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What to look for in a design partner

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With so many online tools and resources available to us, many small businesses try to get by without needing external support for graphic design and creative marketing advice. But, when it comes to seeking out extra help, what should you be looking for?

There’s a line we hear a lot  – “We offer three kinds of services – good, cheap, fast, but you can only pick two.” This is an everyday dilemma in the creative design world and, as a client, it is a compromise you need to be prepared for from the start.  Rushed jobs risk falling down on detail or quality. Budgets set too low risk not exploring all the possibilities or missing opportunities to create something unique.

Here in the Waikato there are a range of designers you can contract, and most of them incredibly talented. There are established large creative agencies, plenty of smaller and more boutique design studios, and an ever-increasing eco-system of one-man-bands.

Length and breadth of experience means better-resourced agencies can bring all sorts of useful insights and ideas to your design and you may even choose an agency or designer based on very specific previous experience. Larger agencies also offer a team to work on your projects, bringing more brain-power but also more hands to the pump when things are urgent or there’s a lot going on. In most cases, you pay for the privilege of having that broader resource available to you, but there’s definitely value in it.

Over the years, I heard a few clients resent paying for project management or admin support, wanting to deal directly with the designer. Some designers are great project managers and, indeed, great strategists too – but not all.

It’s that old myth of the ‘marketing unicorn’, where it’s important to acknowledge the difference in skillsets and make sure you’re working with the team that has strengths in areas that will add most value to and improve the outcomes of your project most effectively.  Small design studios or one-man-bands may not have the luxury of that additional person, and that’s fine, but non-design tasks have to be done by someone, so seeing a non-designer as an unnecessary extra is short-sighted.

Proof-reading and accuracy are other potential traps, especially when multiple hands come across a piece of work. Some designers are great with words – but not all. Every designer or agency will make every effort to ensure their work is error free, because new work comes from good work. You should expect attention to detail, but also be fully prepared to take responsibility for the final outcome.

Value is in the eye of the beholder. For example, I pay my accountant to do many things I could technically do myself but that stuff freaks me out and I’d rather pay! It will take them a lot less time and be more accurate, because it’s something they do every day and they know the tricks.

There’s a line from Suits that rings true here: “You don’t pay the plumber for banging on the pipe. You pay him for knowing where to bang.”

Be prepared to be challenged and seek out a designer or agency who will do so deliberately and sympathetically. Your designers should feel like part of your team, but they should equally be the ones to make you think differently and bring you a creative edge that will help you stand out amongst your competition.

Look for designers who will relish the chance to think conceptually, as well as simply making things look good. Never underestimate the power of a good idea and the gaping hole the absence of one can leave. Avoid the designers who behave like bullies. They need to be ready to listen and learn – as do you – and not dictate their own agenda and push ideas onto you that you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s their job to both nurture and protect your brand, just as much as it to champion it.

For the most important aspect to aspire to, there is a clue in the headline. You need to find someone who you feel you can work with as a genuine creative marketing ‘partner’, not just because they’re nice to work with but because you can develop a mutual understanding around your brand and it’s needs, together.

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About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz