So…if I work in Design, but I’m not a Designer, what DO I actually do?

by | Sep 13, 2019

It’s a great question. And when Linda’s flat-out designing all the projects that pass through our studio, I sometimes ask myself the same thing!

Since graduating from The University of Edinburgh – way back in 1997 – I’ve been lucky enough to work in the design industry, but my degree wasn’t in graphic design or anything ‘arty’ – it was in Business Studies.

My four year course was broad, with tricky accountancy, economics and industrial relations modules, as well as topics I found easier, more interesting (and more creative) – consumer behaviour, marketing and advertising.

Keen to work in one of those areas, I started applying for Marketing Manager positions at big companies like Mars and Peugeot, and for Advertising Account Executive positions at big London agencies like JWT and McCann Erickson. I went to LOTS of interviews, just missing out on a spot at McCann’s. But I’m glad I did, because when my first employer took me on as a Junior Account Manager, it really was my perfect job.

And like today, it meant I’d be working in design… But not as a designer.

Back then, Jones Knowles Ritchie (jkr) wasn’t the multi-office global branding agency it is now. It was one office containing 25 friendly, talented people, producing award-winning packaging designs. And located dangerously close to the (in)famous Good Mixer pub in Camden Town, it was heaven for a 22 year old indie girl like me.

With clients including McVities, Youngs Brewery, Britvic and Mars, I’d find myself driving to Slough one day, training it to Chelmsford the next, and flying to Strasbourg the next. And my desk was piled permanently high with packaging for confectionery, biscuits and beer – all for competitor research purposes, of course 🙂

During my 7 years at jkr, I learned how to meet and mix with people from diverse backgrounds, brief in projects and manage their progress through the creative studio, write stellar project proposals, and develop long-term client relationships. All priceless stuff. 

But what I remember most was someone telling me that the real role of an Account Manager was to act as a ‘shock absorber’ and protect the designers – the agency’s talent and lifeblood – from direct pressure from the equally-vital clients. I really loved that ’shock absorber’ role – fielding questions about budgets and deadlines, solving problems, and meeting clients so the designers could keep doing what they do best – designing. In 2003, when I left jkr to travel the world with my then-boyfriend (now husband), Chris, the company had grown to 120 people, with even more layers of accounts staff to provide the fast-expanding design team with even more shock absorption.

Fast forward to today, and in a two-person graphic design partnership like Howell & Hicks, there are no layers of staff. But it’s no less important for me to try and shield our design team (Linda) from any unnecessary client communications and/or issues, and avoid overloading her with multiple creative projects. She’s amazingly fast, but she can still only ever work on one thing at a time.

Linda’s Business Card says ‘Creative Director’, which basically means she’s responsible for steering any Howell & Hicks creative projects, and for the quality of the work we deliver to our clients. 95% of the time she’ll produce that work herself, but occasionally, she’ll oversee work that we’ve briefed our talented freelance friends to help us with. So that all makes sense. Linda’s in charge of all the creative stuff. But what about me? What do I actually do?

Over the years, my business card title has changed from ‘Account Manager’ to ‘Account Director’, and now to ‘Director’ (of our little agency – Howell & Hicks Creative Ltd.). But what does that mean? Director of what?

A Director is defined as ‘a person who is in charge of an activity, department, or organisation’ and thankfully, even after Linda has handled all the creative work so brilliantly (thank you, Linda!), there are still enough day-to-day business activities that need some direction by someone else. And for us, that someone else is me.

From briefing Linda on a new project, to attending business seminars and training sessions, from researching content for our monthly newsletter, to meeting our accountant, from updating our website, to sending out invoices and chasing up overdue payments, from carrying out competitor research, to calling a client to discuss feedback and next steps, and even to writing this Blog article, there’s always plenty to do.

So just like ‘Jack Sprat’ and his wife, our partnership works well because of our different strengths and abilities. Linda does all the clever creative stuff that she’s been trained to do (and that I couldn’t even attempt!). And I do all the other stuff that she’s too busy to do (and/or not interested in doing). 

But as long as I’m a non-designer working in the design industry, soaking up a bit of pressure will be an important responsibility. My next business card might even say…

Jen Howell
Shock Absorber

I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.

Mother Theresa