Substance Over Style: Find the best design partner you can

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An article titled Substance over Style by our Design Director Mark Busse was featured in an issue of Business In Vancouver’s Adpages Magazine about how businesses can more effectively attract, evaluate and select a design partner. The article (reproduced below) argues that procurement strategies such as RFPs can produce unrewarding outcomes and offers some tips and guidance for businesses seeking a relationship with creative firm.

Substance over style: How to find the best design partner for your business
by Mark Busse

With graphic communications increasingly recognized as critical to success, it’s important to find the right design firm for your company.

Yet many in business struggle to attract, evaluate and select design partners. One might hire friends or family, while another might create a contest with a prize for the selected submission. Many others rely on archaic requests for proposals (RFPs) for transparency and objectivity in arriving at competitive pricing. The resulting relationships can be as unrewarding as the outcomes.

Is there a better way?

Seek help in your search

Recommendations from within your own industry or from design experts will almost always be more effective than online searches or RFPs. Consult with design associations on identifying qualified candidates from their certified ranks. Are the candidates thought leaders in design, respected by industry, peers and clients? Or consider delegating the search to a marketing consultant with experience procuring and managing design.

Look beyond portfolios

In addition to evaluating a design team’s portfolio, investigate the company’s skills in business and project management. Don’t judge only on æsthetics or descriptions of process. Challenge candidates to express what was behind their design choices and how their particular approaches solved clients’ problems. Visit their studios and speak to them in person to judge fit. You needn’t become friends, but you should share similar perspectives, goals or ethics and enjoy collaborating together.

Ask for case studies and testimonials

Request comprehensive case studies that outline goals, context, and approach to reveal whether processes are results-driven. Ask for testimonials or contact information for specific clients. If candidates don’t willingly offer these, move on.

Who will do the work?

Investigate each firm’s current employees and in-house capabilities. How many long-term, full-time designers do they employ? How much design or development do they farm out, and are they transparent about this? Inquire how direct a role the senior members will play in your project.

What’s included?

What is and isn’t covered in candidates’ fees? Do they provide working files? Do they use proprietary or open-source solutions? What’s their stance on ownership and copyright, and how do they handle cost overruns?

Will candidates be there for you in future?

The real value of a relationship with a designer is in his or her repeatable process and creative thinking applied to your problem, not merely to your final product. Since the worth of this relationship often emerges over time, inquire about candidates’ plans for growth. Look for indications that firms have been and will be around long-term.

Are candidates asking questions?

Do candidates spend most of their time selling you on themselves, or do they seem genuinely interested in your problem and goals? The best practitioners will be hungry for the details underlying your situation and may push you to reconsider causal factors and solutions. Speak openly about your business needs and expectations.

Seek a consultant, not a proposal

Avoid the temptation to require designers to provide firm cost proposals up front on the basis of your description of deliverables. Instead, share your problem, goals, budget and timeline and engage a qualified designer to work with you to prescribe strategic solutions tailored to your unique situation. After this initial discovery, create a project plan that outlines the specifics of the solution. Write a contract after arriving at an agreement. As to hourly rates, you get what you pay for: prices will reflect experience and efficiency.

Like hiring a senior employee or taking on a partner, choosing the right design firm can be a critical moment in the growth of your business. The best candidates won’t give away strategy to prospects – certainly not before doing the research and diagnostics they’ll need for understanding the situation fully – so don’t ask for it before hiring a team. If the initial discovery phase doesn’t impress you or you dislike working together, discontinue the relationship and move on.

About 20 per cent of our business at Industrial Brand comes from clients who hired design providers ineffectively and have had to redo their identity systems or websites, didn’t understand what they were paying for or found themselves with limited options after their designers vanished. Don’t fixate on deliverables and costs before choosing your partner. What you’re really paying for is a well-considered process. Use the opportunity to start a long-term relationship with a partner you trust.

Mark Busse is design director of Industrial Brand, a Vancouver-based brand, communication and interactive design firm he co-founded in 1997. He’s a certified professional member and B.C. past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada as well as member of the Association of Professional Design Firms.


This article is from Business in Vancouver Adpages 2011

Business in Vancouver has been publishing in-depth local business news, analysis and commentary since 1989. The newspaper also produces a weekly ranked list of the biggest companies and players in a wide range of B.C. industries and commercial sectors, monthly features and industry-focused sections that arm its subscribers with a complete package of local business intelligence each week.

From Adpages, published by BIV Magazines. Copyright © 2011, BIV Magazines, a division of BIV Media LP. Reproduced with permission.