What to Look For In a Design Partner and What to Avoid (Checklist Included)

Alex Kinsella
Contributing Writer
Published15 Nov, 2023

Creativity, scope of services, flexibility, cultural fit and added value. These are the top five qualities to consider when choosing a design partner. In the same vein, you should avoid those who are boring, narrow-minded, rigid, self-centered and seem to have a lot of angry exes. Walk through what to look for and download a helpful checklist to assist with your search.

Choosing a design partner is a BIG decision. Maybe it’s not the same as who you marry or what house to buy. But, still, it’s a decision that can have a lasting impact on your business.

There’s a reason we say “design partner.” This is a relationship. The right design partner will help you find new ways to engage with your audience.

You’re investing a significant amount of time and energy searching for design partners, so knowing what qualities really matter to you and your team is important.

The table stakes in any design partner relationship is trusting them to produce creative work that lives and breathes your brand. But, there’s more involved than the end product itself.

5 Key Qualities to Expect From Your Design Partner

Tall, dark and handsome? This isn’t Tinder. When it comes to design partners, you'll likely prefer creative, communicative and on-time. Here are five characteristics to top your list when you’re in the market for potential design partners.

📋 Download a checklist for comparing design partners. 📋

1. Creativity

Creative quality influences up to 75% of campaign performance. A unique method of problem-solving, design takes a range of different inspiration and ideas and expresses them in ways that resonate visually, emotionally and beyond. The right design partner will bring fresh, innovative and dare I say—out of the box—ideas to the table.

What to look for:

  • A range of approaches. Look for this as you review their work samples within their portfolio, case studies, social posts and other content.
  • Individual style. Like people, each partner has an individual style to how they approach design. See if you can pick up a clear sense of style. For example, do they like to push boundaries or are they more restrained?
  • Personal connection. As you go through the selection process, do you find yourself gravitating toward one partner’s designs over another? If so, go with your instincts.

2. Scope of Services

The creative services on offer from design partners can vary from a highly specialized focus on video, brand or interactive to a more generalized and broad range of expertise. Depending on your creative requirements, a specialist might be ideal for a complex video project while a generalist would be better for scaling and iterating high volumes of ads.

What to look for:

  • The creative services you need today. If you know 50% of your marketing plan centers on social media, then social expertise will be a high priority.
  • The creative approaches you might need in the future. While you know what works today, you also want to keep testing and growing by trying novel approaches like AR and 3D design. A design partner that can help you experiment is a win.
  • Capacity. How much work can your partner tackle all at once? A freelancer is a team of one, an agency may be a team of three or twenty—the size and location of an outsourced design partner’s workforce directly impacts how much work they can produce at any one time.

Alongside evaluating the scope of services, it's equally important to consider the financial implications of your partnership. To assist with this, use our design cost calculator to get an accurate estimate of the costs involved, ensuring your choice of design partner aligns with both your creative and budgetary needs.

3. Flexibility

Change happens. When it does, you need a partner that can respond when priorities shift or as the market changes. You’ll also want to know how quickly they can adapt when you throw them a curveball.

What to look for:

  • Change tolerance. Are they able to pivot or do they prefer to have a predefined timeline and roadmap? Can you reprioritize projects as needed and how many changes are you allowed to make?
  • Turnaround times. No one wants to be a short-order cook all the time. But when you need to hustle, can your design partner respond—and how quickly can they turn a project?
  • Project preference. Does your prospective creative partner prefer to work on simple or complex projects? Do they lean into production or are they more focused on conceptual work?

4. Cultural Fit

You can get a sense for cultural fit as you review a potential partner’s website, and you’ll get a deeper sense of how well you’ll work together as you hold discovery calls.

What to look for:

  • Communication style. Do they plan to keep you informed through weekly calls, emails, instant messages or a mix of all these approaches? Do you feel the conversations will be open, honest and engaging? Is there a focus on clear communication? You’ll also want to confirm the tools you’ll use to review creative and provide feedback.
  • Work style. Do they prefer a high-touch or async style—and what’s your preference? Do they use the same tools and tech and follow similar workflows? Are they detail-oriented or more big-picture thinkers?
  • Values. Trust, transparency, innovation—all of the above? These values shape how they work and how you work with them. Ensuring they align will prevent a lot of unpleasant friction.

