7 Qualities to Look for in a Design Partner

7 Qualities to Look for in a Design Partner

Staffing an entire in-house marketing or communications department requires a level of investment and commitment that’s just not feasible or copasetic with the business model of many forward-thinking businesses and organizations. Partnering with an outside agency or freelancers can offer the best of both worlds—the intimacy and responsiveness of an in-house department, with the flexibility, expertise and outside perspective of a specialized brand agency. The key is finding a creative partner who understands the unique communication challenges that businesses and organizations focused on social and environmental issues face. Complex and innovative concepts, diverse constituents, team members scattered across the country or globe and language or cultural barriers all impact how messages are generated and delivered to your audiences.

With the right creative partner, you can have a business image and marketing materials that clearly communicate your value and purpose to your audience in a compelling way. In addition, working with the right creative partner can be much more efficient and economical than you may realize.

Among brand and design agencies, both large and small, freelancers and creative temp staffing agencies, how do you find the right fit? We’ve found that the following attributes have contributed to our success in partnering with values-focused businesses and organizations. Consider these factors when evaluating prospective marketing and design partners to optimize your return on marketing and communications investments.

Quality 1 Shares common ground

Any design partnership will require an investment of time. Ideally, this investment pays off with a long-term relationship where the workflow is smooth and you have absolute trust in the design team’s ability to deliver what’s needed. Choosing a team who already shares some of the values and interests about which you communicate can save months or even years of relationship building. When evaluating whether a creative agency is a good cultural fit, ask yourself:

  • Have they done work for other clients in a similar space?
  • Do their education, background, or personal interests overlap with my industry?
  • Who are the creatives as people? Are they tuned in to the same types of messages as me and my audience?
  • Do their values align with those of my business? Do they seem genuinely interested in learning more about what I do?

You’ll be paying, in part, for this team to become familiar with the cultural and visual landscape in which you communicate. If you already share some common ground then you’re paying for more focused and ultimately more effective work. Besides, it’s more fun.

A sustainability consultant we often work with hired us to collaborate on the development of tourism website for their client, a large international NGO. Being avid world travelers ourselves, we could approach the project from the perspective of the target audience. On a practical level this meant considering all the things that we as potential visitors to this location would want to get out of the website. Our personal interest in the subject matter helped us to delve immediately into a level of subtlety that exposed the need to make a strategic choice about which part of the tourism story to emphasize. Our inherent understanding of what travelers are looking for allowed us to mediate the interests of our client, their client and the end-consumer to create a successful interactive experience for both visitors and the website administrators.

Quality 2 Can think analytically and clarify the complex

People don’t always think of turning to a brand or marketing agency for informative projects. Admittedly, many creatives are not into left-brain disciplines like math and science. However, some creatives are highly analytical and actually specialize in communicating both qualitative and quantitative information in visual form. Think about the ways in which your business or organization relies on educating others. If your work involves displaying data or complex information then a designer who has a solid grasp on the principles of information design is a huge asset. Ask yourself:

  • Does my prospective design partner have any specialized training, experience, or philosophy toward informative work?
  • Can they show me examples of graphs, charts, maps, or process diagrams and talk about the context in which they were created?
  • Do they have a professional background, interest, or education in math or science in addition to graphic design?

With strong skills in general design and communication principles, an information designer can strike the appropriate balance among clarity, aesthetics, and brand strategy. For example, one of our clients publishes an annual report for policymakers and educators about developments in online learning. For the most recent report they wanted to add more richness and complexity to the data, but they weren’t sure what information to include or how to present it. We provided the client with a variety of mock-ups for how graphs, maps, and charts could best accommodate different types of information, and each was accompanied by an explanation of the pros and cons grounded in Edward Tufte’s principles of information design.

The client was able to share our presentation with other project stakeholders which helped to facilitate more informed discussion and consensus about what data to include and how to display it. The end result was a series of information graphics that presented the report’s key quantitative data clearly, succinctly and beautifully. Because these graphics capture the data so well, our client and others in their industry use these images independently of the report which in turn, has allowed the information to extend well beyond the scope of the annual publication.

Quality 3 Takes a holistic perspective

The ideal creative team will seek to understand the goals of your business or organization and how their work fits into the big picture. They’ll ask a lot of questions so they get to know your audience and your operating space. They’ll produce solutions that are designed with those factors in mind, and they’ll be prepared to explain the rationale so you can evaluate it objectively. With a clear view of your objectives within the context of the market, they can recommend approaches that are best suited for you or discourage the development of materials that won’t serve your purpose.

Designers are notorious for just wanting things to look pretty or following their own aesthetic preferences. The fact is, great creative work does require some time with a head in the clouds, but while up there, a qualified design professional is also getting a better view of the landscape.

