Choosing a Design Firm 101

03.15.2007

Every high class restaurant on Hollywood has one thing in common. What is it? Not food, not style, not even quality of service. No, the common thread is parking. Thatís right, all the high end restaurants place the expensive and notable cars up front. If you drive up in a Rolls, the chances of being parked up front are quite high, and any valet can tell you why: It makes the restaurant look exclusive, well attended and popular with those of discerning tastes.

The same can be said of any business. Placeing ones best foot forward begins the customer experience long before they walk through the door.

When it comes to sculpting an image that sells in an ever crowded marketplace, a trustworthy and capable graphic design firm can be of utmost benefit. Most companies know this already. However, knowing the importance of a quality professional, and finding one, are two very different things. This is true of a search for any quality vendor, but, as anyone who has searched for pleasing and effective web design can attest (as Jim Campbell of PW Campbell did in the April Inc.Tech issue) there are now far more mediocre graphic design firms in the market than ever before.

Additionally, to a lay person, how does one know if this firms graphic design will work or not. So, to alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty that comes with entrusting your brand or company "look" to someone else, lets consider what can assist a growing company in choosing a trustworthy and capable design firm.

OUR GOALS

Nowadays every market has current residents. These residents built their businesses long ago. Now, as long as they maintain their assets their position seems secure. For growing businesses it has become a greater challenge than ever to push into their chosen marketplace without being pushed out by angry neighbors.

The Hard Way or The Hardest Way?

The hardest way to achieve this involves unwavering willpower and determination coupled with plenty of time. However, the smarter way is becoming more popular: Starting off strong with a powerful identity. Build a market awareness that is the envy of your neighbors and then you can start bumping people out of the market. It is still dubbed the "hard way" because there is no easy way to wrest market share from well seated tenants.

What do you need?

A good marketing team and a very good graphic artist. Marketing can be compared to your businesses heart and lungs, the hidden things that make it work. No matter how efficient that equipment is however, your market will still judge you by your looks. It is fruitless to deny. Many will argue that point for hours; that their new dried fruit line will have customers beating down the doors based on taste alone. Well, maybe so, but those customers will never drop their old fruit and try another unless they are told to do so by the packaging and its projected value. And that is where a capable graphic design company comes in.

What To Look For-
A. Training

When you first contact a graphic design firm find out how long they have been in business. Good firms are not assembly lines for design components, they are artists. Artistic talent takes time to hone. So if they have been successful for more than a decade it is probably safe to say that they know their business. However, if you find that they have not been around for at least five years, definitely get the qualifications of their entire creative staff.

B. Skill

This is the defining characteristic of a quality design company. All the training in the world canít turn a mediocre artist into a Picasso. Only talent can determine how far they will go.

To determine a companyís skill you must see their work, no matter what their reputation, look at their work. This is the tricky part, since some of the most beautiful pieces of art never sell, for a number of reasons. So it comes as no surprise that business graphics, from logos to web pages, are only one third pure art and two thirds good communication. IMPORTANT: when viewing design work try to separate whether you like the pieces from how effective they are. Think like the project audience: Would you be positively influenced by the company depicted, What would you think of them? That is the pith of this test- Is this firm an effective communicator?

Donít recognize all the subjects? Donít worry, some of the best designers refuse to work for Fortune 500 companies because they either canít talk to the boss or its to hard to get paid. Once again, the main question is- Are they effective communicators?

C. Personality

This is pet peeve of many business owners and communication directors: graphic artists who have decided that the best way to seem successful is to act like your customers are a real pain. We have all had that happen with someone (when we call our phone company for instance) but artists have a corner on the market. So here is a note to CEOís, if someone acts like the stereotypical moody artist and you donít seem like a priority to them, go somewhere else. You are not dealing with this firm just once, you need someone who will take care of future projects with creativity and enthusiasm. Secure design firms are not rude. Those that lack confidence often overcompensate by being arrogant. Further, a secure design firm will insist that you provide them the same respect they afford you. This costs you nothing, give it to them.

Another important point is that very often a company needs to associate itself with one or more positive personality traits in order to appeal to its market, i.e. honesty or integrity. It stands to reason that if your designer lacks these qualities they are automatically impaired from communicating them.

