I Have a Proposal For You

Mark Busse – 2 Comments

Move beyond the RFP to evaluate and hire the best creative services firm

Industrial Brand has responded to numerous Requests For Proposals (RFPs) in the two decades we’ve been operating as a strategy consulting and design studio, and we’ve developed a point of view that makes some business people uncomfortable: RFPs are a wasteful, expensive and inaccurate process when hiring a design firm.

RFPs are a flawed mechanism

Brand strategy and communication design is increasingly considered a critical component of business success, and expert business analysts are increasingly advising their corporate clients to avoid this antiquated method of evaluating and selecting design vendors.

In his excellent article in CA Magazine A Decent Proposal, Cal Harrison argues:

“Buyers have the opportunity to create strategic advantage for their organizations when procuring a professional services firm. However, they must first abandon their reliance on the constraints of the traditional RFP process.”

RFPs were born in the manufacturing sector, where project parameters were clearly defined, leading to a cost effective way to evaluate commodity suppliers with increased transparency and fairness. Such is rarely the case with professional services like design, and in fact has become a process in which nefarious behaviour can be hidden. Expertise, budget, and timelines should be expected in any project description, but RFPs too often score based on issues like hourly rates, process description, sustainability policies, even creativity—all reasonable issues to consider, but not a good basis for evaluating solid candidates for solving your business needs.

Many RFPs include a requirement for speculative creative thinking or design concepts, which is nothing short of disrespectful and unethical. Most RFPs appear to be scientific, with weighted matrixes measuring factors like hourly rates, process, or total project price as indicators of a firm’s suitability, but end up providing arbitrary and meaningless results. RFPs often attempt to commodify that which is not a commodity and by failing to openly reveal budget parameters often attract those most eager to win the work despite not having clearly defined project parameters—in other words, the lowest bidders who are also often not the most qualified or suitable to tackle the project at hand.

Although many still believe that RFPs are a cost effective way to evaluate potential vendor partners, on closer examination it becomes clear that they are in fact a waste of time, money, and resources, with candidates spending more on preparing proposals combined than the winner will likely earn in fees for the project itself. RFPs do little more than create inefficiency while creating artificial optics of fair market evaluation, instead of producing any tangible results. By their nature, RFPs can only yield ideas based on conjecture and loose, arbitrary budget guesses.

The bottom line is that the RFP process is counterproductive to a good design process. It doesn’t fully allow designers to bring their outside perspective and critical thinking to bear. The best creative professionals work as consultants WITH their clients to analyze, diagnose, and create project parameters and strategic solutions from the inside that address problems and meet goals, not toss about random ‘best guesses’ based on incomplete RFP information. Progressive and admired companies understand that selecting a professional service partner like a designer isn’t a commoditized output well suited to an RFP process.

So how can a company choose the best design firm without an RFP?

What is the difference between one design firm and the next? In the case of selecting a communication design firm, a quick Google search offers a dizzying array of  firms of all kinds and sizes. Some offer general graphic design and production services, others specialize in strategy, branding, or digital and interactive technologies. Many claim to offer everything under the sun! And they all make bold claims about their experience, their capabilities, and their process. But what criteria should you use to compare one experienced firm to another and choose the best design firm?

Reduced uncertainty via the experience, process, and motivation to meet the agreed to goals and budget are obviously key indicators worth considering closely. Expertise is far more important than hourly rates or rhetoric describing their particular process. The adage “you get what you pay for” absolutely holds true in this context, and its EXPERTISE you should be paying for.

Hire an expert in their field and yours. There is a distinct advantage to hiring designers who have superior educations and professional designations, such as certified graphic designers (CGDs). Additionally, consider design teams that specialize in producing solutions for your particular industry. Specialization can result in beneficial insights that can work to your advantage, but consider that it could also be something to avoid if what you are looking for is a fresh set of eyes. Whatever your starting point is, seek out designers who utilize a process that allows them to identify critical elements and uncover key insights and ultimately customizing a communication design solution.

Evaluating a design team’s portfolio and process is important, but look beyond the pretty pictures and ubiquitous descriptions of process and request comprehensive case studies that outline goals, context, approach, results, and client references. Case studies will demonstrate if their process is results-driven and show you what steps the design team will take, giving you a good idea what you can expect and whether you’ll like working with them. If they don’t have any case studies or invite you to speak directly with past clients, move on.

It’s important to realize that the real value of a relationship with a designer is in their repeatable process, applied to your specific problem, not merely the final product. The value of this relationship often emerges over time, so look for indications that the design firm has been and will be around for the long term.

