Sourcing a good design agency

Sourcing a good design agency

Sourcing a good design agency that will grow with you and where its people even become close friends is one of those invisible assets that can contribute greatly to your chances of success.

Below we examine the basics on how to source and then work with those creative minds that work hard in delivering your success.

sourcing a design agency

Design agency or freelancer

The first decision is whether you require a design agency or a freelancer. At the business set up stage either option will suffice. When running a sizeable business then a design agency will have more resources to cope with multiple projects running at any one time.

If you are assessing a design agency then visit them. If it is a freelancer then they usually come to you. Both will want to know about the current and potential level of business you are likely to award them.

Assessing a potential designer

What turns them on

There seems to be two types of design agency out there. Those that genuinely care about delivering a good job to you and keeping you happy and those that primarily have a keen eye on how much money they might make out of your account.

“Some people have creativity in their DNA. It is the only thing they can do. They were the people that drew pictures of bison on cave walls thousands of years ago.”

There are also the business types that seek the profit before the potential of the design.

Then there is a mix of both.

When you meet with potential providers you will get clues which type you are looking at. There is always a slip of the mask at every business meeting – a glimpse of what is really going on and whom you are really taking to.

You want someone who cares. Someone who can’t stop thinking about you and dreaming up business winning ideas for you; even at weekends when playing with the kids, they are still gazing into the middle distance – striving for another idea to make or keep you happy. But make sure you pay them properly and on time.

You want them to stay in business so that they can continue helping your business.

Check out experience – but also competition.

It is unlikely a designer can work for two masters. A great idea will likely leak between two accounts being serviced in the same building. It is therefore usually prudent to avoid design companies that currently work for competition.

Sometimes there is conflict between the disadvantage of “competitor leak” and the advantage of specialist experience and knowledge. But on balance, there is no specialism worth the price of you paying to inform competition of your next move and also them benefiting from evolving design team experience enabled by your successful projects.

You also want to control when competition sees what you are doing – at least at the point when everyone else sees it.

You can still seek experience though. Experience defined here as work either done for a competitor or near competitor that is no longer a client; or an account that is in your sector but not a direct competitor.

Assessing portfolio

Designers usually have a portfolio you can see.

Portfolios are useful for confirming the type of work previously undertaken; but this assessment is restrictive for two reasons.

  1. The designer can only present what they have produced to date. It does not indicate their potential given the right client and brief.
  2. The portfolio is dedicated by client briefs and subsequent instructions and amendments. In other words, designers do not always have the opportunity to produce work they like. It is the client that pays the bills.

Nevertheless if the whole portfolio is boring and dated then there is a fair chance that your work will also be boring and dated.

“Remember when assessing portfolios that a lot of work is likely restricted by client briefs. Ask about those briefs and also ask to see pitch or free work: work they would have produced if they had their own way.”

Adding your work to their portfolio

Below-the-line portfolios, usually hardcopy presentations for design agency face-to-face new business meetings are usually acceptable as long as the presentation isn’t to competition.

Using your material in their online portfolios such as websites can be an issue and should usually be discouraged. This can corrupt your online marketing activities. For example, if a prospect taps your company name or you market keyword into the search engine, they may be presented with your designer’s website rather than your own.

Check out how they work

Ask the designer for a typical Creative Brief then see if you can understand it and even agree with its method of working. A Creative Brief is the written down instructions of what is to be produced and how. The brief is important because it clarifies what is required and defines what success looks like. It also reduces the risk of arguments later.

Discuss its layout and what each element means and what it is trying to achieve. The Creative Brief often reflects that designer’s approach and beliefs as to what makes effective creative work.

“The Creative Brief format reflects the philosophy of the design company. A good Creative Brief takes the project to new levels.”

Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)

When you meet with the designer, also make it clear that as a matter of policy, all providers to your business sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as a condition of work being commissioned. This means the designer takes on the obligation to not disclose to any third party confidential information relating to your business that becomes known to the designer during the working relationship. The NDA must be signed by both parties before work commences.


Note: This content is provided as information only. Always seek legal advice before making any conclusions or taking any actions.

By default, copyright to all work produced belongs to the creator; in the case, the designer. This is true even though you have commissioned and paid for the work.

