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How to Choose a Graphic Design Agency

Choosing a graphic design agency for your project can be a tricky task. There are so many options that you could spend the next year looking through different websites and portfolios, trying to make your mind up. There are agencies on your doorstep and agencies a million miles away. They all promise that they can get the job done for you. So, how do you make up your mind when it comes to picking one for your project?

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1. Outline Your Project

The first thing to do when it comes to any sort of design project is to jot down a basic outline.

What exactly does the project entail?

Maybe you’re a start up company and you have no idea where to start when it comes to the design side of the business. You know you need to get a logo designed. However, the chances are that your start up company will need more than just a logo design. If you don’t understand the difference between a logo design and branding, check out our article, What is Branding?

You may have had a logo and brand identity designed 5 years ago. However, business picked up and you never got around to having your business cards or letterheads designed and you’ve decided now is the time. Having at least some idea of what the project entails will help both you and your chosen agency.

What are the goals of the project?

Some people might say, the goal of the above project outline is “to make my start up look good.” However, this is flawed. The goal of “looking good” is subjective, and therefore, cannot be measured. For example, if you’re rebranding your existing company, you might set goals such as;

  • We want to rebrand to increase monthly sales by 10%
  • We want to increase recognition within [specific industry] using newly branded advertising. The increased recognition will be measured through our increased social media following.
  • Our new look website will increase monthly profits by £1000

Remember when setting goals for your project, that they should be S.M.A.R.T goals. Sustainable, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Example; “We will acquire 1000 new Twitter followers to promote our competition to win a new car to by July. This will help raise the brand awareness of our car garage.” Having 3 or 4 goals noted down for the project, will help your design agency understand the problems you’re facing and how they can help you.

Do you have a budget in mind?

At this early stage in the project, you might be unaware of the costs related to your project. Thankfully, there are plenty of articles online that can help give you initial figures and ideas. We’ve written a post about the cost of a logo design project. This will give you at least a ball park figure to get you thinking about your budget.

It’s important to have a sensible budget in mind for your project, as later in the process, it will help make clear which graphic design agencies do and don’t fit your requirements. Having a flexible budget is also a good idea because agencies can normally offer a variety of solutions, and your budget will allow them to offer you the right solution. It will also stop you worrying about budget creep and panicking that the final product might come in way over budget.

What is the deadline of the project?

Do you have a specific deadline that you need to meet? If you’re reading this now and wanting a rebrand finished tomorrow, you best be prepared for the budget that we discussed above, to be more than a little flexible. Being realistic with both your own and the design agencies time will help the project along and show respect and understanding on your part.

If you’re looking to launch your new brand of Christmas jumpers, don’t wait until December. Don’t even wait until Winter. Start getting the ball moving on the project in the latter stages of spring/early summer. Often a close stone solid deadline can have repercussions on the budget. If there’s a little more leeway, the budget might swing more favourably in your direction. Think hard and work with your chosen design agency, rather than against them.

2. Find Some Examples of Work That Reflects Your Business

Deciding on a style of design that reflects your business can be a tricky task. Before going to a design agency, it’s a good idea to form some sort of starting point. However, it’s important to remember that the best design for the job may not be to your personal taste. While you have to be comfortable with the work produced, think about the ultimate goals you set out in stage one. You have to try and put your personal feelings to one side and accept the fact that both yourself and your agency are going to be looking at what’s best for business.

Design Inspiration Banner

That said, collating thoughts and ideas about the sort of styles you like and don’t can be a great catalyst that gets the creative juices flowing. There are a number of great resources around the internet that are goldmines for great design and ideas. Have a look at;

  • Dribbble – A great resource populated by designers, posting “shots” (tiny snippets of their work.)
  • Pinterest – The newest social media giant, full of boards collated by designers and design enthusiasts.
  • Creattica – An inspiration gallery, sharing the best design, web design and print design around.
  • Under Consideration – A collection of websites featuring, branding, menu design and print design.

