How to hire a design agency

The less obvious questions you never thought to ask

So, you’re looking to hire a design or digital agency for a project. Maybe you’re an experienced marketing manager or maybe you’re an entrepreneur on your first venture. After considering a few options, you’ve found a service provider with a great portfolio, a solid proposal, and good people at the company. What could go wrong?

Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked with many companies, including small businesses, non-profit organizations, and large multinational companies. I’ve worked on a variety of projects, ranging from brand design and marketing campaigns to websites and apps. I’m often approached by clients who’ve had some unfortunate past experiences with designers and other service providers. And over the years, I’ve begun to notice a pattern emerge from these experiences. By providing some insight, I hope to help businesses make the best hiring decisions the first time around. Some relevant due diligence questions can help save your company a lot of added stress and costs down the line.

First, let’s cover the obvious questions. These are the ones that should be addressed in the service provider’s proposal: What is the best way to go about the project? What steps are involved in the process? What is the timeline for getting it done? What platform should we use? How much will it cost? These are all basic and important questions that you should ask. But what else do you need to know before you make a decision?

Here are the less obvious questions you should ask when hiring a design or digital agency, along with some advice for a better work experience all around.

🔎 What exactly am I getting?

This sounds like a no-brainer, but too often I’ve seen issues arise from uncommunicated assumptions made by either party involved in a project. This happens when something is so obvious to one party that they don’t even consciously think about it. Incidentally, it’s also something so obscure to the other party that they never thought to ask. As these two parties work together, they may run into a snag.

Here’s an example: A company I know once hired an illustrator for a marketing campaign. The company assumed that the completed work would arrive in the form of a vector file that could be altered as needed to fit each piece in the campaign. What they didn’t realize, until the courier showed up, was that they were getting a real-life painting rather than a digital file! The company ended up having to spend extra money on a photographer to shoot the painting, and additional design hours on formatting it to fit the dimensions of the campaign elements.

When you hire any creative service provider, it’s important that you know exactly what you’re getting. It may seem obvious to you, but always ask what form or format the final deliverable will arrive in. Better safe than over budget.

🤔 Who owns the work?

When you hire a creative person, whether it be a designer, photographer or tech company, it doesn’t mean that you automatically own the work or have exclusive, unlimited rights to it.

Ideally, this should all be explained in your agreement. If the service provider retains ownership of the work, can you still use it however you wish in perpetuity for a one-time fee? Are there any limitations on how you may use the work on or offline? Do you have exclusive rights to the work, or could the service provider also sell it to other clients and distributors?

For most projects I work on, once they’re paid for in full, I transfer ownership to the client, and they can do whatever they want with it. While I find this is the most convenient approach for my business, I recognize it may not be suitable for everyone in the creative industry. This is why I recommend simply asking your service provider what their policy is, and then consider how that may affect your current and future business needs.

📷 Where do you get your images and fonts from?

Image and font copyright infringement are some of the most common issues I’ve seen in the industry. That’s why it’s important to know where your service provider gets its resources from. More specifically, you want to know whether:

a) the images and fonts used in your project are licensed;

b) you are licensed to use the images and fonts separately, or if the license only allows you to use the completed project as is; and

c) there are any other restrictions on that license.

In short: Fonts are software, and licensing fees to use it range from less than $20 to hundreds of dollars. Unless the fonts you’re using are free for commercial use, you must purchase a license to use font software. Similarly, if you’re going to use images in your project, you can’t just take any image off a Google search and use it commercially (I’ve seen this done a shocking number of times). If you’re using stock images, make sure they’re licensed for your particular usage. There may be restrictions on how many people may use the licensed images and fonts, and how many printed or online impressions are allowed before you have to pay additional fees. This can become difficult to keep track of, especially if your service provider has licensed these resources to itself and proceeded to use them on multiple projects. I recommend reading the stock image company or font vendor’s EULA (End-User License Agreement) to make sure you have the correct license for your usage.

Further reading: The font issue | The stock image issue

✏️ Will a copywriter be involved in the project?

I have never seen a corner cut more often than here. Sometimes it’s a procedural oversight, while other times there’s literally no one on staff to handle the copy. You wouldn’t hire an amateur to design your communication materials, so why would you have an amateur write your communication materials? Because that’s what you’re getting if you don’t hire a copywriter! I’ve seen misspelled “sign up” buttons on live websites that read “sing up.” I’ve seen company names misspelled on their own printed materials.

It can be costly to reprint materials or pull a digital ad, and in some cases it may not be possible to do so. But the cost isn’t always monetary. What do these mistakes say about your brand? Poor writing can make your company look unprofessional or like you just don’t care. It’s strange how many of us don’t often think about copy, but when mistakes happen, it can ruin a relationship.