If you wish your business to own this copyright then a process called Elective Assignment needs to be completed. This is a document signed by the designer to confirm that the copyright for all work undertaken for you and your business is assigned to you.

An astute designer might add a clause along the lines of Elective Assignment is automatic for each piece of work once full payment of the relevant invoice has been received.

A clause in the document confirming that all invoices include an itemised payment for this Elective Assignment adds consideration to the contract. This adds another level of assurance in your favour.

Employing internal designers v external sources

If your business is at a certain size then the question might arise as to whether you should consider employing a designer or keep with external resources. This often arises at that sobering moment when you realise just how much you have spent with the external design agency and then realise how much you could save by simply employing one or more people to do it.

The problem with this attitude is that creativity is not a commodity. Good work, particularly work that is better than what your competition is able to achieve is worth something – and it isn’t the lowest price.

Remember: it is relatively easy to let a bad design agency go. It’s more difficult to fire an employed bad designer.

“Getting rid of a bad design agency is far easier then firing a bad internal team.”

Keeping your design requirements as a variable cost in the form of an external designer agency source might also be prudent when compared to the fixed cost of an employee that may not always be fully occupied,

An external agency must be efficient, provide a great service and always ensure it has a team that produces fresh work. If you take the employee route then all that becomes your responsibility.

Internal resources can also go native over time, develop an internal culture and these ever decreasing circles will diminish your marketing capability. Particularly if your competition is ensuring it has creatively fresh external resources.

The one snag with external resources is the experience curve. This can be a particular problem when you are marketing a complex proposition or producing technical artwork.

This can be overcome to an extent by keeping with the same design agency. They should be able to protect the experience they have built with you and at the same time build in another revolving level within the team that delivers fresh creativity. These are the sort of things that define a good design agency.

Working with a designer

What you want v what you need

A tightrope most designers have to walk is whether they produce what they think is right or providing what they think you want. It is useful when briefing a job to tell them whether you are giving them the freedom to utilise their full experience and creative ability or if you know exactly what you want and they have to robot their way through the project.

Know the cost – to second sight amendments

Designers will often present their fees as an hourly rate. The problem with this, from your point of view and particularly in the early days, is that the cost of a project then depends on how long this particular designer will take to complete the project. Some are fast, others are slow. Some scamp the design, others consider and agonise over multiple options to almost finished artwork.

The preference then is to discuss a project. Typically a single sheet leaflet. Then get an estimate on how much this particular project would cost given their hourly fee and how many hours they feel it will take to complete. Most designers should be able to give a relatively good estimate. After all, they have far more experience than you do in such matters.

To be fair to the designer, the estimated cost is usually or should be provided to second sight amendments. This means you have two sets of artwork amendments included in the price before additional amendment costs are incurred.

Flexibility on both sides is usually required and this is an important ingredient in developing a close and productive working relationship. You want cost-effective solutions and they want profit. Somewhere in there is an optimum working relationship.

Constantly changing your mind and making amendments that you expect to be done for nothing or amendments due to the designer not following instructions or making mistakes can create fault lines in the relationship.

Tell them you love them

Don’t be that account that is a chore to the designer. Work it so they enjoy working with you. If you are happy with their work – tell them – and often. People work hard on your account so tell them how much you appreciate it. You will get more out of them. If they get frightened of losing the account or provoking your displeasure then the work will be timid and safe and ineffective.

Job bag system

Keep a logical job bag system consisting of a file for each piece of work produced. Hard copies are more practical. When you provide amendments to artwork then date and write them on a hard copy, scan and email the item to the designer. Keep that hard copy in your files. When the amended artwork is emailed back to you. Print out a copy and date that for your files. Keep these amendments in date order in your job file. When the project is complete then do not throw away the job bag. File it and keep it.

This job bag system is important for two reasons.

  1. The job bag contains the full record and journey of the project from brief to completion. If you have any disagreement with your designer on costs then you possess a full record of the work undertaken.
  2. Brochures, advertisements and any other form of promotional material have potential legal consequences. The job bag should provide proof that reasonable care and due diligence was undertaken when producing the piece.
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