How to shop for a graphic design firm (be an educated consumer)

With brand revitalization and product redesigns rolling out more quickly than ever before, it’s clear that design and innovation are becoming the hot topic for business. Apple is a prime example… constantly pushing the envelope and driving the market, the iPod has become an icon of fanatic consumer loyalty and yet, the increasingly rapid rollover to bigger (or smaller) and better models is met with pocketbooks held wide open and the competition struggling to keep up. Apple has brought the impact of effective design in business to the forefront.

It is becoming more and more obvious to companies that design plays an enormous role in driving business. Successful business owners already know this, but for those who are just opening their eyes to the concept, how do you get started? What are the considerations when bringing on strategic design services?

There are many things you need to consider before engaging a design firm, but we’re going to start with three:

1. The Goals

2. The Players

3. The Partnership

Design firms are businesses like any other, but are very unique in their perspectives and work processes. Understanding a bit of the design culture will go a long way in helping you to establish a successful relationship.


This first step should not come as a surprise to anyone in business. Any successful new initiative begins with a thorough needs analysis and defining goals for the initiative. Having your needs and goals well defined and documented on paper is a crucial starting point. You may find that your own reasons for wanting to bring in a design firm are different from your colleagues or bosses, so it is imperative that you have your ducks in a row before you start talking to creatives. The document may change along the course of the project, but you need a line at which to start.

Professional design is a service, not entirely unlike your corporate attorney or growth consultants… but it is also important to remember that it is a creative service. Designers are very talented and intelligent people who typically not only think “outside of the box”, but live on the other side of the street from it. Always in view of course, but far enough away as to get a full view of it from all sides and beyond. So, although your predefined goals may be very specific, the designer’s process to delivering your outcome will inevitably involve challenging it as well.

To illustrate, you may ask your designer to “create a new vase”, while from a designer’s perspective, the better task would be to conceptualize a new way to display flowers in the home. The initial question already limits the solution, while the second leaves the doors wide open to new opportunities, new markets, and new revenue streams. So, although you will want to define your problem as clearly as possible to begin with, you should also be willing to consider suggestions from your designer that may result in more innovative and actionable solutions.

Designers think in patterns unlike any other business consultant, and being prepared for this frame shift can be challenging to say the least. A design firm can open your eyes to things that you didn’t want to know or are not prepared to accept, and even some things that challenge your closely-held beliefs. At the same time though, experienced design firms recognize this problem and are notoriously skeptical about just how much “paradigm-smashing innovation” a company is willing to make. They will play it safe, and will only take you up to the edge of your comfort level (if even that far) depending on the cues you put out. 90% of companies who hire design firms put across the message that they want something “completely innovative”, but at the same time they are not willing to change the way their company does things. So they end up with a mild, safe, attractive solution that improves their image and market position by a conservative amount, but by shying away from the bigger risks, they also shy away from explosive returns.

Innovation is a commodity that is particularly difficult to sell. Companies have a vested interest in the image they have built for themselves, so naturally they can be resistant to change. When you think about it, the very reason you are hiring a design firm is because you can’t think like a designer - if you could, you wouldn’t have the need to bring in a firm in the first place. By the same token, it is easy to see designers as a threat. It is their job to challenge your preconceptions, and to take your company’s image (perhaps something you yourself developed in the company’s early days), and change it and reshape it. In the end, you’re hiring someone to tell you something you don’t know; to provide you with something that you don’t have. But will you be ready to take their advice?


There are literally hundreds of different types of design consultants a company can bring in… everything from the boss’ nephew, to the print shop down the street, to the New York boutique design firm. For the purposes of this article, we’ll leave out the boss’ nephew… sure he’s got a computer and some photoshop skills, but let’s face it, he’s not the guy who is going to bring your company to the next level in your marketplace.

Type 1: DesignMart

These are the massive, big-box style design firms with at least 50+ people in house, well-staffed in a broad range of services. They’ve got people who design, people who make models, production people, fulfilment people, in house specialists and support staff like cognitive psychologists and marketing professionals. They attract strong talent, and often have detailed, rigorous work processes (having that many creatives under one roof can be a challenge for any management team). Being a big business themselves, they may also share knowledge of bigger business operating practices, and can potentially have a better ability to manage the sometimes beaurocratic and rigid requirements of corporate behemoths.

