Designing the Design Relationship

Like all successful relationships, the one you have with your creative agency should be mutually beneficial. Here are some insider tips that can help make it happen.

Do your heavy lifting up front. The proposal—which turns into the contract—should be your work plan for the project. Make sure it’s specific and clear, outlining the number of design presentations and rounds of revisions you’ll need to get your project done. Be sure to consider your internal approval process. Do you need your agency to present to your board or your boss once you’re satisfied? If so, make sure the work plan takes that into account. How many concepts do you want to see? Are you an organization that can’t express itself but will know the right solution when you see it? Some work styles require more hand holding from the agency than others, and more time means more money. But it’s far better to spell these things out and agree to them up front than for you to be hit with a change order (for additional fees) down the road. No one likes to have those conversations—not the agency, not you. Make sure the work plan really fits your needs and work with the agency to revise until it does.

Know what expertise you bring to the table. As the client—the expert in your field—you are invaluable. You know your company’s strengths, weaknesses, and internal politics better than anyone else. Additionally, you know your industry’s terminology and best practices. Strategists and designers rely on your advice and collaboration in order to take their ideas to a place that’s practical and applicable to your specific audience. Don’t assume that what’s obvious to you is even on your agency’s radar. Don’t be afraid to give your creative partner too much information. There is rarely such a thing.

On the flip side, know when to let the experts do their thing. More specifically: Don’t micromanage the design. You are not a trained designer. Instead, talk about why something won’t work for your target audience. For example, rather than, “Make this photo larger and move it over here and make that caption smaller but not too small,” try, “We want them to have an emotional connection rather than an intellectual one, and I feel like this layout emphasizes the facts more than inspires them.”

Manage internally to save your budget for the creative. Design and marketing fees are based on billable hours—how much time it will take to complete the project, and then how much each of those hours costs. You want the majority of your fee to go into the generation of strategy, design, copy writing, and production. Don’t waste the fee on stuff that you can handle yourself: internal approvals, compilations of edits, sourcing internal imagery, etc. Do the legwork and get the most for your agency fee.

Leverage momentum. Long-term lags can deteriorate any project. After all, designers are people, not machines. When a designer is revved up to work on something, you’ll get an exponentially greater amount of work out of them versus when there are huge gaps between movements on a project. Creative professionals at heart are artists. Ride the wave with them and don’t jump off until it’s mellowed. If need be, take a breath and make sure you all catch the next wave together.

Don’t underestimate good project management. I’m assuming you’ve selected your agency because of its strategy and/or design. Those aptitudes are the two most important ingredients. The third is a little more elusive: project management. This ensures everything is going to be anticipated and then completed on time and on budget. In my experience, good project managers are often quiet, intuitive but not too sensitive, intelligent and organized. They pull the strings behind the scenes and keep track of the million little details that everyone else forgets. When hiring a firm, find out what project management structure they have in place and meet the people running your account. They will make or break the project.

You’re collaborating with human beings. You’re not purchasing an off-the-shelf product. You have massive control over the success of your project just by how you treat your agency. As Mom always said, “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” Assuming you hired the firm because you admire their portfolio and feel you can rely on their expertise, there should be a certain level trust there. Communicate to them kindly if your needs aren’t being met, and express when you’re happy with what they’ve done. Take an insider’s advice: Designers will go the extra mile when they feel the client is being reasonable, collaborative and appreciative. “I’m paying you; you’re the vendor” only goes so far. Human nature interrupts at some point. If you treat the relationship like a purely contractual arrangement, don’t be surprised when they do as well.

Chemistry. Chemistry. Chemistry. If all of the previous six criteria are met, chemistry is the other 50% in determining the success of your project. If the pitch and contract negotiation goes smoothly, it’s likely an indication of how the working relationship will be…and vice versa. After all, we are all human beings, and we all bring to each interaction our own baggage—from childhood and elsewhere. If we can’t play nice in the sand box, we’re not going to make it work in the conference room.


Link 16 June 2010 12:33 pm

Andrew Watts says:

Nice article, Lizzy. I especially liked: “know when to let the experts do their thing. More specifically: Don’t micromanage the design. You are not a trained designer.” That hits home when the lawyers I work for play “designer.” Maybe I’ll send them your article.

Link 16 June 2010 1:15 pm

Gator says:

This is my favorite article on Sayso. (Well…in addition to Web Writing 101 and Conserve Su Boleto.) I have already circulated this to my contact list. Great stuff.

Link 16 June 2010 2:26 pm

Steve Beard says:

This is a great ‘guide’ to the proper relationship between design firm and client. Not surprisingly, it is written by the person I view as they world’s foremost authority on the subject. No one hits the mark like you, Liz! I’d have to take off my shoes to count off the successes over the years I attribute to you and the brilliant team at Thinkso. Let me know when (note: not IF) we violate these common sense recommendations!

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