Under pressure to choose the right design company or agency? Follow this simple step-by-step process to feel absolute confidence in your final decision. From assessing your design needs and the different services available to evaluating a company’s capabilities, pricing and culture, this article breaks it all down.
The importance of good design can’t be overstated. Not only do design-driven companies grow at nearly twice the rate of their competitors, 75% of campaign performance is driven by the quality of creative.
Yet many businesses struggle to find the right design agency partner to help them stand out in the market.
Between varying needs, expectations and budgets, honing in on a design company with the perfect combination of qualities can be quite the challenge. If you just dive right into design company options, you may find yourself overwhelmed by a sea of impressive logos and portfolios, with no clear direction in sight.
That’s why, I suggest taking a step back and starting with a solid understanding of your design needs. Then, you can identify what type of design service makes sense for you and consider factors, like pricing, culture and procurement. Follow these steps and when it comes time to pick the perfect partner, your choice will be a lot more clear.
I promise, your search for a design company or agency doesn’t have to be agonizing. Stick with me and I’ll break it down.
Your reason for seeking a design partner might feel straightforward. You just need more capacity. Or, your in-house team is lacking a specific skill you need to bring a campaign to life. But it’s worth digging a little deeper to fully define the parameters a design agency partner will need to fulfill.
By laying out these parameters now, you can make yourself a checklist to assess design partners against. Then, when it’s time to shortlist options, add these parameters to a spreadsheet—along with other considerations like pricing, which we’ll discuss a little later on—to quickly see which design companies best fit your needs.
Here are some basic considerations to guide your search:
As they say, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For a step-by-step walkthrough of how to assess your creative needs, check out our article on identifying your company's design requirements. And if you’re still wondering whether it’s worth investing in a design partner in the first place, read How Strong Design Partnerships Transform Brands [With Examples].
When it comes to design services, you’re likely familiar with two options: design agencies and freelancers. But there’s a third option: A new design agency model called Creative-as-a-Service (CaaS), specifically developed to meet the needs of modern, high-growth teams.
There’s a time and a place for each option, and now that you better understand your own design needs, it should become clear which model will work best for you. Let’s take a quick look at what agencies, freelancers and CaaS have to offer:
Beyond design services, there’s also the option to hire in-house. If you’re an early-stage company, you’ll likely need to start with a foundational design hire or two in addition to outsourcing. As you grow, it may make sense to invest in a long-term outsourced design partner to supplement your in-house team. In fact, most companies these days, from mid-market operations to enterprises, use a hybrid model of in-house and outsourced talent, which gives them access to a wider range of skills and more capacity to scale.
Plus, even if you have the budget, hiring in-house comes with its own set of challenges, like limited candidate pools, lengthy onboarding processes and retaining people in the long run. All this to say, hiring is a big commitment that shouldn’t be made lightly. You might be able to get what you need from outsourcing, so make sure you consider all your options first.
For a more in-depth look at your options, explore our article on How to Compare Different Types of Design Services [Checklist Included].
Your first instinct will likely be to ask your colleagues and professional network for recommendations. This is a great place to start, but your search shouldn’t stop here. It’s always a good idea to source at least four or five design company options. That way, you can compare what each company offers and get a sense of fair market value.
So, if your colleagues swear by... oh I don’t know, Superside, and your network recommends Shuttlerock, make sure you do some additional research yourself to find a couple more options for comparison.
Here are a few simple approaches to help you source the ideal design partner:
Search engines. Though not the best source for unbiased advice, you can still learn a lot by conducting searches for keywords, like “the best outsourced design services.” These articles will reveal a company’s competitors and how they position themselves against their alternatives.
Design blogs. You can tell a lot about a company from the quality of its content, especially when it comes to design. Just look at Figma’s publication, Design Systems—the impeccable UX and expert-driven articles are clear indicators this world-class design tool knows what it's doing.
Social media. If you want to see examples of a design agency’s work (while skipping the yawn factor of case studies), scope out their social media. Again, how a company presents itself on platforms, like LinkedIn, Instagram and Youtube, can tell you a lot about the quality of its work and its culture.
Online directories and review sites. At this point, we all know to take review sites, like G2 and Capterra, with a grain of salt. Careful curation of reviews can paint a company in rose-colored hues or a one-off negative review can skew things in the other direction. That said, you can get a sense for the maturity and caliber of a design company (as well as their competitors) on these sites.
Events. From webinars and summits to conferences and trade shows, industry events are a great way to network with your peers, learn about their favorite services and meet representatives from potential creative partners, too.
Meetups. In-person events are back and better than ever. Participate in local design meetups and workshops to connect with other professionals, learn from their experiences and explore potential collaborations.
