Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Part Three: How to Hire a Designer

Alright, we're starting to feel comfortable with what we know and what we don't know. If not, part one and part two will get you up to speed. You've decided to hire a designer to help you create your business graphics, stationery, or website. Or, maybe you're still unsure if you can make the investment, but are at least in the process of educating yourself about how to work with creatives (because it can be a rough ride sometimes...I'll sheepishly admit this because I'm definitely a creative!). There's one thing you need to understand about creative people and designers. The best ones tend to lack certain communication, organizational and business skills. (No offense to my fellow creatives, but let's be honest - that's what makes us best at what we do)! Their ability to disregard organization and order allows them to think outside the box and come up with something that your linear brain has a hard time conceiving. The opposite applies to creatives who hire other creatives. You'll both tend to be bouncing around with new, exciting ideas and will have a hard time staying on task and having a clear direction for the project.

So how to choose the best creative service provider for the job? Here's a list of things to shop for:
  • A good portfolio. This one seems like a no-brainer, but it's important to know what makes a portfolio a good one. Be aware that depending on what type of client the designer worked with, their contribution in a design may be varied. They may present a major ad campaign from a huge corporation like Target, for example. You find yourself thinking, Wow, you designed an ad for Target! However, when you dig a little deeper you discover that Target's branding guidelines are so strict that the ad design was actually conceptualized by a senior manager, laid out roughly by an art director, and trickled down to the designer, who only decided to nudge the text (which, by the way, color and font were already chosen by another executive) a couple of centimeters to the left. Lesson: It's important to ask the designer how they contributed to the design, in what capacity they worked on it, and how they came up with the idea. This will help uncover their strengths and will lessen the surprises when something they design for you is vastly different from what they showed you in their portfolio.
  • Portfolio items match the project you're hiring them for. Again, this isn't rocket science, but it's important they have experience designing the type of project you're asking them to design, as well as experience in the same industry you're in or style similarities. Designers often excel at one particular type of design or style. If you want a super-feminine swirly swoosh pattern (don'tcha like that ultra-technical description?!), you'll want to find someone that designs for other female business owners. This type of designer often dabbles in stationery and invitation design. They'll probably have fewer corporate clients, because corporate design often calls for a more serious, cleaner style. Lesson: Spend time thinking about your desired style, find some words to describe that style, and find someone with a portfolio that matches that style and type of project you're hiring them for.
  • Communication skills. Like I was saying before, designers tend to live in a world of free-flowing ideas and endless possibilities, so getting them to hammer down exact details and be excellent about follow-up and be pro-active about communication is not going to be their instinct, but that doesn't mean that all designers are poor communicators. You just have to search for them. Lesson: Be very clear about your expectations in the project and don't be afraid to request specific communication practices. Search for someone who already has good communication, but give them a little slack if they're not up to your standards. It's very rare to find a truly excellent designer that has perfect communication skills. It goes against the way they were created.
  • Find out what they know and don't know. Don't just assume that designers have studied marketing. I think this is the most common mis-conception when mompreneurs hire designers. The reality is that most designers have never taken a marketing course in their life! Find someone, or a firm, that has a background in marketing. Understand how to separate the design (art) aspect from the strategy aspect of the project. So many designers claim to be branding experts, but when I study their work, it's obvious that to them, branding means they know how to create a color scheme and how to make everything coordinate well together. It does NOT say to me that they know how to make my image convey the true spirit of my business and how to speak clearly to my audience. I'm not sure they will keep my business goals in mind when creating my logo, but I can be sure that it will match my new coral handbag that's in style this season. Be sure to convey your business goals to them and if they don't have marketing background, remind them of those goals and your audience over the course of the project. Lesson: find out if their strengths lie in the art aspect, or the business aspect of design. Ideally, find a designer or agency that has both, but don't assume that just because they say they are branding experts, that they really know what that means. Make them prove it!
  • Find a good fit. I see mis-matched designers and clients over and over again. The way to get the best result when working with a designer is to make sure you are compatible with the designer in the first place. Some people just mesh well together and that creates the best synergy for creating the best design. Design extends beyond a tactical job you are hiring someone to do. It crosses the boundary of order and organization and requires someone to intimately try to search inside your brain and pull something out that you are not able to pull out yourself. You are often unable to speak the words that convey what you want to appear on the page. The designer has the complicated task of magically translating your unspoken ideas and to do it in a way that appeals to the customers you are trying to reach. They often make decisions based on a "gut feeling" and those feelings are often right. Lesson: Find someone you trust because you have a good feeling about them. Give them a little breathing space and trust them. Try to make their life easier by being as clear as you can be about what's inside your head. Don't make them pull something out of thin air.
The thing I'm going to leave you with when it comes to hiring a designer is to remember the unattainable project triangle. Are you familiar with the concept? Think of your project as a triangle of good, fast, and cheap. You can achieve two of the three points of the triangle, but can never achieve all three without one suffering. This leaves you with three options for your project:
  • Quick design, with high quality, but it will not be cheap.
  • Quick design that is cheap, but will not be high quality.
  • High quality design that is cheap, but will take a long time.
As a designer, I wish all clients that came to me would remember that all three are unattainable. It's really important to determine which two you want and focus on those two, rather than constantly trying to achieve all three.

Next time, we'll get into the meat of your graphic identity. Hopefully you're starting to feel more confident about tackling your marketing.

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