Article | A Guide to Choosing Design Services

If you are new to selecting graphic design services it may seem pretty straightforward. Typically, it starts with a search query for "graphic design" along with your city name or the largest city near you. You view a few website portfolios and make a few calls and find out the hourly rate or what they would charge for your needs. You pick the one that makes the best pitch and fits your budget. That's a good start, but there is quite a bit more to selecting and working with a graphic designer or design studio.
Before I go any further, I am the principal creative at Mediarail Design. That's a fancy way of saying that I do most of the creative work. I am the creative director, production artist, photographer, project coordinator, salesperson, delivery boy, and janitor.
That being said, I do have vendors I have used for years that I bring in on a per project basis, so I expand and contract as needed like a blow fish - which might have been a great name for my studio. My business model helps me be competitive on pricing and I have the flexibility to fit the vendors to the project - all web programmers and copywriters are not created equal.
Admittedly, I am always on the lookout for the next great client, but I can still be objective on the process of choosing design services, based on my years of observation and experience in the design community. I will detail the most popular types of design services vendors and a check list for you at the end of the article.

The Graphic Designer
The moniker "graphic designer" is as varied as there kinds of apples. It can range for an untrained high school drop out with a computer in his bedroom to Paul Rand, one of the most prominent modern designers who created the iconic IBM logo. Unfortunately, there are no certification boards to ensure a level of competence, so the onus is on you.
Each graphic designer comes with their own levels of talent, training, experience, and approach to the creative process. I have seen work from well-known design and marketing companies and it is obvious that a junior designer was given the assignment. It is easy to spot, because the creative was not thoughtfully created such as a logo that looks great on a poster, but a portion of the type will not be readable on a business card. Or a brochure cover that has so many elements that it sends your eye in every direction with no place to rest.

Independent Graphic Designers
As mentioned there are varying degrees of proficiency if you opt to hire an independent graphic designer or "freelancer". I've never like the term, it has a "here today gone tomorrow" feel to it. The upside is that you may find a very talented and experienced graphic designer who may have disciplines in related fields such as photography, advertising, or printing. Also, they may have an exceptional ability to understand your brand, your offering, and your prospective market. And they will cost less than a multi-person or large design firm due to less overhead. A great bang for your buck when you find it.
The downside is that your project may be beyond the scope of their abilities. In addition, they may not have a good understanding of the creative process, fail to anticipate technical issues and normal expenses, and use unlicensed or copyrighted materials to cut costs. All of this can translate into a disappointing solution, and possibly legal issues in the future. Finally, a common mistake is allowing your graphic designer to keep all your editable and final digital files at the end of the project. I cannot count the number of times I have acquired a new client who does not have a vector file of their logo or previous versions of their brand elements.

Small Design Studios
Small design studios can be a single or multi-person company. It is important to view the portfolio and any case studies to get an idea of the results they've provided for others. Work for known brands are a plus and work that focuses on only one or two clients should be a reason for caution.
Small studios tend to be more motivated to get your business in order build their client base and portfolio. Usually, you will find that the smaller the studio the better the level of service, because you will likely be working the person who is directly responsible for your project. Like independent designers the overall cost may be more attractive due to lower overhead.
In some cases a graphic designer at a studio will have as much design experience as the combined years of a design team at an agency. Many talented designers tend to either move up to a creative director position or out to start their studio.
Finally, design studios may not have a sample of previous work that you currently need, but that is not critical. The appropriate research of your brand, market, competition, and prospective customers can overcome any inexperience. In fact, it can provide a fresh approach without the preconceived ideas or industry standards.

Marketing Firms and Ad Agencies
Large marketing firms and ad agencies give you a sense of stability just by their sheer size, extensive portfolio, the number of staff, and the resources available. They will have experience in a wide variety of services across several media (e.g. radio, TV, print, media buying). If that's your situation a large firm should be your focus.
Another consideration is teamwork. As the saying goes, "
two heads are better than one." Depending on the scope of the project different perspectives during the concept phase can be a distinct advantage. Also, with a number of people assigned to your project it can be completed in a shorter time line; especially if it is a large and complex project with a number of different needs.

Make sure who you hire "gets" your brand, your product or service, and your prospective market. It should be clearly evident in the their creative brief, and they should be able to easily articulate their direction in connecting you to your prospects.
The downside are you that you will pay a premium for the work and you will not be directly involved with the people developing your project, but that may not be important to you. One final caution-do not expect a large firm or agency to duplicate the success they have created for another client, especially if that success is outside your market. The odds are very long that a marketing or advertising guru will meet unrealistic expectations. In the end, it is all about your brand connecting with your potential market in transparent and instinctive ways. If your product and and customer service stinks no one and no creative company can overcome them.

Final Words
Be candid about your priorities, expectations, and concerns. If you have a budget, design style you prefer, or a critical time frame be up front about it. Start by interviewing a few creative vendors before making a decision. If you're happy with the solutions they've provided other clients, comfortable with the way they present themselves, and think you'd enjoy working with them-hire them.
Check List:

  1. View the portfolio and any case studies to get an idea of the results they've done for others. Work for known brands are a plus and work that focuses on only one or two clients should be a sign for caution.
  2. Ask the prospective vendor to explain the creative direction (who, what, when, where, why) of previous work.
  3. Sign a contract that specifically details the services provided, costs, payment schedule, time line, the number of concepts and revisions, the right to a copy of the final and editable files, and how any unrealized additional costs are handled.
  4. Ask how long the designer or design company has been in business.
  5. Make sure who you hire "gets" your brand, your offering, and clearly understands your prospective market.
  © 2009-2013 Mediarail Design, Inc. intellectual property. All rights reserved.