Communities. Creative communities and associations are another great place to connect with your peers, tap into their experiences and get reputable recommendations for design partners.
Your own network. As I touched on, your professional network is likely the first resource you’ll tap into. In addition to your colleagues, try asking customers or content partners for recommendations. You can also pose the question publicly on a platform like LinkedIn—if you don’t mind dealing with unsolicited DMs!
Industry contacts. You might work with consultants or other industry experts who can provide solid referrals. Or, your existing vendors may be able to suggest a design company partner based on their own network and experiences.
Testimonials and case studies. Keep an eye out for compelling testimonials and success stories on social channels. And of course, once you have a few design company or agency names on your list, be sure to check out their case studies for a better understanding of their capabilities and quality of work.
Still not sure how to go about finding a design partner? Check out 6 Strategies for Finding the Right Creative Agency and refine your search further by making note of the Top Qualities to Look for in a Design Partner.
While researching potential design partners, you likely took a peek at their portfolios or work pages. But to pare your list back to a few top contenders, you’ll want to conduct an in-depth review of a design company’s creative capabilities as well.
This is an essential step to ensure a potential design partner can align with your vision, brand identity and overall creative needs.
In addition to a company’s website, you may find samples of their work on sites like Behance or Dribbble. If you really want to do some sleuthing, you can even look up the designers who work at a company on LinkedIn and check out their personal portfolios. This can help you gauge the expertise of the designers and creatives you’d be collaborating with.
Don’t hesitate to ask a design company to provide additional samples either! They may not be able to share all their work publicly, but if you book a call, a representative can run you through examples of projects most relevant to your needs.
Assessing design prospective design partner portfolios
Back to assessing portfolios. Similar to how you would assess a design hire’s portfolio, I suggest judging each company based on a set of predetermined criteria. You can add these criteria to your spreadsheet in a new tab called “portfolio review.” Here are some factors you might want to include as part of your design portfolio review criteria:
If you’re hungry for more guidance, dig into our article: Graphic Design Portfolio Review: What You Want To See and Not See.
You have a budget, and you need to stick within it. Simple, right?
Though your pricing requirements may be black and white, what you get for your money is a little more complex to unpack. Cheaper pricing may not offer more value, while more expensive design packages don’t guarantee better work. In other words, don’t just pick the cheapest option or compromise by going with the mid-range offer.
To get the best deal (and the best results!), consider the following factors when evaluating design company pricing:
Culture can be hard to define. But in the context of choosing a design partner, there are a few concrete aspects to consider.
Don’t skip this step in your assessment either!
Expertise and capabilities are important, but I’d argue establishing a strong working relationship with your new design company is equally important—and ensuring you have complementary company cultures will make building a strong relationship much easier. So, consider the following when assessing design company culture:
And if maintaining a healthy culture is important to you, you’ll also want to learn How to Foster a Good Working Relationship With Your Design Partner.
Got the perfect design partner in your sights? Depending on the size of your company, sealing the deal may take a little time and effort.
But not to worry, if you’ve followed all the steps we’ve covered so far, you’ve already done a lot of the pre-work necessary to navigate the procurement process. Once you’ve successfully “procured” your partner, your last step will be to onboard them! Assuming you have a procurement team, let’s take a look at key considerations for each step:
1. Proposal clarity. Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you’re clear on the parameters of your partnership. Your potential design partner’s proposal should outline the scope of work, deliverables, timelines and pricing in a manner that leaves no room for ambiguity. This will help both parties understand expectations and responsibilities, setting the stage for a smooth working relationship.
2. Creative approach. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve evaluated a company’s design portfolio, had conversations with representatives and assessed factors like culture. So, you should have a good sense for whether a company’s creative approach will align with your own. It may be helpful to share your assessment with your company’s procurement team at this stage, along with your thoughts on how a design partner could contribute to your brand’s success.
3. Technical expertise. As part of your assessment, you also looked at a partner’s technical capabilities to ensure they can deliver on your design needs. It’s time to share that information with procurement, including a potential design partner’s expertise and experience working with different design styles and mediums, as well as across industries and verticals. You can even get as granular as sharing whether a partner uses the same design tools as your team.
4. Collaboration plan. As part of a design partner’s proposal, they should outline how day-to-day communication, feedback and collaboration will take place, including details on project management tools, points of contact and regular meetings. Add to this the notes you took on a partner’s communication style and you should have a sense for how collaborative they will be. This is all the information your procurement team will want to review.
5. Cost- and time-savings. Your procurement team will definitely be interested in the cost savings, time efficiencies and value a design partner can deliver. After all, maximizing these qualities is a big part of their job! So, make sure you share your research on pricing models, turnaround times and the scope of services offered by different design partners. That way, you can show, in monetary terms, which partner makes the most sense. It can also help to showcase any data you’ve gathered around results and efficiencies.