Quality 4 Enjoys the collaborative process

The right creative will understand and appreciate the unique skills that your team brings to the table just as you do theirs. They’ve checked their egos at the door and are ready to really listen your input and consider your ideas. They work well with your team and other services providers you contract with. They can also adapt their design process to your workflow. An open-minded and mutually respectful approach is key to capitalizing on the resources that are available. The magic of collaboration can produce exceptional results.

One of our clients in the sustainability consulting industry is a mid-size company that has a small in-house marketing department but no professionally trained designers on staff. We’ve been working with them for years and they consider us part of their marketing team, like co-workers whose offices happen to be off-site. Both parties contribute equally to the creative direction for various materials and all of us on the team bring a different set of skills to the table such as project management, client relations, design, and technical production. Together we have developed customized collateral packages for a number of their larger, high profile business customers and our collaboration has enabled our client to provide these customers a more robust level of service.

Quality 5 Has a clearly defined structure

The process of turning ideas into tangible items like websites and publications is not always a simple task. In addition, large projects like a brand identity overhaul or a 200-page website can have a lot of moving parts. You’ve got moving parts of your own to deal with so you need a creative partner that can proactively take the project lead and has a clearly articulated process for arriving at solutions. When there’s clearly defined structure you know what’s expected of you and what will happen when. Structure provides a measure of peace and relaxation. It also ensures that projects run smoothly and efficiently and this ultimately means less waste in time, human resources and money.

At the same time, the structure of your working relationship with your designer should allow for flexibility. Things come up, priorities shift or someone new enters the marketplace that requires an immediate response. Your creative partner should be able to quickly adapt to changes in business objectives or project scope. But having a good structure in place is like having a road map. You may take any number of detours and side roads but you still know where you’re going.

Quality 6 Is responsive and dependable

Do you feel comfortable having an open and honest dialogue with your design team? Communication is key to an enjoyable and successful relationship with your creative partner. If concerns arise about how the project is going or you have negative feedback about a particular design concept, you should be able to discuss these issues frankly with your creative team. Your ideal creative partner will be receptive to your ideas and responsive in action.

Being responsive to requests and dependably delivering the goods when needed is what can make an outside agency feel like in-house staff. Sometimes just knowing that you have your trusty and reliable design partner there is all the confidence you need to engage in projects where you might need their services, whether or not you actually end up using them. Some things to think about:

  • When you call or email your designer, do they get back to you in a timely manner?
  • Do they meet your deadlines and provide the deliverables they agreed to?
  • Can you trust them with confidential or proprietary information?
  • Do they consistently make all of the revisions as you’ve requested? Or do they regularly miss some? (It can be particularly annoying and a big time waster when they often miss a few of the edits that you painstakingly wrote up and you have to request them again.)

A long-time client of ours recently learned that an internationally renowned travel industry leader was going to award one of their adventure travel tours with a distinctive recognition. The client needed to completely redesign their website homepage and refresh their overall site in order to re-focus the company’s product offerings, capitalize on the prestigious recognition and anticipated increase in traffic. And they needed this done immediately — the press release was going out in a week. We were able to redistribute our workload to push the project through rapidly, and we went live with the updated site just in time for the awards announcement.

Quality 7 Wants you to be self-sufficient

Finally, a design partner that is truly interested in your long-term success will understand that eventually the relationship will end. (Don’t worry—we can still be friends!) In fact, a design partner should be actively moving you toward all your future goals, and if that includes self-sufficiency with communications then it’s their job to help you plan for it. Your business may not require the same level of engagement after some of the initial work is done. Your internal staff may grow or expand their knowledge to be able to handle the ongoing updates of some existing collateral. Consider the following:

  • What is the designer’s policy about sharing source files and archives?
  • Are they open to providing templates that your staff can use, and will they objectively advise you about when it may or may not be most efficient to do so?
  • Do you have ownership over the materials they have created for you?
  • What kinds of tools can they provide for you that will keep working long after they’re gone?
  • Do they provide training for internal staff, for example on how to make website  updates or manage visual assets?
Self-sufficiency is a critical aspect of having sustainable marketing communications. There are all kinds of ways that creative firms can empower you to move forward with or without them. When it’s a good fit you will make decisions together based on your organization’s best interest.

A marketing and design partner with these seven characteristics can be an indispensable team member with whom contracting design services is actually more efficient and economical than you may think. When facing the various communication challenges inherent to the kind of work values-focused businesses and organizations do, the right creative partner can help you bridge the gap between strategy and creative to empower your work with greater impact to your audience. We hope this report has given you some valuable insight to inform your search for the best creative partner.