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Launching a project with your design firm

Previously, we discussed some tips for clients on selecting a design firm, and important considerations before entering into a working relationship. Once you’ve taken that step, it seems like the hard part is over—the design firm is going to do the work after all. Right? Well, it’s not really that simple. The challenge of working with your chosen team to create the best possible project is the responsibility of both design firm and client. On this journey there are some recognizable roadblocks you should avoid, allowing you to get the most out of your working design partnership and the money, time and energy you’ll be investing.

Below are our key points to help you work together successfully:

Have A Destination In Mind
Expectations are the underlying (if invisible) foundation of any good design relationship, and it’s crucial to bring those to the surface right at the start. If you’re going to engage your design firm as partners, you’ll want to communicate your expectations, even if some of them are less-than-obvious. Defining the business goals might be as easy as asking a few questions: What are your goals for the project(s)? What’s the timeline? What is it that you hope this project will do? Drive sales? Build mindshare? Increase web traffic? Get as specific as you can, and in each of these, think about how you (and your firm) will best measure and analyze the results at the end. Will success be defined by internal feedback? (Does the rest of the company embrace it?) Or external reactions? Many companies enter a project with unrealistic expectations of what design can do—a beautifully designed and executed effort still won’t turn a typical product into the iPhone. Great marketing won’t save a poorly-conceived plan. Be realistic and specific, and make sure you designate a target everyone can aim for. It seems obvious to decide on a measure of success before the project begins, but many projects proceed without one, to everyone’s detriment.

There is also another set of expectations specific to you and your organization. Your chosen design firm will want to know: What similar efforts have you undertaken in the past? Which have succeeded, and what would you rather forget? What sort of history do you bring to this project? Is this the 5th time the department has attempted a similar effort? And then, there are the more personal, idiosyncratic factors to keep in mind. Does the CEO’s husband hate the color orange? Whether they’re goofy or financial, from your perspective, what crucial tidbits does your design partner need to know?

Show Them The Money
When a design firm asks “What’s your budget for this project?” it isn’t an effort to squeeze every last cent from your company. It’s a question that will frame the entire effort—what realm of solutions are possible? What set of tools will work effectively within the budgetary constraints? Different services and deliverables have various prices—a set of lookbooks might be a smaller investment than a deep, socially-networked web campaign. There are many ways to attack a design problem and meet the project goals, so it’s important to help your design firm know which tools you (and they!) can afford to use. This will save everyone from building up concepts that you can’t afford to execute, and instead, spending time on affordable solutions to your actual design challenges.

Talk When They Listen—More Info Is Better Info
Give your design team as much ammunition as possible, and as much data, information and perspective as you can. A firm that asks a lot of questions isn’t stupid or ignorant—quite the contrary. The more information you can provide at the outset of a project, the smoother the road to success will be. Customer profiles, anecdotal evidence, sales trends, previous marketing—all of this knowledge your company lives with on a daily basis can be like gold to your partner firm. So, don’t underestimate the power of what you already know. There might be hidden treasure amongst it.

Decide Who Will Be Involved
Give the final decision-making power to one or two people, rather than a conference room full of divergent (and equally weighted) opinions. Committees can (and will) kill great ideas with a thousand little changes—until the end product is as bland as yesterday’s oatmeal. So it’s important to hand pick those few who have the need, the skill, and the authority to make the final call. This is the place where you, as the client, have significant power to keep projects finishing well, allowing them to play out in powerful, unadulterated ways.

Far too many design efforts go awry when the real stakeholders are not present or involved. So, these people need to be identified and swept into the process at the outset. You’ve probably seen it before: A high-ranking executive suddenly appears out of nowhere with uninformed, 11th hour project opinions, killing months of strategic work, sending the design firm and internal team scrambling for a new direction. So make sure that your top people can (and will) make the time to be involved. The alternative tends to leave firms discouraged, money wasted, and clients disillusioned about the process.

Beware of Process Diagrams
Some design agencies employ various patented Process Diagrams to describe discrete “phases” of their working procedure. In our experience, most of these charts are mostly smoke and mirrors. They’re often beautiful flowcharts designed to make concrete, right brain-thinking clients feel better about spending their money. We understand that hiring a design firm for nebulous “creative services” might feel as tangible as tossing money into a black hole. That firm with the Standardized Process might present itself as a safer bet, with the illusion of always-consistent, measurable steps. But in trying to systematize the design process, these diagrams give the false impression that creative output is always linear and straightforward, with predictable results. But what client wants its marketing and design to emerge as predictable and safe? In our experience, clinging to a rigid, one-size-fits-all process ignores the fact that each client (and project) is unique. To shoehorn the design process (which, at its best, is a fusion of strategy, intuition, creativity, and execution) into a standardized chart is insulting to the client and disparaging the work of design.

Every great client understands that design is a non-linear, messy, and sometimes meandering process. There are no quality “design factories” that churn out identical, beautiful, functional pieces of design. Creative problem solving and execution isn’t something that can be automated by punching variables into the Bat-Computer. It’s less akin to hiring an accountant, and more like a sojourn that leads to where business goals and inspired results meet.

Every great client understands that design is a non-linear, messy, and sometimes meandering process.

Don’t Hire A Clone Army
You’re not looking for clones of yourself, so be prepared for some solutions you didn’t expect. Sometimes an in-house team can be too close to the situation, and a complementary outsider perspective is welcome. If you receive exactly what you were imagining, you’re either a creative genius (who should probably be designing yourself) or you’ve put restraints on the creative team you’ve invested time and money into. Either way, you probably didn’t get your money’s worth. Micromanaging your firm doesn’t make much financial sense. You’ve hired them for their expertise, so let it come through without suffocating the process—and all of this will eventually lead you (and your chosen design team) to the promised land of many successful projects.

Mar 25 2010

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9 Responses to “Launching a project with your design firm”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by hexanine: Launching your first project with a design firm: http://tinyurl.com/yfs8upg #design #branding #clients…

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  3. Steve Zelle says:

    Thanks for the great post Tim.

    While I agree that process diagrams and discussions of phases can be an indicator of a studio locked in to a mechanical way of working, I still use them.

    My clients want to have some idea of what they are about to go through when hiring me. I have found that these tools provide a thread of structure underneath all the chaos that is inherent in creativity. I explain that the process is non-linear, tasks overlap, reverse order, and research in particular, is not a phase that occurs once, but is a constant from beginning to end. Without some indicator of structure, I fear they would not be comfortable moving forward.

    I am very interested to hear other designers and clients take on this and hope to see more comments.

  4. Tim Lapetino says:

    Thanks for the comment, Steve. I think in spirit, we’re in agreement.

    While I don’t see any problem with reassuring a client that there’s a “method to our methods”, it seems that making some “guaranteed process” part of your sales pitch more often leads to one-size-fits-all solutions. That shortchanges our profession and the clients themselves, rather than demonstrating the power of creative problem solving.

    So, maybe some of the “mystery” of design should stay behind the Oz-ian curtain, but to sell design services as mechanical, engineered process seems disingenuous to me.

  5. Steve Zelle says:

    Absolutely agree Tim and thanks for the follow-up.

    The issue is not only with these $99 logo factories but with new ‘designers’ believing (and selling) the idea that simply having a defined process equips them with the ability/skills to produce results.

    Great topic.

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