6. References and reviews. It’s one thing to read a case study. It’s another to talk to a potential design partner’s customers and ask them about their experience. References are a crucial part of procurement, so make sure you ask for a few relevant customers to talk to. These conversations will either provide definitive proof of a design partner’s reliability, professionalism and quality of work… or sound the alarm.
7. Legal and compliance check. Privacy and copyright laws may not be the most exciting, but it is essential to ensure a potential partner complies with all relevant regulations—otherwise, you risk facing legal issues down the line. Thankfully, procurement teams are well-versed in regulations from data protection to intellectual property rights. They’ll be able to assess a partner’s compliance, ensuring you can enjoy a stress-free collaboration.
1. Contract terms. Procurement may sign off on the details, but make sure you thoroughly review the contract terms, too. That way, you can kick off onboarding with a solid understanding of the scope of work, deliverables, timelines and collaboration processes. To prevent any confusion, brief your team on these details and let them know to flag any breaches in behavior on your partner’s part.
2. Payment terms. Another detail for your procurement team (if you have one!), make sure payment details are taken care of by your company. You want to start your partnership on the right foot, and that means paying bills on time! Whether you’ve agreed on milestone-based payments, a lump sum or monthly installments, get those details sorted early on to build trust and ensure your partner is committed to fulfilling their responsibilities.
3. Onboarding process. Now for the actual work! Your design partner should walk you through how to use communication channels, project management tools and any other software or processes you’ve agreed upon. In return, you’ll want to provide them with your brand guidelines, core assets and any relevant background information they need to tackle your projects. A few introductory Zoom meetings with key stakeholders should do the trick.
4. Knowledge transfer. Speaking of background information, the more knowledge you share, the more context your partner will have, the better work they can deliver. So, don’t be afraid to overload them with information about your company, brand, products and services. Beyond brand guidelines, share details about your industry, target audience and positioning. Examples of successful work can also be a great resource for a new partner.
5. Training. Depending on the tools you’ve agreed to use for collaboration and design, your design partner or your own design team may need some training. If you have company training courses, check to see if you can invite your partner to complete them. If not, recording a few Loom videos is always a good solution. That way, your partner’s team can reference each process at any time and onboard new creatives as needed.
6. Performance metrics. Decide how you’ll measure success right away. By outlining key performance indicators (KPIs), you can monitor a design partner’s progress and whether they meet your expectations. Some helpful KPIs might include the number of design revisions, project completion times, customer satisfaction ratings or the impact of design work on business objectives. Regularly reviewing these KPIs also provides a basis for feedback and improvement.
7. Regular check-ins. You’ll likely have extra meetings at the beginning of onboarding, but as things progress, this should turn into a regular check-in cadence. Make sure you have a regular meeting in the books to review progress, address any concerns and maintain open communication. These check-ins can be weekly, biweekly or even monthly, depending on the complexity and duration of your projects.
It’s not always easy to put a number on the value of design. Sure, with ads you can draw a direct line from creative to revenue. But with other design projects, like rebrands, digital reports or packaging, that line to revenue is more of a squiggle requiring interpretation.
Nonetheless, once your partnership is underway, you’ll want to evaluate the return on investment (ROI) your design company is able to deliver. Though the line you draw may not always be straight, here are some factors to consider that can help you tie a design partner’s performance to tangible returns:
Even though we’re talking business, not everything is about money! Intangible benefits, like the relief a design partner is able to offer your internal creative team, how enjoyable it is to collaborate with them and how efficiently they run your design operations are worth considering, too.
These benefits may be intangible, but the outcomes associated with them can be measured. Like we discussed earlier on, I recommend setting KPIs based on quality of work, turnaround times, communication and more to be able to assess a design partner’s performance on an ongoing basis.
As a creative or marketing leader, there’s a lot of pressure to make the right choices. Hire the right people. Bring on the perfect partner.
In my experience, breaking down those choices into a manageable step-by-step process can help relieve some of that pressure while increasing confidence in your decision.
So, my last words of advice: Take it step by step! If you walk through everything from your design needs and the different types of services available to a company’s portfolio, capabilities, pricing and culture, you will find the perfect partner at the end of the road.
A partner that understands your brand, shares your vision and can help you achieve your goals. Like Superside. 😉
Alex is a freelance writer and newsletter aficionado based in Waterloo, Ontario. When he’s not writing for clients, he’s putting together TL;WR, a weekly culture and events newsletter his mom says is excellent. Alex has worked with some of Canada’s largest tech companies in PR, marketing and communication roles. Connect with him on LinkedIn to chat or get ideas on what to do this weekend in Waterloo.
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