When a Design Firm Fails

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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  1. says

    It’s a shame. They should feel lucky to have an advocate for success, like you, on their side. I would get angry if I couldn’t present my designs to the client. Thanks for the post Whitney.

  2. Christopher Burd says

    “No design shop worth their salt would price their services so low.”

    There’s your problem. The person who hired them made a basic error. Perhaps they don’t understand design, perhaps they’re cheapskates, perhaps both. This sort of thing can happen with higher-ups who are, believe it or not, highly competent in their areas of expertise.

    I’ve been there. Sometimes all you want to do is sit back and watch the train wreck (restricting your alcohol consumption to afternoons and evenings, hopefully). That’s not the best advice, though. You need to get the project back on track. That probably means getting a new design firm, recognizing that you will take a significant hit on your project schedule and budget. You may have to pay not 10, but 15 times what the low-ball firm was charging. That’s paying for your (firm’s) mistakes.

  3. says

    It’s a shame when agencies under cut themselves and the competition to acquire new business. It degrades the value design brings to the table, let alone other related professional services. When this happens, the market has a higher probability of acclimating to the price, which then leads to: “are you kidding? I can get that so much cheaper elsewhere.” in the next engagement. The service gets commoditized and the folks that actually deliver true value have a harder time selling (unless they change their business focus or target market.)

    Amen to the partnership! Designers don’t know it all, and neither do clients. When both parties are humble and opt for collaboration, the results are almost always better. It’s unfortunate when clients treat agencies/freelancers like a vending machine. And it’s equally unfortunate when agencies talk to clients as if they’re so stupid, and you should just trust everything they paint on the canvas. There’s a sense of entitlement from both sides of that house that makes relationships less effective and the end product not as good as it could be.

    Oh… and what do you mean by “Outsourcing design work is a necessary evil.”? You know I am not going to let you go scot free on that one. ;-)

  4. says

    Agree – it’s often a symptom of larger problems in the organization. In your example, the agency wasn’t charging enough and as a result, the organization was getting what they unfortunately paid for. I do think this points to a fundamental issue in that designers do not do enough to help people understand their true value to the process and the product. They focus on the deliverable and forgo the process – but any great designer knows there’s far more time spent on getting to the deliverable than actually producing the deliverable itself.

    Most people do not understand the value (or process) of a designer. As a result, companies have a misconception that design is cheap and technology is expensive. So, they don’t invest in design and they do not know what good design really is. They don’t know how to gauge quality and instead they default to their personal preferences. It doesn’t help that we have sites like http://www.99designs.com and others like that one where designers are doing work for fairly cheap and with little to no process except for reading what the client wants and then producing it, like paint by number.

    Companies need to get smarter and not hire these types of firms in the first place. But, at the same time, designers need to work harder at helping people understand the value of design. That’s a whole other discussion though :)

  5. Daf.khan says

    Red your Post with Big attention. There were a kind of rage between the lines, but that was your fully right. Now days people with hight expertise rate are struggle against ignorants, badly skilled people and that was a persistent phenomenon in all branches.

    Big boats never pay attention to barking dogs, and you are one of the biggest boats.

    Thanks for the Post


  6. Christina says

    Here, here!

    Process is such a balance, isn’t it? Too much and it weighs things down, too little and nothing seems to ever get done. And beyond that, having people in charge who don’t know or care squat about design makes even having a process in place a waste.

    I hope it was good wine you had!

  7. says

    Am I right in understanding that you are overseeing a project where a budget was never discussed in any detail?

    How come you didn’t flag this as project supervisor or was this something out of your remit?!


  8. says

    I do 100% agree with your statement that you get what you give. Enthusiasm, commitment & high standards are infectious.

    There’s also the hiring of the design firm to consider, though. Were they interviewed/vetted properly? Not knowing the actual circumstances, it’s hard to say if this is the case, but I’ve seen dozens of clients duped by good salesman. There are a lot of design firms out there that have killer sales teams and land a ton of projects, but have no process (or in some cases talent) to back it up. I’m not saying that’s the case in your situation, but it happens more often than we’d like to think.

  9. says

    Many companies undervalue the actual design aspects of IT projects. They believe it’s just adding a cosmetic layer (making it pretty) and never understand that it is another critical part of the total aspect of the project that requires as much work and effort as understanding what the real need it.

    The need, the thought, and the value behind the visual aspects are given, at best, lip service because anyone can design, even Aunt Sally’s 14 year-old. We all know what makes up a good deign, and ifwe’re ever shown it, we’ll recognize it immediately.

    Since they devalue the work itself, they’re unwilling to pay what a well thought out design would truly cost. They probably similarly undervalue the content strategy aspects. Content, interactions, architecture, ease of use and visual design are all critical aspects. Without any one, failure is the only option.

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