How to hire a design agency: The 4 P's

Finding the right design agency for your project is like dating. It can be confusing, time consuming, nerve-wracking. The 4 P’s are a guide to help you find the right fit.

1. People

Do we make a good team?

For us at Foossa, a design relationship means more than providing quality service, it is a true partnership and an act of co-creation. That means putting people first.

Do we get along? How do you make me feel when we work together? Can I depend on you when the going gets tough? How can we grow together? These are questions you should ask yourself about your potential design collaborator. We ask ourselves the same questions about our prospective clients.

The design process can be intensely intimate and emotional. It’s ok, and probably a good thing, to disagree at times and have creative conflicts—in fact, they can often lead to new insights and breakthroughs. While we needn’t agree all the time, we need to approach conflicts with respect, confidence, and the shared goal of ultimately making the design better.

A seasoned venture capitalist once told me that he invests in people with potential over “big idea” products. Companies pivot and products change with the circumstances, but the success of a startup often depends on the strength of the team: their abilities, their character, and their ability to adapt. Design is also an investment, so it is important to focus on the team.

2. Portfolio

What’s the story behind the solution?

When we look at design portfolios, especially for visual design, we often rush to make snap judgements: That’s awesome. I like it. That’s ugly. I don’t get it.

Flashy portfolios with engaging, high-quality visuals signal designers’ technical capabilities, attention to detail, and sense of style. But for the most part, portfolios are more about “selling the sizzle.” To get to the steak, ask about the stories behind the design process. Move from the “what” to the “why.” How was the design problem articulated and then solved? Why were certain design choices made?

Think about portfolios as an extension of a resume. Just as the purpose of a resume is to get an interview, the goal of a portfolio is to inspire curiosity and to spark conversation. Through this conversation, we can get to know each other as people and understand our mutual needs.

3. Process

What are we getting ourselves into?

The design process is messy and complicated, so agencies will often standardize and “brand” their process to make it easier to market and manage their work.

As a marketing tool, a standardized process helps “productize” an agency’s offering and manage client expectations. For example, IDEO has positioned itself around human-centered design as a branded design methodology and codified the process into a three phase framework: Hear, Create, and Deliver. A formalized process can also turn “creative chaos” into something more concrete, predictable, and palatable for clients and design practitioners.

As a project management tool, a standardized process helps us tame complexity and create consistency, just as an assembly line breaks down a complex manufacturing process into small, incremental steps.

Sometimes the design process is visualized as a project manager’s timeline that shows stages, key milestones and deadlines. The design process also often appears as a wheel or a loop to reflect its iterative nature.

Other clever illustrations of the design process use the visual metaphor of a snakes-and-ladders type board game or the layers of an iceberg combined with the trajectory of cute penguins.

These are all helpful ways of flattening a complex and multidimensional process. But, like all models, that clarity has a tendency to simplify. In reality, the design process looks more like this:

The  Process of Design Squiggle  by Damien Newman, Central Office of Design is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, Central Office of Design is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The initial work is marked by exploration/wandering—intentionally getting lost in the thicket of ideas and questions to explore their associations. This period of uncertainty allows us to explore relationships between ideas and intuit the patterns and currents that shape a design problem. Uncertainty ultimately gives way to clarity as we refine concepts together over time.

So what’s our process at Foossa? It looks something like the squiggle, but with a path that is uniquely yours. We will embrace the entropy and navigate it together. In the wise words of Bruce Lee:

There is no fixed teaching. All I can provide is an appropriate medicine for a particular ailment.

4. Price

What is the value of design?

How much does a brand identity cost? Or a website?

It depends. You can buy a logo online for $19.95 or put a up site on a free blogging service. Or you can pay five to six figures for designs that are thoroughly researched and custom crafted for you.

Perhaps a better question is, what kind of value do you seek to get from design?

Designers work within a context shaped by constraints, such as time, materials, technical capacity, competing goals, and money. That’s why it is helpful for us to understand the constraints from the beginning.

So whenever possible, share your budget range with your prospective designers. This not only helps us to better scope our work, but a clear understanding of the constraints frees us to be more creative with the resources at hand.

Bring it back to people

Community-centered design starts and ends with people. Let’s start with a conversation and see how we can help. We are happy to show more examples of our portfolio and to sketch out the process that makes the most sense for our collaboration.

Additional References

Hiring a designer: how to review portfolios by Chad Thornton, Designer, Airbnb

How to choose the right design agency for your startup by Mike Buzzard, Business/Design Partner Manager, Google

Lee-Sean Huang