demand skills is seeking purpose-driven organizations, meaningful jobs, inclusive cultures, vibrant office environments, authentic and vulnerable leadership, psychological safety and belonging, and flexible work arrangements.

What are decades-old organizations to do? Whether leading or following in the culture race, each year more organizations are investing in their talent through maturing existing functions and adding new functions and capabilities. One of the fastest-growing disciplines is design. Once a strategic differentiator, design is now all but necessary to connect with customers and drive relevant and emotional solutions for the market.

At frog, we have seen the balance shifting from clients asking us to design for them, to clients asking us to design with them, and now to clients asking us to develop and enable their in-house design talent. In order to rise to the demand, we also see design pushing the boundaries of corporate recruiting priorities and policies. Just as an influx of MBAs caused major shifts in campus recruiting strategies in the 80s and 90s, today’s design talent creates new challenges for HR, operations and executives alike.

Corporate gets creative
Unlike MBAs, design talent is not necessarily motivated by titles and compensation. What can be a big turn off is restrictive dress codes, stifling political maneuverings, and uninspired workplaces. Having an environment that nurtures creativity can now be just as important as more traditional employee benefits.

One of the most talented creative directors I know tells a story that perfectly encapsulates this shift. Years ago, he arrived at the building for his final interview at a top tech brand that had been wooing him with the promise of massive budgets and headcount, along with the autonomy and freedom to “push the envelope.” At the time, it was one of the most sought after head design jobs in tech. But when he cruised into the parking lot on his Ducati, he found himself staring at a corporate office park of endless low-lying beige buildings, and a uniformed mass of Dilberts trudging in from a sea of sedans and minivans. At that moment, he knew that his heart would never be able to sing the way it did in the dynamic, rich chaos of a creative studio. So, he drove right off the lot without even stepping foot into the building.

Sound crazy? He probably made the right decision. We so often hear of talented design and tech hires that are lured into large enterprises with the promise of operating in a “startup environment.” On paper, it seems perfect—all the freedom of a startup, all the resources of a stable, legacy company. But they quickly find that political realities are harsh and that even the most celebrated creative leader is no match for the corporate planning cycle.

Enterprise culture is slowly catching up, however. We have seen significant changes from the demands of designers and other younger technical talent. Design is pushing talent acquisition to think differently about where and how they source talent. In the same way that the new generation of talent has been a forcing function for organizations to invest in employee experience and diversity, designers have even further pushed HR to review an even broader swath of policies and practices. Goldman Sachs has relaxed its dress code (gasp!), and a major non-American bank we work with has been re-evaluating its drug testing policy in order to make it easier to attract the talent they are looking for. Additionally, our Architecture & Places practice is growing by leaps as employers realize that inspired and creative work requires equally inspired and creative workplaces.

Creative gets corporate
On the flip side, while the new talent landscape is demanding that employers evolve to attract diverse talent with new skills and capabilities, corporations are also demanding more of this new workforce.

While we have long taught design thinking in business schools all over the world, more recently the capability-building we are seeing increasing demand for is business skills for design teams. If designers want to sit side-by-side with strategy and line leadership, they need to know how to read a balance sheet, what an EBIDTA is, and how market caps are defined. We are also teaching this to frogs and design students in many of the top design schools around the world, including the School of Visual Arts (SVA).

Within many other industry-leading forums such as InVision’s Design Leadership Forumand the DMI Leadership conference, topics primarily focus on articulating the business value of design, developing talent, leadership skills, influencing and navigating politics, educating the organization, understanding and measuring KPIs, and the importance of diversity.

Like the functions that have arisen in the past to demand a “seat at the table,” design must both push the corporate boundaries, as well as learn to embrace (or at least tolerate) some of the indisputable realities of corporate life: politics, budget cycles, the thirst for quantitative data, risk aversion, internal competition.

Closing the gap 
The cycle of designers working in enterprises currently averages two years. While the HR dashboard might see the turnover and attrition as an uphill battle, forward-thinking companies are changing their mindset and all but abandoning retention as a top strategy. Instead, they are prioritizing deliberate onboarding, strong alumni networks, and intentional boomerang programs.

The movement of design talent from enterprise to agency and back is healthy and in many cases, desirable. At frog, we are happy to send our great talent out in the world to build new companies and products, and just as happy to welcome them back with their newfound empathy for our clients’ real organizational dilemmas.

And within the work we do with our clients, we’re excited to see companies and enterprises of all sizes really starting to grasp the business value of design—and more importantly design talent. Because of our wide range of expertise across industries—from legacy players to new ventures alike—we are able to help our clients build, maintain and scale best-in-class design capabilities. We’ve worked with leading companies, like American Express, to create a pathway of growth for internal design functions. Through our Org Activation practice, we solve the most complex organizational puzzles to ensure companies get the most out of their investment in design, and that design talent is able to flourish—even in legacy corporate environments.

Author
Linda Quarles
Strategy Director, Org Activation
Linda Quarles
Linda Quarles
Strategy Director, Org Activation

Linda provides a broad range of consultative services to build capability and improve organizational performance with clients globally. After more than two decades leading organization transformations from within, Linda brings empathy for leaders driving culture change, innovation and growth in organizations from startups to Fortune 500.