CREATIVE FIRMS ARE LIKE CARS

Once you have weeded out the obviously unfit, you are left with a group of companies that have individual proís and conís, many of which are a matter of personal preference. But overall, most companies fit into one of three categories.

Hyundais

These are companies that create low end graphics in almost every field. Common to this area are cookie-cutter graphics and web design. Many of these companies will have been eliminated already. These companies make their money in volume, a negative in the design business. For example, print shops and novelty suppliers who also dabble in logos almost always fit into this category, as do flat fee $75 dollar logo on the web companies. These companies are not recommended unless all you want is the cheapest price. There are plenty of fledgling design houses that will happily cut their teeth on price shopping companies looking for cheap output.

BMWs

Design firms with a good group of marketing concepts and design applications. These firms can often design well and are well staffed. They lack only finesse, and if a firm fits in this category early in its life it will probably end up a leader. Many companies also top out in this category. Those that reach their peak here, usually apply a "all-under-one-roof" marketing angle that keeps them from excelling in a specialty. A good choice for those that want to get the job done for less than a Ferrari would charge.

Ferraris

These designers are hard to find but worth the search. They are usually the equivalent of surgical specialists, having chosen one or two avenues of design or types of client and concentrated on being the best in that area(logotype or ad design for instance)People buy from these companies for a number of reasons. First is security, in virtually all cases these firms have been designing for upwards of fifteen years and sometimes as much as fifty. With that experience comes client confidence that whatever project they work on will turn out well. Second is prestige. Like having a big three accounting firm shows wisdom and a consciousness of value; so the Primo Angeli red ribbon or the Harper Titan is a point of pride. It shows a CEOís ability to determine quality. You may be surprised to find that though a Ferrari may charge more than anyone else, often its not much more. They are paid more for being better and it is often worth the added expense to be assured of effectiveness. Note: Due to the specialized nature of this category, it may be necessary to retain more than one. However, if a very high quality firm is chosen in one area, they can usually be counted on for referral to their equal in another category.

Choose Them Yourself

While the investigation of potential creative vendors can be time consuming and often handled by an employee, always assess the final few yourself. Just like choosing your accountant or banker, the firm you intrust with creating your image for the market is far to important to leave to someone else. Personally talk to the last few options on your list and get a feel for who they are.

Trust is an important factor here. While it is hard to tell if someone is trustworthy over the phone it is possible to rule out a few choices by looking for some specific attitudes. The designer you choose needs to be both open and friendly, willing to tell you who and what they stand for as a company. They also need to work well with you personally and be willing to meet to discuss project details. A trustworthy firm who knows what they are doing will also tactfully tell you when one of your ideas will not benefit you. Some will even refuse to comply with certain client demands if it will impair the project effectiveness and their own reputation.

If you have narrowed the group to just two or three that all fit the bill, sometimes it is simply a matter of taste. Get a feel for whose work you enjoy the most and who will be easiest to work with.

Once you have chosen a graphic design firm it is imperative that you invest time in them. This is one of the most neglected areas in the Client-Designer relationship. It is important that your chosen firm not only know what you want, but also who you are and who your company is. One CEOís suggestion for dealing with key vendors is to take them on a tour of the facility, introducing them to key individuals and then take them to the golf course. Not only will you discern that many designers are awful golfers but you can have their undivided attention, and more importantly, they will have yours. In addition to the important facets of the individual project, tell them what your philosophy centers on and where your company needs to be in the future. The heart of a company is its personality. The more your chosen firm knows about that personality the more effective and satisfying the results will be. You only have to do this one time. After that a relationship will have been forged and mutual loyalty will grow with each project.

As you grow in your market and establish a firm foundation from which to expand, an effective design firm can be a great asset. Second to a high quality product there is no area in business that returns, dollar for dollar, the amount that investment in a companies image does. Choosing a trustworthy and capable firm with whom to entrust your image, is the first step to greater market share and customer loyalty. Choose wisely and keep up the hard work-

-Bibliography- Jack Summerford-The Business of Graphic Design-Ed Gold J. Mansueto- Corporate Design Foundation Newsletter "@ISSUE" www.cdf.org
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