Don’t forget to think outside of the box (or machine in this case.) If you see anything inspiring when you’re on your travels, take a photo. Collect things, cut them up, make a mood board. You can easily scan or photograph a physical mood board later on in the process and share it with your chosen agency. If you choose a local agency, you could even take it with you when you meet them.

Are there any companies or brands that you admire?

Looking at companies you admire is a good idea and can help create a mental picture of what your brand is all about. For example, if you’re in the restaurant industry there is a huge variety in competitors, companies and brands. Are you trying to position yourself as a fast food restaurant/chain, or is your eatery a fine dining experience?

This sort of thing is really helpful to a creative agency and will really give them an idea of how to approach your project. Chances are, if you’re selling takeaway fried chicken, you’re not going to be wanting top of the line luxury business stationery. And on the flip side, if you’re all about the best quality Italian ingredients served to perfection, you won’t be wanting 5000 glossy A5 leaflets printed.

3. Search For Agencies

Now that you have a basic plan and some inspiration, it’s time to start searching for the perfect graphic design agency. Getting started in your search can be daunting. Simply typing “design agency” into Google will wield a vast array of fairly useless results. Let’s take a look at what you can do to help yourself.

Google Search

Like I mentioned, using a vague term such as “design agency” will wield less that successful results. Some of the results will be relevant, and that’s great, most of the others will be results for companies that are working for Disney, Hugo Boss, Proctor and Gamble and require budgets of £9,999,999,999,999. So unless you have that much to spend, I think it’s fairly safe to scratch those off the list.

Learning to use Google more effectively will help your search results. If you want to grab a coffee and shake hands with your design agency, you might want to add a location to your search. If you can deal with your designers via Skype, telephone or email, the whole world is opened up to you. It’s all about what you want at this stage in the project.

If your budget is a little tighter than you think may be required, try searching out of the main cities. Often design agencies in towns and villages have smaller overheads than those in cities and is sometimes reflected in the cost.

Investigate Dribbble

You might have had a good look around Dribbble earlier when you were putting together the inspiration for your project. Now is often a good time to go back to Dribbble and find out more about the people that made some of the work you’ve got bookmarked.

Focus Lab Hire Us Button

Often, Dribbble is used by freelancers, but it is also used by graphic designers that work at agencies, known on Dribbble as “Teams”. You can find out more by a designer by clicking through to their profile. They’ll often have links to the agency they work for on their page. Using Dribbble’s “Hire Us” button makes getting in touch with people super easy. Explore the work of those agencies and bookmark any that you could be interested in working with.

Ask Your “Inner Circle” and Acquaintances

Sometimes, the best way to find great designers to work on your project is by asking friends and family if they have recommendations. Throw up a status on Facebook and ask if anybody knows anyone. Check out the leads, it’s always good to help out friends and friends of friends (provided they fit the bill of course.)

Failing that, look into business acquaintances’ brand identities and websites, and if you admire them, get in touch and asked who was responsible for the design work. As a last resort, try Twitter, but be prepared to be inundated with mentions, messages, emails and phone calls from designers and agencies hoping to talk to you about your project. Sometimes this might work out, but personally, I prefer to search for the right people myself rather than let them come to me.

4. Check Out Their Websites and Portfolios

So you’ve 10-20 agencies that you like the look of. When you click through to their website, what are you looking for? Have a look over the following things;

Are they updating their site regularly?

Having a regularly updated portfolio in the design industry is a rarity. Sometimes projects are expansive and last 6 months, some lasting a year, some several years and some contracts go on a lifetime. That said, a design agency website should still show some signs of life. Whether that be blog posts (one a week, one a month – something) or an active Twitter feed, as long as you know the agency isn’t dead in the water, keep them on your shortlist.

Are they showing real testimonials?

This is a personal bug bear of mine. If a business has to falsify testimonials, there is something genuinely wrong. I’d rather see no testimonial at all than a fake one. Sometimes, they don’t even do a good job of faking it. “The project was really really good and we are so happy with the result.” That really isn’t what clients write, I mean some might, but probably not. If there are forgeries at this stage, just think about what else could go wrong.