A beautiful website, portfolio, or even proposal will never tell the whole story. It’s critical to hire a likeminded firm that shares your goals and ethics. Invite candidates to interviews and judge fit in person with dialogue over written proposals. You don’t need to become friends, but remember, the design firms you really want to work with are also concerned about fit and are evaluating you too. Both parties will be defined by the other.

Look for thought leaders in the design field who are highly respected by industry and peers. What evidence can you find that they are leaders in their field? Do they participate in the leadership of professional associations? Are they involved in teaching or mentoring? Do they publish opinions on industry issues? This can be very telling about their perspective and abilities.

Choosing the right design firm can be a critical moment in the growth of your business and it can be equivalent to hiring a senior employee or taking on a partner. At Industrial Brand, about 20% of our business comes from clients who have ineffectively hired a design provider and have to completely redo their brand identity or marketing materials, didn’t understand what they were actually paying for, or found themselves with limited options after their designers vanished.

As you evaluate candidates, try not to get too distracted by hourly rates or final deliverables. Instead focus on the more valuable diagnostic, strategic and creative thinking being offered. Experience shows that those who can provide the best results in the shortest amount of time charge higher rates. If suggested budgets seem attractively low at first, take a closer look.

Make sure you understand what is and is not included in the project fees. It’s normal for the cost of images, photography, and writing necessary for a project’s success to be supplementary, but discuss what budget should be expected for a project of your scope. If the company is experienced, they will be able to at least offer you a budget range so there are no surprises. Don’t forget to also clarify the form in which the work will be delivered and ownership/copyright terms surrounding the finished work. Will they provide working files? Will the website use a content management system? Is there any licensing involved?

Once you have found an experienced design firm you like, the rough parameters of the project are clarified and a basic understanding has been reached, a written contract is an important step in solidifying the agreement. Good designers employ comprehensive contracts, but demanding written proposals prior to any discovery phase isn’t going to get you the best talent. A complete project proposal often can’t even be created until the design firm has been engaged and initial assessments made—and paid for their time of course.

The best designers don’t give away strategy and ideas to prospects—certainly not before engaging in the research and diagnostics required to fully understand the situation—so don’t ask for it before hiring a design team. If the results of the initial research and discovery phase don’t impress you, or you truly dislike working with them, discontinue the relationship and move on. Blair Enns, a sales and marketing consultant who specializes in creative services, boldly suggests to his design firm clients that they offer prospects a money back guarantee for this first phase. Industrial Brand does this: if after the initial engagement, a client is not happy with how things are going? We’d rather return their money and walk away than work together if the fit isn’t there.

Cover your bases, not your ass

Many argue that RFPs bring transparency, objectivity and accountability to the procurement process, increasing competition that results in competitive prices, but more often than not the RFP process itself lacks integrity, prohibits the designer from acting as a consultant, costs the design buyer more in the end, and results in nothing more than something to hide behind when the wrong choice was made—and by then it’s too late.

So next time you’re seeking a professional design firm, instead of relying on a poorly considered RFP that imposes process, articulate your problem, goals and budget and ask qualified candidates smart questions to determine who can bring their experience, critical thinking and design process to bear to best create clever solutions for you. Instead of becoming fixated on the deliverables and costs prior to choosing the right design partner, remember that what you really pay for is a well-considered process, so use this opportunity to start a long term relationship with a design partner you can trust.

Tips for evaluating a design firm

  • Consider a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that includes project goals and budget as an alternative to an RFP
  • Never request speculative creative concepts or complicated expressions of unique thinking for your project
  • Challenge RFP respondents to keep responses to a few pages, not the typical long format filled with extraneous information
  • Consult with design industry associations like or for guidance in selecting designers
  • Consider expertise first and whether specialization in your industry will be an advantage or not
  • Avoid meaningless descriptions of process by asking to see relevant case studies that show goals, context, approach, solution, and results
  • Encourage discussion and questions by respondents and meet with most qualified candidates in person to judge fit, but choose talent over fit
  • Engage a design team to evaluate and diagnose solutions before requiring a project proposal
  • Ask what happens if after the first phase you are not comfortable working together
  • Clarify what you will actually get in the end and who owns the working files
  • Consider an initial engagement agreement for discovery and assessment before requiring a comprehensive written project contract

One final note: It isn’t just clients doing the analyzing in pursuit of the best fit. We too use criteria to evaluate prospects before engaging in any projects which we describe in this article Do Clients Choose Us, or Do We Choose Clients?