Just like the big-box stores, while these businesses can offer a very broad range of services, you need to be aware of what else you’re buying. While it is an advantage to hire a single firm for all of your needs, the benefits seldom go much further when dealing with a behemoth design firm.

Who is actually designing your creative? Do you get to consult with the people actually doing the work? With fast turnover in these massive firms, what happens five years down the line when you want to work with them again? Do you really want a factory, assembly-line manufactured product? Don’t assume that the people who are pitching you are the ones who will be working on your project—the dreaded “A-team/B-team” scenario. Ask to see the individual portfolios of the design team assigned to your project, as the portfolio you may be shown could be of past work by other teams, or of the firm as a whole not the specific designer or team on your project.

Type 2: The Boutique

Enter the smaller, more nimble Boutique design firm. These are firms that consist of a highly select team of 5-10 people who are accustomed to demanding, leading-edge creative assignments, and who thrive in a compact organizational structure. Many of the designers at these firms are attracted there in the first place because they know they will not simply be placed in an assembly line, doing the same thing day after day. These are the firms that attract leading-edge creative talent.

Smaller design firms tend to focus more on expertise rather than simple process… ways of thinking rather than preset methodologies. By the same token, because they are not stifled by a massive beaurocracy and tens-deep lines of command and procedural rigidity, smaller firms are often more willing to push the creative envelope.

There may be other advantages to working with a smaller firm: A more intimate connection with the designer, less insulation by account managers from the “talent”, a personal connection and consistent hand-holding—designers who pick up their own phone. These are the kinds of things that can make working with a small design firm more personal and satisfying. Boutique firms can be faster with change orders, and turn on a dime (though they may not want to); redirecting a DesignMart may require communicating your wishes (through an account manager) to many layers of participants.

Type 3: The Draft Team

The Draft Team pulls in some of the best of both worlds, and if your company can afford it, this is often the best solution. The Draft involves carefully screening, selecting and temporarily hiring a team of specialists to take on a specific project.

Collectively, if done correctly, the draft team has an expertise set that is matched to the design challenge. The team is hand-selected in a very calculated way, assembling the best on a project-specific basis, to be terminated when the project is complete. This approach (not for beginners!) is very targeted, and recognizes that as design moves up the value chain and integrates more and more with corporate strategy at the core level, that it is a specialty, not a commodity. And as product and service offerings become more complex, you may find that the best route to innovation is a customized route.

On the other hand, you may be working with a Draft Team without even knowing it. Boutique design firms by their nature are very small, and therefore are extremely selective in procuring and retaining their talent - the only difference is that creative and design experts were the ones to assemble the team, rather than your company. Many design firms will also have freelancers or outside expert consultants on staff, attending pitch meetings and concept presentations as if they were full-time staff. This isn’t necessarily disingenuous, and may benefit you and your project substantially since these ringers are there for a reason: they’re good.


The first critical question to ask yourself is whether your company is looking for a partner, or a vendor.

A partner is a firm to collaborate on jointly developing new design materials. It’s a relationship that places as much focus on the means as the ends; on the process as the product. The ultimate deliverables may be fuzzier in this kind of relationship, but through a rigorous review process, both parties work toward agreed-upon goals.

A vendor, on the other hand, can be thought of as a firm you hire when you have a specific product to be designed with predefined criteria. You’ve done your homework; you understand your market. You need good thinking, but you also need a pair of hands to actualize your wishes. Vendors don’t challenge your business proposition; they fulfill it.

We come back to the initial question of what you are intending to accomplish with your design firm. In the end, finding and cultivating a successful working relationship with a design firm is an emotional process, and when you get right down to it, you need to have a certain chemistry with your design firm. Their portfolio needs to inspire you, and their process and business model need to mesh with the way you want to work.

Design is an extremely competitive field, filled with many highly competent, qualified companies. The best thing to do is to go out and meet all kinds of shapes and sizes; only then will you have a better idea of how you feel around these people and their organizations, and what kind of designers you’d like to work with.


Chanie Pritchard is president and CEO of Sage Media Design, a premier commercial graphic design studio based in Ottawa, Canada. With clients running the gamut from individual entrepreneurs to corporate goliaths, Sage provides a highly personalized suite of services: Branding/Rebranding and Corporate Identity materials, Retail Artworking and Product Packaging Design, Publication Layout and Design, Marketing Collateral, Print and Online Advertising, General Design for Print, and of course, Web Des...

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