You need some design and — darn it — you need it now. That, or your boss has tasked you with finding a design agency. The ways of finding a design agency are myriad: you already have an existing relationship with one; you ask a friend or colleague, ‘who did your website?’; or you type ‘design agency’ into Google and see who’s SEO or PPC does the best job of getting them to the dizzying heights of page one.

Some of those methods feel like you are scratching away at the foils hoping your numbers come up, but either way, you will eventually have a shortlist of design agencies to talk to, and you need to discern who is the best fit.

If you haven’t ever contracted a designer or design agency before, how do you know who is charging the right amount and who will do the best job? Well, from the other side of the fence (yes, I am a designer) here are a few questions that will help you make the right decision.

But first, some due diligence.

Your end of the bargain

We designers are problem solvers, so you need to be able to articulate what your problem is. (We can collectively find out what the problem is, but you want to keep costs down, right?) Issues usually get articulated in a design brief. No two clients are the same, however.

Some clients write extensive briefs; they know which H1 tags on their website pages rank well in Google and have very specific technical requirements. Others just think their current website isn’t performing well and have some anecdotal evidence to support it.

It doesn’t matter which camp you are in, but either way, you should come armed with an understanding of what your problem is, and more importantly, what your goals are. Those are business objectives, to you and me. Without those, you will waste much time. Some briefs try to solve the problem by dictating the outcome. Don’t be disheartened if an agency tears the brief up regardless. You are contracting a (stellar) design agency for what goes on inside their heads, not what they do with their hands.

Knowing what your budget is will also help. Neither of us wants to ask each other out on a date, only to find out we just aren’t compatible or even in the same league. It’s not you. It’s not us, either.

The mistake to make here is you think you just need a website and any digital design agency will do. There are websites and (as you can imagine) there are websites, but more on that later.

If you are in the Insurtech or Fintech sector, for example, talk to agencies that either specialise in those sectors or a have a good understanding of how an intermediary business works, for an intermediary has many audiences.

It’s tempting to support your sister-in-law’s business. But if her business solves problems for the hospitality sector, she isn’t going to know who your audience is or understand the pain points of a digital start-up. It’s going to lead to some awkward conversations over the turkey and sprouts at the dinner table at Christmas, that’s for sure!

So, the questions a prospective client needs to ask a designer.

1. ‘What is your process, and how do you approach a new project?’

As I stated above, good design solves a problem, so this question looks to weed out what process the design agency will go through to help understand your problem and subsequently solve it.

Design agencies don’t roll solutions off a conveyor belt; they sell expertise and outcomes. Yes, design may seem like a process shrouded in mystery, and designer clichés like beanbags, beards, PostItNotes and MacBooks. Still, like any good consultancy practice, a design agency should have a thorough and rigorous process that has been honed over the years.

If you feel like your design agency is pinning the tail on the donkey blindfold, it’s because their process lacks the upfront research and they are relying on good old-fashioned ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’.

Design is an iterative and collaborative process, so you, the client, are going to be involved. Find out what the agency will deliver at each step, and in turn, what they expect of you. At the very least, there will be a discovery phase, a design phase, and a production phase (here’s ours). Be prepared to receive homework, and hand it out.

At the outset, the agency will ask lots of questions to get to know your business. They will listen and take those learnings away, re-frame them and present them back to you to ensure they have understood your business and objectives. Your objectives might mean more sales; or a clearer understanding of your fractured product offer; or maybe a recruitment drive. Either way that key performance indicator underpins all that you and your agency should measure yourselves against.

Once you have agreed on the problem, you will start to see visual and verbal solutions that you will have to feedback on. Each agency will have their own unique way of arriving at those solutions, but once everyone has agreed on a creative route, your work won’t stop there. You may have to supply content or provide access to the board for a photo shoot.

Each step will require time and input from both you and your team. Sometimes you will be seeking to turn your business around, so expect to make big decisions and assemble all the people that are going to be involved.

