It’s quite likely that no one ever taught you how to be a client before you became one. Most of your day-to-day activity involves working with colleagues. If you’ve been asked to lead a project, and your in-house team doesn’t have the necessary skills, you’re going to need to find someone who does.
How do you hire a designer? How do you hire a creative firm – or any consultant for that matter? When looking to hire a designer or a creative agency, the professionals on the other side of the equation have worked with all sorts of clients. They do it all the time. But if this is new territory for you, read on.
Imagine you’re planning a trip to a foreign country. I know, with a global pandemic, going to the grocery store seems like a brave adventure. But let’s pretend.
You start with a broad set of criteria. You may want warm weather and nice beaches. You have a general time frame and budget in mind. If it’s some place you’ve never been, you still have a lot of questions – Does anyone there speak my language? What currency do they use? Are there cultural differences to consider? And you still haven’t narrowed your options much.
I asked a handful of clients to share their advice on hiring and working with designers and creative firms. With wisdom earned from years along these treacherous trails, consider them your Sherpa guides.
When hiring a consultant, how do you go about identifying candidates? Not surprisingly, many turn first to their personal networks, but reputation and experience matters too.
- Catherine West, a retired marketing communications executive, asked colleagues in other departments and organizations for recommendations. She also stayed active in professional associations: “I entered our work in as many competitions as I could. In that way I was exposed to award-winning work by consultants and designers I might want to hire.”
- Mark Kinders, an executive in public higher education for more than 35 years, notes that the process to select a consultant is quite rigorous, requiring a formal Request for Proposal. “The RFP is typically sent to companies that have a reputation for having served other institutions well.”
Narrowing the field
How do you narrow the field of candidates? What qualities did you look for? The interview process reveals whether finalists fully understand the scope of the project, and if they are a cultural fit for the organization.
- Steve Woods, who worked in water resources management in both the public and private sectors, focused on the people who will be doing the work rather than the firm. “They need to practice the two ears, one mouth style of listening. And there is an art to asking questions that the client can answer.”
- Hannah Baines, director of development at the Bell Museum, connects with known past clients to learn about their experience working with the consultant. “And when having conversations with potential consultants, I look for those who have really done their homework. They know the organization, and share an interest in our mission and vision.”
Congratulations – you’ve hired a designer! But how do you get the most out of these collaborations? Make sure to do your homework before you get started, define the project scope, and share your desired outcomes.
- “Clear deliverables are key to working with a consultant,” says Tessa Eagan, a director of marketing and communications at the University of Minnesota. “Also, having a detailed plan and resources for your internal team to execute those deliverables is essential for success.”
- “Once you have agreed to the objectives, budget, and time frame, it’s important to avoid micromanaging. Respect your consultant’s expertise, and be open to a solution that is different from – and possibly better – than your own,” advised Catherine West.
- “The best designers will overwhelm you with their demand for information, and rigorous attention to detail and timelines,” Mark Kinders cautioned. “Expect to be worked hard by someone who is quite good.”
The most common reason to hire a designer is because an organization doesn’t have those specific skill sets on staff – or the staff is too busy managing day-to-day projects. In other words, they need consultants who provide capacity for tackling new initiatives.
But designers can also provide objectivity – a fresh eye, strategic vision, and critical thinking skills. So I asked: Which is more valuable – capacity or objectivity?
- ”We are most often looking to add capacity,” Tessa Eagan noted. “But when we are tackling bigger projects, strategic vision and critical thinking skills are of higher value.”
- “This question is really important. Often, the client’s team is not thinking in either of these terms,” replied Steve Woods. “They are frequently too passive, and just hand off the matter to the consultant. This is bad for both parties.”
- Mark Kinders noticed that in-house staff can often make poor decisions based on misperceptions about audiences and competition. “When the consultant provides insights and recommendations based on valid research, better strategy and tactics can lead to measurable success.”
Making a good hire
Most every designer or creative agency you meet will have a good portfolio and impressive case studies. To separate contenders, you need to move beyond superficial impressions, think ahead to working together, and ask good questions:
- Who will actually be working on the project?
- Who have they worked with previously, and how did that go?
- Do they ask insightful questions? And listen when you speak?
- Do they think strategically, or focus only on tactical solutions?
- Have they done their homework? Have you done yours?
Being a client isn’t easy. It often requires different skills than your everyday work. But with a little preparation, you can hire a designer who consistently exceeds your expectations – and helps your organization reach new levels of success.
For more good questions, consider downloading our Project Planning Toolkit.
Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter