Executive Education

Before You Hire a Design Firm, Ask These 4 Questions

If you’re a big company with deep pockets looking to design a new product or service, you could consider building an in-house design team. But even for the biggest companies, putting the right team together is going to take a significant amount of time. And it’s not going to come cheap.

Luckily, there’s another option available: partnering with a design firm. Often, these firms can operate more efficiently and deliver the quality of work necessary for a successful product or service launch. Their work can have far-reaching, positive effects on your overall business, too.

For instance, when my firm worked with Exelon, an energy company, the goal of the partnership was relatively simple. We were to help raise awareness of energy consumption and the concept of a carbon footprint. We accomplished that, but we also accelerated innovation and uncovered new areas of revenue optimization and entirely new revenue channels — all with minimal impact on the business.

An Uphill Climb

Deciding whether to keep a project in-house or outsource it is a big decision. First, let’s talk about the challenges facing large companies that set about building an internal design team. The first major hurdle is finding talent. What hiring managers at many of these companies find is that the talent they want to acquire isn’t always looking for what they have to offer — even if that offer includes a lot of zeros at the end.

Here’s the hard truth: The idea of joining a large bureaucratic organization just doesn’t appeal to many top designers. Younger talent, especially, will often assume that large venerable corporations lack the culture, vision, and variety of opportunities that smaller specialized firms can offer. A higher salary won’t always negate these concerns.

Moreover, your geographic location matters. If you’re Snapchat in Los Angeles or United Airlines in Chicago, that’s a good thing. But if you’re not in a city with a strong network of top talent, good luck.
Finally, building an effective design team is a full-time job that won’t happen overnight. Trying to simultaneously focus on designing a new product or service is going to result in a lot of wasted time and money, and both efforts will suffer for it.

Call in the Experts

While building an in-house team is typically viewed as an investment, outsourcing work is often seen as an expense — and, thus, a last resort. This is a popular and often expensive fallacy.

A $5 million retainer, though it may sound massive, will ultimately cost you less than the institutional drag and the personnel expenses that you’ll have to overcome just to put an in-house team in place.

Implementing the practices and processes that will turn your in-house department into an agile design team takes years. If you’re a big corporation competing with other big corporations and a growing number of fast-moving, innovative startups, you typically don’t have the time to develop a competitive advantage.

You need one now.

A mutually beneficial partnership with a smaller specialized firm can provide exactly that. But before you can pick the right partner, you must know what to look for. Here are four questions to keep in mind during your search:

  1. Are you ready for a partnership?

As you assess your current capabilities and available resources, consider what you’ll need to get the most out of a potential relationship.

Do you have a C-level employee who can take ownership of that relationship? How will that person be held accountable? This is a critical designation, so give it the right amount of thought. At the end of the day, one person needs to be responsible for ensuring the partnership delivers impact to investors, shareholders, and clients.

  1. How will the relationship be developed?

A mutually beneficial partnership isn’t agreed upon and then forgotten. You’ll be co-opting a critical business function into your corporate structure, and you need to be able to trust whoever will be carrying it out.

You should also be completely clear about the role you want your partner to play. As the leader of your firm, you own the strategy. You own the vision. The job of a partner firm is to help execute it.

  1. Are they proven problem solvers?

My design firm confidently stands behind the statement “prototypes over presentations” because, quite frankly, presentations can be misleading. Prototypes give you a real glimpse of creativity and capabilities and can demonstrate a firm’s ability to work quickly.

You’ll want a partner that works in small teams that can easily embed themselves within your structure. If they simply throw bodies at a problem, it’s not going to work. A team of four to five people working in eight- to 12-week timelines is typically sufficient to advance a project at a reasonable pace. When the numbers start getting bigger, run for the hills.

  1. Is there a cultural fit?

When you’re meeting with a potential partner, you want to feel like you’re speaking the same language. Can you relate on a personal level?
This really matters because you’ll be hiring more than just a name or a brand; you’ll be entering a relationship with a group of people. Look at the individual designers and researchers you’ll be counting on to help solve your most important challenges, and imagine them working with your own team. Will they listen? Will they be empathetic? Will they embrace your vision, values, and culture? If the answer is “yes,” you have the foundation for a fantastic relationship.

Innovation requires action, and when you hire an external team, you’re making a commitment to take action. As a business leader, when you’re faced with the choice of outsourcing work or developing an in-house team to take it on, it can be tempting to look at your options in terms of investments and expenses. The reality is that the right partner can drive innovation and impact for your business in a way that no in-house team can. When it’s all done, you’ll have more time, energy, and money to invest in what you do best.

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Shanon Marks
Shanon Marks, president of MU/DAI, simplifies technology through design with his team. Their work makes technology more effective and usable. When Shanon isn't working, he can be found flying a small plane or surfing at his favorite break.