I Am In-House: Alex Center

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Our in-house profile this month is on the Design Director responsible for vitaminwater, smartwater and POWERade as part of the global design team at Coca-Cola. Alex responds to our questions and shares with InSource his insights and passion for being an in-house creative.

  1. Your full name?

    Alex Lee Center

  2. Where do you work? What does your company do?

    The Coca-Cola Company. We sell beverages. Lots of them, to lots of people.

  3. What types of services does your team specialize in?

    The design team at Coke specializes in designing for all touch points of brand communication. We are in the business of building brands through the power of design. Every time you interact with one of our brands, it’s our job to make sure that experience represents our DNA in a way that makes people fall in love. Of all the areas that consumers interact with beverage brands, I’d say that our most important touch point is at the shelf. Coca-Cola is known all over the globe for its best-in-class packaging and the interaction at the point of purchase is critical to our success. With so many places that people can connect with brands in 2016, it’s important that they are packaged with purpose and ultimately make you choose us in that final moment. It’s kinda like the Bachelor.

  4. How many people make up your team?

    The global design team is about 50 or so people that sit around the globe.

  5. Your title/role within the company?

    Design Director for vitaminwater, smartwater and POWERade.

  6. What was your very first job in this field?

    I had an internship at Madison Square Garden working for both the New York Knicks and Rangers in their Advertising & Design department. This was my first experience being behind the curtain, working for iconic brands and seeing how design plays a role in the business of sports. I’m a huge sports fan (tough year for my Knicks) so I loved the fact that I got to go behind the scenes of something I’m so passionate about. I also had the opportunity to meet some of my heroes in the hallways and work on some pretty fun projects. The most important thing I learned from that experience was that I could be a professional designer and love what I do everyday. Haven’t really looked back since.

  7. Share a best-practice leadership experience

    I think that being in-house allows you to speak up in a way that being a hired gun from the outside world does not. I can think of a time when we were launching a new product for one of our brands and I wasn’t aligned with the way we were executing it. I don’t think anyone felt like they had the ability to question the decision made from our leadership, but I just felt strongly that it wasn’t right for the brand. I walked into our VP’s office and laid out the case against the new product launch and ultimately we scrapped our plan and went with a more strategic, on-brand approach. I don’t think if I was an outside employee I would’ve felt comfortable telling our leadership that they were wrong for fear of losing a paycheck. On an in-house team, my only real obligation is to do what’s best for the brand. I work for them.

  8. What are you working on now that you’re excited about?

    I can’t reveal much, but we are launching some pretty cool new products and innovation projects that I think represent the future of the beverage industry. Technology is changing things pretty quickly and all categories need to adapt to keep up with people’s needs. It’s not enough to be a singular great product anymore. We need to constantly be innovating to make sure that people still love our brands in new and unique ways that represent the world around them. Pretty vague huh?

  9. If you could share one piece of advice for an up-and-coming creative leader what would it be?

    I think it would be to consider everything that goes into building a brand as your job. I think designers often find themselves caught inside the box of being craftsmen at the end of the conveyer belt. I’m not saying that designers should control every single piece of the puzzle, but I think that designers should have the ability to be a part of the bigger brand-building work from a strategic perspective. Building brands is a holistic job and being a creative leader is much more than just being a graphic designer. It’s not only about fonts and colors. Learning the ins and outs of a business is the best first step to breaking outside of that singular job role.

  10. What inspires you?

    I’m inspired by popular culture. I’m obsessed with understanding what people are driven to purchase, watch, consume and create on a daily basis. I think that’s one of the things that enables me to design for people at a mass scale.

  11. What is the first thing you do each day to organize yourself?

    I check my apps. Typically instagram, snapchat, twitter and facebook. In that order. I like to have a sense of what’s going on in the world before I start my day.

  12. Have you noticed any changes or trends for in-house creatives in the past year?

    I think that we are starting to be recognized for not only our talent/ability but for our sheer presence in the design community. In-house designers make up more than half of the design profession, but I still feel like an outsider in many ways. I’d love to see more conferences, more speakers, more articles and ultimately more designers step up and share their experiences working in-house for amazing brands. I know that they are out there, but I think they prefer to stay in their cubicles rather than promote themselves. I’d like to see more in-house designers speak up about how great it is to be in-house.

  13. What has been your greatest challenge as a creative leader?

    My biggest challenge is selling people on the power of design and that it’s the most valuable place to put brand dollars. I find that brand leaders are often still interested in marketing the traditional way— telling stories through advertising vs. designing experiences. I love a great, sexy 30-second TV spot as much as the next guy, but for the money it takes to create them, I think a lot of brands would be better off doing more.

  14. Describe the career path you have taken and where you see yourself next.

    I love being in-house. I’m not sure that I could ever work on the agency side of things. I love being really close to the drivers seat (or in it) and I think that going to that side of the world would mean having much less of an impact. I love building brands with the power of design, both large and small. I see myself continuing to do this throughout my career, whether that’s at The Coca-Cola Company or not, only time will tell that.

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