How to choose a design company that fits you best

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As design entrepreneurs, we don’t want to work with just anyone — we are always looking for a good fit. We think you should too. A good fit makes the work meaningful, constructive, and enjoyable — a bad fit makes everyone involved very cranky.

In our last article we explained why price alone is a terrible way to select a design company. In this article, we propose a collection of points you should consider while selecting a design company to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome and a good fit.

We define a successful outcome as a project that:
• meets the stated goals
• resonates with the audience and the client
• results in a strengthened working relationship
• culminates in celebrating the completion of a good project.

But first … what do we mean by “design company”?

First of all, let us clarify what we mean by a “design company”. This term could be applied to a design company in a variety of creative fields, but we are applying it specifically to Communication Design companies. These are creative companies who specialize in delivering strategy, artwork, and graphic design for print, web, packaging, and other applications. Design companies work with clients to devise strategy for brand development and growth, they create and develop concepts, they produce the artwork, they create content, they execute the technical mechanics of the project, and they manage the project process from beginning to end. Communication Design companies produce work that both differentiates their clients from competitors, and resonates with their clients’ audiences.

Remember, when you interview design companies, you are not only looking for great work, you are also starting a relationship. Here are some indicators we think you should pay attention to.

Communication skills

Do they communicate clearly and with ease? Do they make eye contact? Are they straightforward? Are they respectful and polite without being subservient? Do they address issues or conflict in a calm and direct manner? Are they confident? Do they explain design-specific ideas or terminology well? Do they take responsibility for mistakes?

Relationship skills

Can they empathize? Are they observant? Do they ask good questions? Do they have good boundaries? Do they listen? Do they stand up for themselves and their interests in the business relationship? Do they challenge you and your thinking? Do they say no?
Do they have your best interest in mind? Are they fostering long-term relationships? Do they feel like an ally? What motivates them?

The work

Do they have a process? Can they describe it? Is the work good? Do they have expertise in your area? Do they have a plan? Do they act like experts? Do they conduct research? Are they realistic? (Are you realistic?) Are they focused on your goals? Do their explanations address your goals explicitly? Do they “get” what your organization is all about? Do they do what they say they will do? Do they communicate in a professional and timely manner? Is their writing clear and understandable? Do they make suggestions and recommendations? Do they have strong, defendable opinions?  Do they understand the parameters of the project?

Red flags

Are they too cheap? Do they agree to everything? Are they pushovers? Do they cut their price too easily? Do they seem desperate? Do they name drop? Do they overuse obscure design terminology? Do they avoid explaining their reasoning behind their design decisions? Is their work of questionable quality? Is their work comprised of “student projects” (as opposed to “real world” work for real clients)?

How do you find a good company to work with?

Sometimes it’s easier said than done. It can take awhile to find the right fit. A great place to start is looking at professional associations where the members are vetted and peer reviewed. For example, check the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada where you can view sample portfolios and access company websites.  Professional associations ensure there is a baseline of quality and professional practice in your pool of options. There are many great designers who are not in these associations, but they can be harder to find. Word of mouth is also a great way to discover someone. You can ask trusted vendors, like printers, for recommendations. See some design that you think is excellent? Call the company it represents and ask whom they worked with. Ask them if they would work with that design team again. Sometimes it’s just about keeping your eyes and ears open for someone others rave about.

In conclusion … be particular

Yes, be particular. When you work with a design company you are entering in to a relationship. Just like lover relationships, they can be amazing, fruitful, fulfilling, joyful and supportive, OR they can end up being damaging, full of resent, fraught, messy and difficult. Remember, you want a successful outcome AND an enjoyable experience — and with a considered selection, you can easily have both.