If you leave the founder or CEO out of this process, expect the project to go off the rails. When you helicopter him or her in at the end, don’t expect them to buy into your solution, no matter how good. Get everyone involved. (Well, anyone that has the power to derail you. 20 people around the table are just as dangerous as one.)

Ultimately though, if you don’t get involved, expect mediocre results. (You’re not like that though, are you? No, sir!) Design can change your business, so undoubtedly you will want to get involved.

So, that simple question weeds out two critical factors: does the agency have an effective process they have used time and time again with demonstrable results, and how will I, as the client, need to contribute to the project both in terms of time and resource?

2. ‘How long will it take, and how much will it cost?’

Doesn’t seem like the killer question, does it? (State the obvious, why don’t you, Marcus!) Of course, you want to know how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost.

It’s not so much the question, but the answer, or answers, you need to be wary of, for they will be wide-ranging and varied. When you compare timelines and quotes side-by-side, how do you know which agency to buy from? Can you even compare agencies side-by-side?

Be wary of the agency that says they can deliver to your boss’ ridiculous timeline. Yes, you want to please, but if everyone else is saying it will take three to four months, the agency that promises a website in a month is either going to deliver a boilerplate solution, or they are going for the sale knowing they will miss the deadline. You know your boss, so you can work out how well that conversation will go if you miss the deadline, or the results are mediocre, at best.

Of course, a freelancer is going to be cheaper than an agency, so taking cost away, how do you then decide who the best fit is? As stated before, there are websites, and there are websites (or brands, or products).

Well, perhaps the next question will help.

3. ‘What am I buying?’

Sounds trite, I know, but to discern who is the best fit you will need to understand what you are buying. Naturally, all your shortlisted agencies deliver output, but where you start to see differences is in the way an agency arrives at a solution. That’s why you ask the question ‘What is your process, and how do you approach a new project?’

Once you understand the process, you can begin to understand the inputs and outputs of each stage and where the value is.

If your agency wants to spend a day or two with you to interview your sales team, marketing team, customer support team, and the C suite, then that, right there, represents a tremendous amount of value. That’s input, and dare I say it, the input is possibly the most crucial part of the project.

There will be additional things like copywriting, photography, illustration or animation that will help you stand head and shoulders above your competitors. Just look at brands like Mailchimp, or Stripe, or Asana. Apart from their stellar products, there is a reason why they stand out. They invested in creating a tone of voice or visual language that is unique to them and all that they stand for.

If your agency does their due diligence, they will find out where you see your company in the broader marketplace and carry out a litmus test to see what sort of personality you want to project to the world. Well-crafted copy or illustration can do just that, so ask if that is included or is extra. It will ordinarily be extra because neither you nor the designer will know at the outset what the reaction to that litmus test will be.

When I said there are websites, and there are websites, some are perfunctory and serve a purpose. In contrast, others can be a manifestation of a pivoting business that can double or triple revenues.

Know what you are buying. Some agencies sell websites, and some sell change. It just happens to be a website that is the catalyst for change and therefore inherently has more value.

4. ‘How do you handle differences of opinion or conflict with a client?’

We all like to think that the design process is going to be as smooth as a Roger Federer return. But the truth is, we are human; mistakes or differences of opinion can occur. Sometimes project timelines slide because, we the designers, underestimated the task of how difficult it was to get the board to agree on a strategic direction. Or, sometimes, you, the client can sit on feedback for a month without any adjustment to the overall project delivery date, and all those things can cause friction.

So to gauge the professionalism of your agency ask them that very question. Are they transparent (and dare I say, human) and do they open up? Can they defend their work? Do they put thought into each decision they make, and can they articulate why they made that choice? If your agency can walk you through the decisions you collectively make, based on the input you gave, there is less chance of friction as you are all heading in the same direction.

You want to find an agency that can guide you — they are the experts after all — but you don’t want a maverick who just doesn’t listen either.

Another way of gauging the intelligence and professionalism of an agency is asking them what hurdles they had to overcome in any given project in their portfolio to find out how they navigated them.

