Preface: This article offers tips and advice for both graphic design firms and the businesses seeking to hire them. Although the focus is on San Francisco graphic design firms (a city bursting at the seams with a slew of graphic design firms and freelance designers), the contents are universal and beneficial to all geographic locations.
In my previous article, How to get graphic design and copywriting clients, I interviewed three top creative firms and asked them all the nitty-gritty details on how to generate new business. Then I got to thinking…how great would it be to have just a few minutes of the clients’ time to pick their brains on how they find and choose us?
Choosing a graphic design firm can be a daunting process. Offering fantastic first-hand perspective on the process are: Marco Zappacosta, co-founder and CEO of Thumbtack an online marketplace for local services; Lauren Schiller, co-founder of the weekly San Francisco radio show, Lady Brain; and Tex Dworkin, Director of Social Media for Global Exchange. Moderated by San Francisco graphic designer / writer, Stephanie Orma of Orma Design and She’s SO Creative, the three share their experience, advice, fears, and turns-off in selecting a design firm. This is an honest, eye-opening discussion that every designer-seeking-client must read.
1. In a nutshell, please describe your business.
Zappacosta: Thumbtack is an online marketplace for local services (think eBay for services).
Schiller: Lady Brain is the most candid advice show on San Francisco radio. My partner Steph and I cover topics so personal, you may have thought they could only happen to you. We air on KUSF 90.3 FM. Our weekly show is also available through iTunes and on our website, askladybrain.com.
Dworkin: I sit on the board of the Fair Trade Resource Network and Fair Trade Federation Fundraising committee. These organizations are networks/resources for Fair Trade, socially responsible businesses in the U.S.
2. Why were you in need of a designer?
Zappacosta: When we started Thumbtack, we didn’t have any design capabilities in-house, but knew it would be key to building a good service. So we decided to hire an outside firm.
Schiller: When we first launched the show, we knew we needed to grow our online presence to support podcast downloads and get the word out to ladies everywhere about Lady Brain. We have a blog and Facebook page, but needed a home for our brand online. We also wanted to represent ourselves as a legitimate broadcasting presence, not just another podcast.
Dworkin: We were seeking a designer to design a new calendar that would be sold in retail stores as a fundraising tool for our organization.
3. How did you go about finding a designer?
Zappacosta: We set about the search mainly by mining blog posts and lists of “best SF designers.” We didn’t post any Craigslist ads because we’d heard of people getting inundated with crap. After creating a list of potential candidates, we did a deep dive into their portfolios to identify whether we liked their style and whether they’d ever attempted a project like ours.
Schiller: Because I have a background in marketing and advertising, I knew of a handful of good design firms in the city that I had worked with in the past, or came recommended. I reached out to my network for recommendations and met with the designers whose aesthetic I shared.
Dworkin: I used Google in combination with design firms I already knew about, as well as advice from co-workers. Once I had a list of possible firms, I emailed each one individually. I then spoke on the phone with the leading contenders to explain the project and get a feel for whether they would be a good fit for the project.
4. Was the search to find a designer difficult?
Zappacosta: Yes! In the end, I feel like we got lucky. First, it’s hard to know what’s out there. Second, it’s hard to evaluate what you’re seeing. And finally, it’s hard to get into contact with everyone (we didn’t hear back from all the designers we contacted).
Schiller: Because of my past experience in the industry, I was able to find a number of qualified designers and agencies relatively quickly. Although there are many talented designers, the more difficult task is finding the right agency: one that can meet your time frame, budget, quality standards, and understand your audience and the role of your website – and can present a creative vision.
Dworkin: It was time consuming. It was very important to find the right design firm to do this project, one that was values-based and would be able to address the tastes of our target audience. I was surprised that one firm that came highly recommended actually took weeks to get me a quote, as well as the info they said they would send. It really turned me off and I did not go with them for obvious reasons.
5. How many responses did you get/have options to choose from?
Zappacosta: In the end we had 4 phone calls and 3 in person meetings.
Schiller: Because I narrowed the list down first, I took bids from a few agencies and met with each to discuss their capabilities and credentials.
Dworkin: From those I contacted, the majority responded, although in some cases, surprisingly not very fast. The speed at which they responded definitely affected my decision. I finally narrowed it down to 3 firms and made my final decision after seeing a sample of a very similar project to mine in the winning firm’s portfolio.
6. When you looked at the designers’ portfolios, what exactly were you looking for? And was it hard to assess if they would be a good fit for you?
Zappacosta: Because of what we were trying to build we went looking for designers that had built interactive websites. It’s one thing to create a good-looking design but another to create an intuitive one. The hardest part about evaluating designers’ work is trying to figure out exactly what they did. Often, and especially if the project they did was big, there were collaborators and/or other consultants, making it hard to identify exactly what the designer in question brought to the table.
Schiller: It’s important for the agency to understand whom they’re building a site for. Having a great design sense is only the beginning – if the website doesn’t speak to its audience, it doesn’t serve its purpose. So in looking at portfolios, I tried to understand the nature of each business and assess how the final site spoke to their audience and communicated their message and whether they’d be able to provide a customized experience.
Dworkin: I immediately looked for similar projects and quality. Seeing samples in person made it very easy to determine which would and wouldn’t be a good fit for my project.
7. What were the most important factors in choosing a graphic design firm?
Zappacosta: The most important factor for us was a firm that could take us through the entire process of conceptualization, mock-ups, design, and coding. We really needed all of it from one group.
Schiller: Cost was definitely an issue – we didn’t have a big budget. But having someone who understood our concept and was able to not only design something we liked, but come up with new, fresh ideas for presenting our brand online was key.
Dworkin: In order of priority, the deciding factors were: cost, quality, similar project, and speed of response.
8. What were your biggest fears in hiring a graphic design firm?
Zappacosta: The biggest fear is thinking that you’ll get too far along in the process before you realize you’ve hired the wrong person. The designer ultimately controls how your clients or customers see your product – it’s a huge responsibility.
Schiller: You never know what the final product is going to look like. So I think the biggest fear is always “Will I get what I paid for?” and “Will it work to accomplish my goals?” “Will I like it?”
Dworkin: Our biggest concern was that our deadlines would be met. With this project being a calendar, we really needed to stick to our timeline.
9. Were you happy with the outcome? Anything you would have done differently?
Zappacosta: We selected Project6 Design and were quite happy with what we got: www.thumbtack.com One thing we didn’t quite handle correctly was how to deal with post-project edits and improvements. Being a start-up, we’re constantly changing, and I think we could have been clearer from the get-go how this phase of the relationship would go.
Schiller: We love our site designed by Veneer Studio. With the move to broadcast radio from strictly podcasting and the combination of social media and grassroots growth, it’s doing a great job supporting Lady Brain. They definitely got our sense of humor and kept it simple.
Dworkin: We were happy with the calendar (not shown) that Design Action Collective, created for us. Looking back, I would have allowed more time in our own timeline for the entire design process. You can only do so much to move the timeline forward on your end.
We’d LOVE to hear more client perspectives on choosing a graphic design firm (SF location preferable, but we’re open to all). Please answer all the questions from this interview and connect with Stephanie Orma via LinkedIn. Thanks!
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