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For clients: How to choose a design firm

We are a design firm, and we’re always looking for clients to partner with—organizations who will engage us to work together on projects that bolster and improve their brands. Sounds simple enough.

But clients have told us that hiring a design firm isn’t as simple as it might seem from our side of things. It’s not like hiring a plumber to come unclog your toilet. Enlisting the services of a design firm can be an intimidating process. So, in our first For Clients post, here are some things to consider when you’re on the lookout for someone to work with.

What Kind of Designer Do You Want?
In general, design firms are looking to help you by being part of the process. They bring a wealth of ideas, experience and strategic intuition to bear on your design challenges–and for what you will pay, it’s important that you take advantage of every iota of that expertise. There are many reasons clients head into the wilderness and search for the perfectly fitting Design Firm. To narrow it down, it might help to ask yourself, ‘What kind of help do I want?’ If you want someone to execute your already-baked ideas, you might be better served conserving some of your funds, and hiring a younger designer, design intern or freelance design member to put some polish on your Million Dollar Ideas. If you’re convinced you already know what you want, it could be a waste of your time, money and energy to go through the process of hiring a design firm.

On the other hand, if you have an overall sense of your organizational or marketing goals, but see the need for a partner to help you achieve those things, strategic design firms make a lot of sense. If you want someone to come alongside you and improve your company’s visual presence, the brand’s voice, and to think deeply with you about the company’s true message, then you could use the expertise of a design firm.

What You’re Getting When You “Buy Design”
Occasionally we’ll run into a prospective client who equates purchasing design services with ordering off a fast food menu. In our world, the client isn’t merely getting a deliverable, like a widget or a coffeemaker. You don’t just order a comprehensive brochure set or four package designs and say “Super Size It!”.

In the best-case scenario as a client, when you approve a proposal for a website, a logo, or a marketing campaign, you’re also entering into relationship: You’re getting the experience, the skillsets, and specific viewpoint of your design firm. Good design firms are less like Burger King and more like romances. A good design firm will want to sit down and get to know you (compatibility check), your goals and thoughts about the direction of your organization (dreams and aspirations), your history (past relationships) and all those other nuances, to help craft something that meets each specific, individual need.

“You don’t just order a comprehensive brochure set or four package designs and say “Super Size It!”

How To Look At A Portfolio or Past Work
Sometimes prospective clients have a hard time looking at the work of design firms, because after a while it can all start to seem alike—an endless array of logos, case studies, artfully cropped photos of printed pieces, website links—it can be overwhelming. To help cut through the clutter,simply ask yourself a few questions: What are you looking for? A specific style? Someone with experience in your industry? A fresh approach to your type of organization? The answers to these questions will give you a filter of sort with which to sort out which firms might fit you best in the pool of prospective suitors.

After you’ve decided what you want, there are some additional criterion to use in your evaluations. How do each of the design firms measure up in: Flexibility—do they have a variety of work? Is their expertise transferable to many different types of clients (a diverse set of projects) or are they only strong in one area? Craft—does the quality of their work seem professional? This may feel somewhat subjective, but do their designs strike you as finished and airtight? Is the presentation of their work detailed and thorough? Can they write and think intelligently about the work they’ve done? On a more elemental level, do you connect emotionally with the work they’ve done? Put yourself in the shoes of that target audience—does the work communicate what it should? (And this is much different than asking yourself, “Do I like the work?” The biggest question is, “Would I like it if I were the audience?”)

Is What’s Important To Them Important To You?
In the design firm’s case studies and project descriptions, do you see how they’ve solved the challenges of past clients? Is there evidence that the firm puts client business needs at the top of the list, strategically meeting (or exceeding) business goals? Or are they more focused on just making beautiful “art”, droning on about other less relevant things? Creative execution is a must, but great design firms always harness creativity in the service of something larger—and that something should be your business.

Do People Say Good Things About Them?
This is just part of due diligence. Ask for references. Can they hand those over without blinking? Are they easy to work with? Personable and friendly? Or do they bristle and push back at every chance? How quickly do they call you back? If you’re part of their roster of clients, how important do they make you feel?

Finally, Are You Committed To The Process?
At the end of the day, when you’ve finally settled on your firm, it’s easy to bring a design firm in, toss them a project brief, and say “Have at it!” It’s a totally different experience to sit down, roll up your sleeves, and begin the immersive discussion about your project, goals, likes, dislikes and overarching strategy. By really engaging in the process of design with your chosen firm, you’ll show that you’re committed to great results and thoughtful execution. It will take more work than just handing off the design work and moving on to something else—but the final results will be much more exciting, effective and rewarding when you, the client, occupy that all-important co-pilot’s chair.

In our next installment of this series, we’ll explore Working With A Design Firm.

The above image is used with permission as part of a Creative Commons license.

Mar 8 2010

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6 Responses to “For clients: How to choose a design firm”

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