If they have a handful of well written testimonials, that’s great. If there is some work on their site that you like, but you can’t find a testimonial by that client, you could try talking to the client directly. One of our clients did this lately and was so pleased with her findings that she hired us straight away.

Who have they worked for in the past?

The agencies you’ve found will have a vast array of work. It’s worth considering if they’ve done any work for companies similar to yours in the past. If they have, you could ask questions like; “How did your work directly benefit the company?” and “What are you going to ensure that my project is different?” Have they got any other projects that you imagine working well for your venture?

Do they work with reputable and respectable companies? Some agencies will have worked for Disney, but they may also have worked for Bob’s Bakery, the number one bakery in the whole UK. Don’t make the mistake of seeing the big name brands and automatically thinking that they are the best agency on the list. Think about the best results for your business.

Have a good poke around their websites. See if you can find any blog posts discussing their processes, ideas, methodologies or beliefs. It can sometimes be helpful to find out if there is any pricing information on their website too, because if the difference between your and their recommended budget is huge, there might not be any achievable middle ground. Therefore, cross them off the list.

5. Follow Them on Social Media

At this point, you’ll have significantly less names on your shortlist than you started with. For some reason along the way, you’ve discarded one or two, that’s the nature of the process. The next thing I would suggest you do, is follow the agencies that remain on social media.

Head on over to Twitter or Facebook (use a link on their site, or search for them) and monitor their activity. Are they active? Are they spamming people all of the time? Is what they’re posting relevant, great content? It’s handy to get a feel for the agency when they don’t expect you to be watching. Just call me James Bond.

While the social media activity of the company isn’t the be all and end all, it does help paint a picture of the sort of agency that you might be dealing with in the future. If they’re retweeting stupid things from spammy Twitter accounts, it’s probably worth noting that down. If they’re talking openly and honestly with clients, other companies and other Twitter associates, you could pitch in on the discussion and see how they respond.

6. Narrow Down The Selection

At this point, you’re going to have a clear idea of the sort of agency you want to deal with, and hopefully, your list is down to 5-10 different agencies, this is a sensible number. If you have any gut feelings one way or another, either cut, or prioritise that agency.

You might have a Brighton based agency and you’re based in Newcastle. If the Brighton agency aren’t outstanding, or one of the top two or three on your list, I’d suggest you think about cutting them in favour of a local provider, for no other reason than Brighton is miles away.

If you’ve tweeted to each of the agencies and some have replied and others haven’t, I’d take a look at shifting the priority of your list around. You might be involved in some heavy Twitter discussion about business with one of the agencies, if they seem keen and you like the way they approach business relations, move them up a few spaces.

From here, you should have a vague idea of who you want to make initial contact with. If you can, I would aim to contact 5 or 6 different agencies.

7. Make Initial Contact / Discuss The Project

Depending on the sort of person you are, you might decide that one method of communication suits you better than another. For me, I’ll always pick up the phone before doing anything else. It’s by far the quickest way of contact people, and if somebody will make time for you calling them, the chances are, you’ve found somebody that cares about your project.

So, pick up the phone or email the agencies that you decided on in step 6. If you’ve typed up your notes and collated your visual ideas into a Word document or have them on Dropbox (or similar, Evernote is also an amazing app) etc, you could try and email like this.

Dear Tony,

I’ve been following Canny Creative for a while now. I’ve been a frequent visitor to your site, looking through your blog and portfolio as well as your Twitter feed and it’s time to break the ice.

I run a restaurant over in Newcastle and we would love to work with Canny Creative on rebranding the place and getting a shiny new website put in place.

Is this something you’re interested in? Do you have the capacity to take on a project like this currently?

We have collated our thoughts in a Word document and have some inspiration in a Dropbox folder. If you would like to have a look over it, please advise me what to do next.

Many thanks,
Mario (Simply Italian)
mario@simplyitalian.com
0191 123 456

I would always recommend leaving both your phone number and email address. Whatever happens, it makes the lines of communication quicker and easier in the future. Sending a breaking the ice email will yield one of several responses.