I believe copywriting, editing and proofreading should be part of the process for everything your company produces that has text in it, whether it’s a lengthy report, a brochure, or even a simple business card.

The bottom line: Make sure a copywriter is involved, whether on your end as the client or on your agency’s end. Review everything before it goes out. This can save you trouble, costs and embarrassment in the future.

Further reading: 4 Quick proofreading tips for businesses

🙋‍♀️ Who, specifically, is going to work on the project?

When you’re interviewing a design or digital agency, you’re probably meeting with its most senior staff, but they’re not necessarily the ones who will work on your project. In fact, they rarely are. Would you still hire the agency if you knew they had their least experienced staff or interns working on your project? They may do a fantastic job, but wouldn’t you like to know? Ask how many people will be working on your project and who they are. Are they in-house staff or will the work be outsourced? Does the team really seem interested in your business and industry? Ask what the agency is currently working on and how many projects they take on at a time. Try to get a sense of how much of a priority your project will be. You don’t want to work with an agency that takes on too much work and spreads itself thin. Remember, it’s better to have one or two people focused on your project, than five or six people who won’t (or can’t) give it the attention it deserves. This leads me to my next point, which is really just a bit of advice.

⚖️ Weigh out your options

This is more of a question you should ask yourself — Have I considered all of my options? Many people believe that just because they work at a large company, their design agency should be a large company as well. Sometimes it works out perfectly — you get the most senior staff collaborating on your project and all the account support the agency has to offer. If you’re in this situation, that’s awesome! Other times, despite having this big team, the results aren’t so great. Why is that?

At the end of the day, what matters is who’s doing the work, how much they currently have on their plate, and most importantly, how much they care.

💔 What happens if I need to cancel the project?

Ideally, you would have met with the design or digital agency and learned about their approach and process to see if they would be a good fit for your business. However, despite your due diligence, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Maybe your business needs change, and a project you’ve started working on becomes obsolete. At other times, you may want to cancel because the level of service or quality is not what you had expected or there are incompatible personalities in the mix.

That’s why you must have a clear understanding of what happens if you (or the service provider) must cancel a project. Any financial or procedural obligations should be detailed in your agreement before you begin. Agencies typically charge a deposit to get started, but the terms for ending a project can vary. I know agencies that charge a “kill fee” to end a project before completion. Some charge for the full cost of the project, while others charge only for the work they have completed until the time of cancellation.

💆‍♀️Keep your emotions in check

It’s easy to get emotionally invested in a project, especially if you’re an entrepreneur and this is your first venture. And you should! Your brand is the face of your company. It can be an important factor in determining the success of your business — your livelihood. Similarly, if you’re a marketing or product manager trying to make your mark in the company, whom you hire can make an impact. Throw in pressing deadlines, important decisions, and emotions could run high when you’re in the thick of things. This could lead to communication breakdowns and an unhappy work environment for everyone involved. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and take a breath. Before you send an angry email, take a step back and think about what you’re really trying to achieve. Communication can be time-consuming, so take the time to do it well. If you’re still not getting what you’ve asked for, try being more direct and clarify what you want, perhaps in person or over the phone. On the flip side, don’t hold back or be afraid to hurt somebody’s feelings. You hired them to do a job, and they probably want to succeed just as much as you do.

🔗 Have a review process and stick to it

Even the best agency with the best intentions can still make mistakes. Make sure you review the work thoroughly before using, even if a small change was made at the last minute. I know it’s tempting to just approve and launch, but that’s how mistakes slip through. It’s not just spelling mistakes — I’ve seen printing issues because no one reviewed a sample, and poorly executed ideas that compromise a brand’s image. I’ve won the business of clients who’ve parted ways with agencies for mistakes like these. Ultimately, this work represents your company, and you have to answer for it. So make sure you implement your own internal review and approval process each time.

🚀 Parting words

You have a lot on the line, and that’s why it’s important to do your due diligence in hiring. Be thorough. Remember, there are no stupid questions. If someone makes you feel like you’re asking a stupid question or is short with you, perhaps it’s not the right fit. Don’t work with someone you don’t feel comfortable with, even if their portfolio is amazing. I’ve had to learn this lesson with people I’ve hired over the years as well. But also keep in mind that just as you are selective with whom you hire, great designers are also selective with the clients or projects they take on. I believe in long-term client relationships, and the key is in collaboration and partnership. Working together is a journey and it should be enjoyable, even in the most demanding of circumstances. If you work together as partners, the outcome will be even more successful for having been influenced by what the designer and client have each brought to the table.


Thanks for reading!

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