Trust your instinct here too. You and the agency you invite in will be on your best behaviour in the first meeting. You have to try and cut through that, and ask yourself, do I like these people? If the answer is no, evaluate the pros and cons of entering into a relationship with an agency that you can’t rely on or lean on when the going gets tough.

5. ‘What work are you most proud of and why?’

In some situations, you will have decided to bring in an agency based on their reputation and portfolio alone, so you don’t need to go over old ground. You know they can do the work.

In other instances, it may be a case of a bit of show and tell.

Designers will inevitably tailor their portfolio to your needs. They will walk you through what the client problem was and how they solved it. Be wary of the agency that does nothing but talk about themselves.

If you ask an agency what work they are most proud of and why, it will unearth what motivates them. Designers love doing good work — don’t we all — so finding out what gets them out of bed in the morning is a sure way of discovering if they are a good fit.

This question is likely to get your designer animated and will help you read why they are passionate about certain things and whether they align with your needs, or not.

6. ‘What do you look for in a client?’

Another way of finding out if an agency is suitable for you is what qualities they look for in a client.

If I could take you into the mind of a designer for a moment, then this will help you understand their motivations. Designers love doing good work, as it scratches an itch all human beings have. Not all jobs present opportunities to do good work, or that itch is just out of reach even if you are double-jointed.

So, when you invite a design agency in to brief them, they will be sizing the project up for creative potential as well as working out if you are an ally or high maintenance.

By asking them what they look for in a client, you will immediately know if you fit their criteria. Hiring designers (or anyone come to that) is no longer just about take. It’s about what you can give too.

They will also be assessing what barriers are going to be in the way of getting to design nirvana. If your CEO is super prescriptive and thinks he or she knows what good design is (he or she well might!), then that is a barrier. Agencies want grown-up relationships, not parent-child relationships so expect questions on the chain of command and how good you, as the client, are at gathering feedback.

7. ‘What is good design work?’

The answers to this question will tell you a lot about a design agency’s motivations. Try to move beyond the knee jerk or vanilla response.

‘I just want to win awards!’ Well, what awards? Most creative? Most effective? Best B2B SaaS marketing website award?

‘I want to get loads of followers and likes on Instagram or Dribble’. (I made that one up, but I kid you not, there are some vacuous designers out there.)

‘I love working with small businesses and SMEs because design can put a dent in their universe. I can’t put a dent in Google’s universe, but I can in yours, and that’s what gets me out of bed.’ (Sorry, that’s my motivator. But you’d hire me, right?)

Put simply, designers love their job and their craft, and, I promise you, there is an agency out there that simply loves doing what they do for businesses just like yours.

It doesn’t stop at the output though. Agencies are looking for long term relationships with their clients. Aside from keeping the lights on, ask them why is that? Look for answers that align with your needs.

8. It’s the designer who should be asking all the questions, not you.

Well spotted. That isn’t a question, but it is something to be wary of.

If you find yourself listening to the creative director tell you how fantastic their work is, then chances are you aren’t going to get a proposal back that outlines what your problem is even if you have written the most watertight brief.

The question you have to ask yourself is, how will the agency gather all the information they need to give me a meaningful indicative cost let along a solution? When you are contracting a designer or design agency, you must ensure that they have understood your problem and have seen a similar set of pain points before in other clients’ businesses.

Listening might not seem like a critical design skill, but believe me, it is essential, and if they aren’t listening at the outset, are they going to hear you when you are giving feedback?

Summary

Yes, buying design can seem like a leap of faith, but by asking those questions, you will begin to understand why some agencies are more expensive and why, what value they bring and what their underlying motivations are.

As long as you have done your homework beforehand and invite the right agencies in it may well boil down to personal chemistry, and that’s fine too. You are going to spend time together and on the phone – a lot.

The best outcomes arise from mutual respect, where open dialogue and debate can happen, because tricky decisions have to be made.

Only you know what’s right for you, but at least you now have the questions to find the right partner.


You could say my work as cupid is complete, but if you find yourself out of love with your design agency, call me. I will be waiting for your questions. And now you know; I’ll have mine too.