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8 Tips for Choosing a Design Firm

How to choose a marketing or design firm, and what to expect.

Working with creative people is different than working with many business consultants or suppliers. They typically dress and act more casually and express themselves more colourfully. They also tend to think in visual concepts and words. This alternative thinking and creativity can be a significant point of leverage for your own marketing success. Finding and choosing the right graphic design firm for the advancement of your business shouldn’t be taken lightly. We’ve put together the following eight tips to help you in choosing the right designer.

Look at their portfolioEnsure they can do the job.

The most obvious element to look for is when hiring a designer is talent. Although personal referrals are a great way to start, do have a close look at their work too. In a portfolio, look for a range of items (ie: not all websites), including work that’s relevant to your business. Look not only at design concepts but follow through and final results. Look for cohesiveness in a series of pieces, and look for obvious errors. Notice if they have a style that can be seen again and again throughout the portfolio. Many designers do, and that is fine, if you like it and it suits your business. For example, don’t choose a funky rock and roll style designer because their work is cool and then expect them to create something clean and corporate for your B2B straight-laced business. This applies to both large studios and independent freelancers.

Think of the hiring process as a dating ritual: Could you spend large amounts of time with this person?

Rapport is important in any business relationship. You want to feel comfortable with the people you work with and know that you can trust them. You should feel that they are listening to and working to understand your requests – even vague ones. The designer you choose in particular should be open to your input and not be a ‘diva’. Your know your business best. Conversely, they should also be willing to tell you when your ideas aren’t right, explain themselves, then recommend and explain what they feel is right. Both you and the designer you choose should be able to exchange ideas freely and trust each others expertise.

Freelancers are under stress to deliverSize DOES matter.

Select a designer that has a suitable business structure — the right size company to serve you. The smallest and least expensive would be an independent/freelancer. They may have talent and be an excellent solution for low demand businesses. However, if you have a large-scale project, a freelancer may have the best intentions, but simply not have the means to deliver and leave you to manage multiple suppliers. At the other end, don’t think that you need a large agency to do good work. There are large agencies with account execs, creative directors and marketing experts, all of who are needed to service a large account.
I know a start-up who went to a large ad agency because they felt they had to impress their investors. The agency did not take the small project seriously and this was demonstrated by inattention to the account and (it seemed) putting their most junior creative designers on the case.

In the middle there are varying degrees of smaller studios, or groups of independents in different disciplines working together as a team who have the time and expertise to deliver on larger scope projects. Pick a designer or marketing firm based on your needs and the level of service you want.

Manage expectations, yours and theirs.

What to expect when you begin working with a designer will vary with company you select. You’d likely have an initial meeting with the key player(s) to brief them on what you’re looking for. There should be a lot of questions about who you are, where you would like things to go, long-term plans, target markets, competition and maybe even “if your company was a car, what make of car would it be?” This is all part of the getting-to-know-you process. Good designers and teams will do whatever it takes to understand the business and its goals.

They should also be clear on how they conduct business so both of you can set realistic expectations. If other people will be involved they should tell you about them and their relationship. It also helps to develop a schedule working backwards from the deadline (which you should always set, even if it’s soft). You should discuss how best to communicate and know how quickly to expect anything.

Proposal and ContractKnow what you’re buying and get it in writing.

Once you’ve met and discussed the project, the designer will put together a proposal detailing recommended action and pricing. The proposal should include parameters like number of concepts to be presented, rounds of changes included, pricing, what is included and not included (ie: photography), what is expected of the client, payment details and a schedule. Even if it’s done very casually, there should be a written (email’s fine) approval on the proposal from you. All of this protects both parties and helps things run smoothly by putting expectations up front. A deposit is usually required. Many prospective clients innocently don’t know this, but asking a designer to do work first, then paying for it if you like it, is not ethical and it doesn’t foster trust.

Express what you want and what you like.

Once engaged, the designer / design team will present options to choose from for final development. Don’t be deterred by small details when the concept is good — ask to see variations like; elements of different layouts combined, or specific tweaks on your favourite layout or two. Any kind of critique is best received when done diplomatically, but don’t be concerned about hurting feelings. The most important thing is that you are confident, inspired and happy with what you get.

These should be part of the rounds of revisions included in the agreement. Most are flexible about this as they want to satisfy the client but there are limits. For example, if the designer presents more options than they planned to, it doesn’t mean you should ask to see them all in blue. If you get farther along in the project and decide something isn’t quite right after all, by all means speak up. This is your business, your interests and there is nothing wrong with backing up — just be prepared for a Diva sigh and possibly revisiting the quote.

The process of creative execution.

Once you decide on a design, the text, colours and images used will need to be finalized. It’s very helpful to discuss the best way of communicating changes beforehand, and providing one point of contact from your company to avoid contradictory requests. That person should collect and distill all comments, then provide clear direction to the designer. Once all changes are satisfied, the client will be expected to provide written or electronic approval before it’s printed, published to the web or splattered on a 20′ billboard. This protects you (if you don’t get what you approved), the designer (if you approved the wrong info) and both of you in case something goes wrong in the production process.

Make sure you'll get alongChoose your friends wisely.

Always remember when choosing and working with a designer to outline your own objectives, target audience and budget. Ask for references and contact them. Ensure that the designer or team you choose has the same values of service and quality that you do. Be realistic when deciding if a freelancer, medium sized boutique or larger firm is best for you and your business. Don’t let money lead the decision. In the end, the best way is to always follow your instincts.

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