When I got off the phone with them, I felt the need to rage eat. This is never a good sign. Instead I chose to pour myself a glass of wine.
Three weeks in and I’ve yet to have any shred of contact with the designer who’s actually doing the work. Instead the mockups are being presented by an account manager who can neither explain the reasoning behind design choices nor has any creative vision. The only things she says in response to our feedback are “Good idea” and “OK.”
When a design firm gives no transparency into their design process, I can only presume that they have none. No process means no strategy, and no strategy means total subjectivity. They are putting elements on the page because they feel like it. There is nothing to substantiate these choices from our business objectives, user research, or brand identity. They’re giving us a suit off the rack when we’re shopping for bespoke.
My client hired this firm. I’m there to supervise. Wine before 5pm and three weeks without progress. Time to raise the red flag.
First I want to make sure my client is just as dissatisfied with their output, which they are. So I begin to question why this engagement has gone so wrong. It takes a bit of digging, but I find my answer: we aren’t getting bespoke because we aren’t paying for it. The project rate is so small that it’s shameful. No design shop worth their salt would price their services so low. Especially when we’re willing to invest 10x as much to get this right.
But they had never asked for our budget, and now we’re getting a tenth of what we’d hoped for.
Outsourcing design work is a necessary evil. The talent simply doesn’t exist in house and management doesn’t have the time/money/network to get it. When things need to move, you have to turn to people who know how to move it. That’s an agency. They’re experts in moving other people’s businesses.
But they’re not guaranteed to know — or take the time to learn — where to move it to. If you’re not paying attention, they can set you back a year.
When a design firm fails, it’s a symptom of your own company’s failure. Perhaps you didn’t understand or clearly define the task. Perhaps you didn’t understand or clearly define the appropriate budget and timeline. Or hey, perhaps you didn’t understand or clearly define the criteria for choosing the design firm in the first place.
Using an agency isn’t an easy way out and it’s not a shortcut. If it feels like a relief when you bring one on, you probably aren’t prepared for the consequences. Demand their best by demonstrating your best, that you’re a business worth serving.
If you want their heart to be in it, your heart better be in it too. In order to find a partner, be a partner. You better be ready to invest every ounce of energy you have into making it work. And making it work starts with knowing how it works. If you aren’t sure, ask. If it seems wrong, it probably is. Be present, question everything, trust your gut. Don’t just be a consumer of their “expertise” without participating in the process.
Because off-the-shelf design just isn’t going to cut it in this industry, and your company will be on the clearance rack before you know it.
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