What’s in a picture? More specifically, how can an experienced designer help your company establish a brand and image best suited to your target audience? Whether you’re a small start-up with only basic needs or a larger company with a major new project, finding and hiring the right design firm can seem intimidating.

You may have heard, or even experienced, nightmare scenarios of designers who are unreachable once they have a deposit or who send bills for far more than the agreed-upon price. However, when you find the right fit, you’ll develop a strategic partnership with a firm or individuals who are as committed to your success as you are.

Ask for Referrals
This is a great time to reach out to your network of colleagues and friends, particularly if you admire the design work they’ve had done. Ask them about their experience with the process — were the designers easy to work with, communicative, timely, honest — and are these clients happy with the results?

Don’t be concerned if the recommendation comes from an industry different from your own. A good design firm will learn about your business, your company and its goals, whether your product is socks or financial services.

Start Early, Especially with Large Projects
The right firm must get to know you, so don’t wait until the last minute to hire someone. Well-thought-out, strategic, creative production should be an integral part of the development process. And that takes time. The best design is created through collaboration with everyone involved.

Waiting until the eleventh hour to start also leaves you at the mercy of who’s available on short notice – or worse, a firm that promises to drop work for existing clients to fit you in. That may be fine when you’re the one getting priority treatment, but not if you’re the existing client. You want a firm that values you for the long term.

Assess Your Needs Upfront
Do you “just need business cards,” or do you really need a whole identity package with a logo, branding guideline, stationery, email signatures, and a PowerPoint template or two? Websites, at the very least, require well-written content, logos, and compelling visuals. And your website may need a great deal more. Do you have those elements now, or should they be developed? Will this be a one-off project, or will you have ongoing needs?

A realistic assessment of all aspects of your project, will equip you to ask the right questions when interviewing potential design partners. In turn, you’ll have answers for their questions. This helps you set timelines and expectations, both internally and with the firm you select.

Ask and Answer Lots of Questions
Chances are, you don’t know what to expect when working with a firm, so go ahead and ask! Learn about their process, experience, and professional affiliations (AIGA and the Graphic Arts Guild are the two largest associations in the U.S.). Do they have a good track record with other clients? Ask for referrals, particularly if they’ve done projects for a client with needs similar to yours.

A good design firm will have many questions for you, too, from broad inquiries about missions and goals to specifics about the target audience, any existing branding, timelines, competitors, and budgets. If you aren’t sure of the answers, be honest and realize that getting the information may be part of the process.

Price Quotes: It’s Not Earl Scheib!
Don’t be surprised if you don’t get an immediate, definitive answer to, “How much is a ______ (brochure, website, etc.)?” Most often, you’ll get clarifying questions in return –that’s meant to set parameters, not to be cagey. It’s similar to asking, “How much is a car?” Well, that depends: are you in the market for a used Yugo or a new Bugatti? Will your new website be two or three simple, informational pages or a 500-page E-commerce site? The cost is based entirely upon the project’s scope.

Similarly, asking for your budget range isn’t based on greed. It helps the design team make decisions within that range. There’s no point showing you options for high-end, specialty papers and printing if your project budget covers only 100 copies at the local copy center.

Trust Your Instincts
Choosing a design firm should be similar to selecting any other service partner. Do you feel comfortable with them? Do you communicate well with them? Are you being heard? Do they respond promptly? Are they asking the right questions? Are they honest and reliable?

Finding the right design firm means you’re adding a strategic partner to help your creative and marketing team become even more effective.

About Your Columnist

Adrienne Grace is a featured columnist for Women Taking Charge, the official blog of Connected Women of Influence, where she covers all things print, web, advertising and package design. Adrienne is an art director and designer with an extensive background as a photo stylist. Adrienne understands how corporations think and operate. Her company Vim & Vigor excels at helping companies craft their brand strategies to create business communications that are clear and memorable.

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