  • No response at all – Scratch them off the list. If they can be bothered to reply, you don’t want to work with them.
  • A polite decline – Sometimes an agency will be either too busy, or, not interested in the project. No harm done.
  • An email back – If their interest is piqued, they might want to read through the document and will email you back as requested.
  • A phone call – When the phone goes, you know they’re interested. If the phone goes the same day you send the email, they’re really interested.

Don’t just give the work to the first agency to get back to you. Assuming you contact them on a Monday, they will be busy with their current clients and other things they have to do. Give each agency the full working week to reply. I think any longer than 5 working days is too long to reply to a mail, and it’s fairly safe to assume they’re not interested in your project.

The key to making the decision, is seeing which of your agencies you connect with best. If you get a bog standard admin email back “Yes, we’re interested, send the documents” then, yes, they may be interested, but it’s not the same as a Creative Director picking up the phone and having a good conversation and chat through the project with you.

Remember to ask things like “What can you do with my budget?” and “How have you helped other businesses like mine grow in the past?” These are the key questions to unlocking doors and it will help make your decision a lot easier. They might fire back at you with something slightly more expensive than the budget you had in mind. If it’s a big difference you might feel uneasy, but if you really want to work with this agency, ask if they’re flexible, see what they can do for you on the price and on the payment schedule.

Another important thing to ask is; “Can I have a look over your Terms and Conditions document?” Make sure that at the end of the project, you’ll have the rights to use the artwork in whichever way you see fit, and that you don’t have to license it from the agency. Ask a legal professional or another business associate to look over this with you.

8. Step Back

Before making any decisions about where to place the work, step back from the whole situation. Even if it’s just for a day, ignore the whole scenario, don’t talk about it, don’t open emails or look at design work. Then, once you’re feeling refreshed, go back to it and see if the decisions you’ve made up until this point had been correct.

At this point, I would also get a close friend or family member that knows you and your business inside out, to sit with you and ask you questions about the choices you’ve made to date. This way, you can be sure that your logic stands up to scrutiny and go into the final decision with confidence.

9. Compare Responses and Make Decisions

Accept Your Design Agency

Once you have; compared the responses, made sure your budgets match up, checked over the terms and conditions, talked to the agencies and had a good think about it, you should have a fairly good idea of where you want to place the work. At this point, reaffirm your decision by calling the agency back for another chat, or perhaps arranging a meeting.

Before putting the work to them, ask who will be managing your account and how many people will be working on your project. If you’re unsure why a team of 10 are working on your project, ask. Ask to meet the team that will be involved in your project. Is all of their work done in house? Ask a lot of questions.

Once you’re 100% confident in your decision, let your chosen graphic design agency know, and they’ll advise you what to do next. At this point, it’s polite to let the other agencies you’ve been in contact with that you’ve decided to place the work elsewhere. You might get asked why. At Canny Creative, we make a point of trying to find out why we lost out on clients so we can improve our process for the next time!

10. Build a Relationship

We firmly believe that the best design comes from the best relationships. Over the last year or two, we’ve built great relationships with our clients such as SkiTracer, SureWind and The Neutral Corner. They come back to us on a regular basis with more work and we love hearing from them because it’s like catching up with friends.

Down the line, if you need a new poster designed, or you’re redesigning your restaurant menu and you were pleased with the quality of work you received, go back to them. Great relationships yield great results and it never harms to go out for a beer or a coffee together. Eventually, you should find yourself using your design agency as a business partner, rather than “something that needs doing.”

Can your chosen agency help market your business? Will they feature your project on their website and use you as a case study? All of this adds to the exposure of your brand and it’s well worth asking if they plan on using you as a portfolio example in the future. If they are, be prepared to offer up a testimonial about the project. It’s also worth asking your design agency if they can source or provide your print work for you. If they’ve designed the artwork, chances are, they’re going to be able to get a better result than a random low-cost print supplier.

Building a relationship with a client is always rewarding and it really does make for the best design work. We love working with our clients that love working with us.

And that’s all there is to it! Follow the steps above and you should be running home and free with a great graphic design agency onboard of your project. Do you have any experiences to share? How has your chosen design agency helped your brand? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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