5. Added Value

You get out of things what you put into them. Beyond the financial commitment, you’ll be trusting your design partner with your time and your brand. It’s only fair to expect they’ll repay this confidence by delivering on their promises. The best partners become a true extension of your team—a resource you can turn to time and again.

What to look for:

  • Clear, transparent pricing. Will you pay per hour or per project? How do estimates and proposals work—are they crystal clear or smoke and mirrors?
  • Cost-effectiveness. How will this partner ensure you get the most from every dollar and ounce of trust you invest? For example, what if one project comes in under the estimates—can you roll those hours and resources over to another project?
  • A commitment to adding value. Do they seem focused on you or themselves?
📋 Get this checklist and compare design partners using these qualities. 📋
Read the Entire Series
Read the Entire Series

Read the Entire Series

This article is part of a series on choosing the right design company or partner. Click below to go to the start.

5 Red Flags to Avoid in a Creative Partner 🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩

There are a lot of great design partners out there. But there are also some less desirable ones who could potentially leave you high and dry—and without the creative work you paid for. Here are five red flags to keep in mind.

1. A Serious Snooze Factor

“I love being bored!” Says no one, ever. If at first glance, you don’t feel compelled to learn any more, then don’t. You want to be inspired by the people around you—not lulled into a stupor.

Beware of:

  • Little to no work samples. In rare instances, this could mean the design partner is early in their career or evolution. However, even students fresh out of design school have portfolios. If it’s not on their website, they should still have samples to share with you.
  • Blandness. When you look at the work, do you see any variety or a sea of sameness?
  • No sparks whatsoever. Not feeling it. Your customers won’t either.

2. Narrow-Mindedness

Some designers have very specialized skills, which can work if that’s exactly what you need for a specific project. The issue in this instance isn’t their ability to be a Jack or Jane of all trades, rather it’s the need for their focus to match yours.

Beware of:

  • A lack of perspective. If a prospective design partner can’t seem to wrap their minds around your initial requests, this likely won’t improve over time.
  • Little to no self-awareness. Knowledgeable design partners will have a solid understanding of which customers are the best fit for their services.
  • Overly processed results. Is there really only one way to do things?

3. Rigidity

You expect your outsourced design partner will have formal rules and processes. At the same time, you should also expect there'll be a bit of flexibility to adapt to the way you work too. And, yes, structure helps, but you should be allowed to make changes when you need them.

Beware of:

  • An aversion to change. Consistency is one thing, a complete unwillingness to accept that things will happen is another.
  • Being talked at—instead of being talked to. Does it feel like the conversation is all about how the design partner wants things to be? Do they keep talking about their thoughts without taking time to ask for yours?
  • Mental block. Concepts and ideas should flow naturally.

4. Narcissism

It’s not you, it’s me. If it’s them every time… it’s a sign. Naturally, any creative partner will take pride in their work. But if your efforts to ask for what you need fall upon deaf ears, head for the hills.

Beware of:

  • Gaslighting. When the people or person you're talking to diminishes or invalidates your thoughts or feelings—to the point that you start doubting them yourself.
  • Extra-large egos. How fortunate of them to grace you with their presence. Maybe you'll be worthy of their best work.
  • “A my way or the highway mentality.” Run! As fast as you can.

5. Angry Exes

You really can’t please all of the people all of the time. But when you’re a service provider, you should be able to meet the needs of your target audience. Of course, wires can get crossed. What matters more is when the disappointment crosses your line in the sand.

Beware of:

  • Consistently negative reviews. Even the best partners can’t please everyone. But if your research uncovers a pattern, save yourself a world of hurt.
  • A reluctance or inability to provide references. Maybe the partner hasn’t had time to build case studies or testimonials yet. If so, they can still provide references upon request, which is a totally fair ask.
  • The blame game. If you ask about negative feedback and you consistently hear that each and every client was at fault.

Swipe Right on the Perfect Design Partner

Choosing the right design partner is crucial for your brand's success. The right design partner should be creative, adaptable, communicative, a technical whiz and great at solving problems.

You’re awesome. Your brand is awesome. You both deserve the best, so use this list to help make the right decision to bring your creative vision to reality.

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Alex Kinsella
Alex KinsellaContributing Writer

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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