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Success by Design

By Julie King |

For a business, the look you project is often closely tied to your ability to attract and retain customers.

Everything from your logo and brand colours to the way you use your company image on signs, business cards and other materials begins with the design firm you hire. Yet buying design services can be a significant challenge for business owners who do not have design experience themselves.

To learn about how business owners and managers can improve their chance of selecting the best firm possible, we interviewed Emily Cohen. Emily is a design consultant who uses her past experience as a designer, project and studio manager to help clients work more effectively with design firms. Her clients also include designers looking to improve their design businesses. Here are her insights into how small businesses can purchase design services more effectively.

CO: In your experience, what are the top mistakes business owners make when buying design (corporate identity, logo, etc.) and what should they be doing differently?

Emily Cohen: Most small business owners often don't understand the value design brings to their business, so they often communicate with designers as if they were vendors or service-driven. In fact, designers should be considered a businesses' true strategic partners, they provide creative strategies that align with business goals. It's important that businesses work in collaboration with their creative partners to provide a clear vision of a achievable business goals. Most small business owners don't clearly communicate two very important areas.

  • Budget parameters - it's important to carve out a reasonable budget for the creative work you require, and communicate this up-front to the creative team. They will appreciate your honesty and create a proposal that includes services and scope of work that works within your budget. Business owners feel that they may quote to high and designers will use that fee literally. In fact the opposite is true, if you start with an honest conversation, designers will respect that and respond in kind. Secondly, they can tailor their response to meet your needs.
  • Scope of work - you should work with your design partners to establish achievable expectations and needs; often most businesses begin relationships with unclear expectations and fuzzy directions, like "I need a new brand". Well what does this mean? Do you need a new logo, name or tagline? Do you need stationery, signage, website, brochure? Be as specific as possible and include your design partner in the initial planning - they can advise you on the best media that would achieve your business goals.

CO: In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good design team?

Emily Cohen: Great work (this doesn't necessarily mean they need industry experience, often it's nice to have objective, fresh insight) – make sure you absolutely love the work they create. Proven success - look for firms that include case studies that outline how they achieve client's objectives (success metrics). Strong personal connection - make sure you meet everyone you will be working with and that you like and trust them. Do they communicate well? Are they responsive to deadlines (did they return your calls immediately, did they submit a proposal on time, did they show up to a meeting on time)? Are they authentic and relatable? Do they show genuine interest in your business?

What is less important: (of course, with some exceptions)

  • industry experience
  • geographic location
  • size of firm (unless you require a lot of work in a short amount of time) - most design firms are nimble and flexible enough to scale up or down depending on the needs of their clients
  • fees (honestly, if your budget is reasonable, designers will develop solutions that work within client's budgets; that said, you should compare).

CO: How can a business issue an effective RFP for design to help find these people?

Emily Cohen: Firstly, this question may be confusing an RFP (request for a proposal) with an RFI (request for information). A business should first identify firms that meet their needs and, based on research and interviews, they should be able to tailor their selections to 3 top firms. A business should never issue a RFP to more than 3 firms; that simply wastes everyone's time and places more value on budgets than on the right fit. This qualification process can be informal for a small business and doesn't require an RFI - but some large scale relationship may. You have to determine what attributes are important to you and your project.

Once you've selected these top 3 firms, then the RFP should be very simple, short and clear. At this early stage, the design firms need more information on what the design deliverables are than on your company - once they are hired, they would dig deeper into the needs of your company.

Be clear about all the key stakeholders involved - the more people involved in approving or providing feedback, the higher a design fee will be. The intent of the RFP is to provide very clear guidelines of expectations so that all design firms are responding to the same information and you can equally compare proposals. Unclear RFP's lead to a range of differing proposals that are impossible to compare.

CO: In evaluating design proposals, what should businesses look for?

Emily Cohen: A clear list of deliverables, including the number of concepts and revisions included in the fee. Look for firms that emphasize the importance of up-front research and strategic discovery. Proposals should be well-written (no typos and good grammar is essential), well-designed (do they use a point size that you can read?) and easy-to-understand.

CO: One problem some businesses have is that they see the portfolio that was created by the most talented staff members on a team, but then may have a junior person assigned to their actual project. Is this a concern and if so, what should businesses do about this?

Emily Cohen: That is why it's very important to ask who will be working on your account and meet them in person. Just because there may be juniors working on your account isn't an issue, but if they aren't art directed well, that becomes the larger issue. Small businesses should require that they meet all those involved in their account, so when they explain their needs - everyone hears the same thing.

The best tool to resolve this issue is to require the creative team work to collaboratively with the business to develop a written creative brief. Based on the information gathered from the background review, discovery meeting, interviews and anything else required, the creative team should develop and prepare a written creative brief that will summarize their findings and related recommendations. This written document will form the framework for your future relationship. The business's approval of this document will allow both parties to have a mutual agreement on the overall direction and objectives for the project, which can then be used to measure the progress throughout the project. So, you can then evaluate the creative strategies against those outlined and agreed upon in the creative brief, thereby, eliminating subjective evaluations and making both parties accountable to what has been outlined and agreed.

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