Design Agencies — What’s Normal?

A high-level guide for founders, entrepreneurs and investors on vetting design agencies.

I work with a lot of startups and small businesses that are often at the crossroads of making key choices in their business about executing design. As a result, I get a lot of questions about design agencies, like “Should I hire an agency or is it better to hire a freelancer or in-house team? What’s it like to work with an agency? What’s the process? What’s normal?”

Through the years, I’ve worked in-house, freelance, and yes — at many, many agencies as well.

The answer for whether or not to work with an agency is complex and is different for every company; there is no one-size-fits-all answer. I can, however, offer a few pointers that will help you more effectively vet agencies should you choose to go that route.

Scoping

Normal: An Interview Phase

Just as clients need to vet potential agency collaborators, agencies also need to vet potential projects. This means that when you reach out to an agency, you should expect a dialog to begin. Each project will have different requirements from a design, development, and execution standpoint, so don’t expect ballpark cost ranges. It really does vary quite dramatically project-by-project and there are lots of factors at play.*

A thorough agency will want to have a phone call or meet in person to ask you about your business and gain insights from your team. They’ll ask about what you’re hoping to achieve, and then ask more detailed questions that will inform how they scope (i.e. come up with timelines & cost) the project. After they’ve had sufficient conversations with you, they’ll draft a proposal.

The more information an agency receives up front, the more precise (hopefully!) their proposal will be.

Not Normal: Hasty Proposals

Be wary of any agencies that respond to you with pricing and details within a few hours of first contacting them/without an initial conversation. While your instinct might be to appreciate their quick response, this is actually dangerous.

An agency that gives you an uninformed estimate is more likely to overcharge you.

Because they didn’t ask enough detailed questions up front, the odds are good that they’ll either 1) pad the project unnecessarily to cover scenarios that are unlikely to happen or 2) not charge enough and then need more money once you’ve already signed off/have already begun the project.*

Even worse, a hasty proposal/cost estimate is a sign that the agency you contacted is not interested in a dialog. If they don’t seem interested in communicating up front, it’s hard to envision them as a partner who cares enough to collaborate and continue the dialog throughout the project.

Communication style

Normal: A Collaborative, Respectful Team

It’s important that if you choose to use an agency, you choose one that makes you feel truly heard, understood and respected.

Agencies should empower you to feel comfortable asking questions, learning as you go, and at times being vulnerable/out of your element.

You don’t want your agencies to be “yes men” who act on your orders (otherwise, why hire them for their expertise?), but you also don’t want an agency that makes you feel stupid. Find people you enjoy being around and who take time to answer your questions thoughtfully and respectfully. They should also be able to articulate their thought process behind design decisions and communicate design nuances.

If you’re in the process of hiring an agency, a great exercise to try out is to ask a philosophical question (for instance… “Should I consider using Shopify for my site?”) and see how they respond. If you get a “yes” or “no” with no further elaboration (or a curt 1-sentence response), be wary. Instead, you should look for people who answer these questions like “Yes, because….{X, Y, Z, historical examples, experience, anecdotes, etc}.”

Not Normal: Bullies & Aggressive Behavior

Agencies can be highly competitive work environments, and people who work agency-side start on a new project almost every two weeks. Sometimes, this can be a recipe for jaded, impatient, and/or aggressive attitudes.

While it might be true that design agencies have more design experience than you, they should still listen to your feedback and respond in a way that’s authoritative yet respectful.

If they disagree with your feedback, they owe it to you to explain why they disagree and explain how their experience has shaped their view. They should also communicate that they understand where you’re coming from and be respectful of your opinion, but thoughtfully suggest something else. Be careful to not let them steamroll you, pressure you to change your opinion, or dismiss your feedback entirely.

You never want to feel pushed into a corner on a decision — if they win the argument through intimidation, you’ll never feel happy with the outcome.

Similarly, make sure that whoever you’re going to work with respects your time and your timelines. If they promise to deliver something on Friday and instead deliver it on Tuesday, this is a red flag. Once or twice is understandable, but over many instances this can become a toxic working pattern (not to mention that it pushes your important milestones & timelines!).

Though it’s hard to gauge up-front if an agency will respect your time & timelines, one thing you can do as a test is to politely request something (for instance, the initial proposal) to be completed by a particular day.* Their response will tell you a lot.

If their response is, “Sure, we’ll give it to you by that date” and then they send it five days after it was due, that’s an issue. You should also be concerned if you get a response along the lines of “No, we’re too busy. We’ll get it to you in 5 days.” A better agency would either 1) deliver on your timeline or 2) politely request some leeway and set expectations. (e.g. “Would you be open to us sending this 5 days later? We are just a little tight on resources right now to pull this together by the date you requested.”)

Team structure

Normal: Meeting the Team

When you are considering working with an agency, be cognizant of who you are introduced to in the kickoff meetings.

Ask very specifically if these people are the ones that will be not only be “on” the project, but actively producing the work.

For example, if you meet a “Lead UX designer”, ask this person if he or she will be the person making the wireframes.

If they are not the ones producing the work, ask whether or not you will be working directly with those people later on. This will give you a sense of whether the people you’re talking to are mere points of contact/project leads or if they’re actively involved in the work.

Not Normal: Smoke and mirrors

You should be wary if, in initial meetings, there are lots of people at the table but no one is there who will actually be producing the work. If the person doing the work has a seat at the table during presentations, you have a higher chance of success that your feedback will be understood and properly executed.

If there are lots of layers of people within a company structure,* feedback can be misconstrued as it passes internally from one person to the next, and it can take longer to implement.

For companies with lots and lots of people, the projects are usually structured like this: There are people who produce the work (young junior designers) and then people who oversee and present the work (more senior people with more experience). Because people are working on many things at once, it’s possible that work isn’t being reviewed often by higher-ups and it may also take several days until the internal team can find time to meet. This all adds time to your overall timelines…not to mention cost, if you’re paying 5 people who are mainly overseeing one person’s work.

All the more reason to ask the people you meet what their specific role is, and who produces the work.

On another note, you might be introduced to people in early meetings who are described as your “dedicated team”. In agency speak, that does not mean that those people will only be working on your account. It means that these people will simply be your primary points of contact. 95% of the time, the people you meet will be working on your project alongside 2–5 others. This is common practice, but good to keep in mind so you don’t have any misconceptions about your team and their time/availability.

Knowledge is power

Even if you feel unsure about whether an agency is the right decision for you, it’s worth exploring and getting out there to ask questions. Knowledge is power, and the more experience you have interfacing with agencies & asking the right questions, the more you’ll learn. These learnings & insights will ultimately allow you to feel more comfortable with whatever path you choose.


Thanks for reading

I hope found this exercise on UX thinking and organization helpful. If you did, please hit the ♥ button below, and share it!


Footnotes

*Factors at play…” — For instance: How many pages? What’s the functionality? Is it responsive? App? iOS, Android or both? How will it be built, with a pre-existing framework? If so, which one? Do you have a logo/brand existing? Or does look and feel need to be established? Do you need copywriting? Strategy? Photos to put on the site? If yes to photos, then are they stock, or do you want to coordinate a photoshoot? How much budget do you have for photos and content? Will you need to have a content management system to maintain the site? Does your company sell something physical, where taxes, shipping and fulfillment will need to be considered? When do you need to launch by? (This will dictate how many people to put on the project and whether to charge rush fees) Do you have a team in house that you want to work with? Will your team maintain the site after launch? Will that team need training on the back end infrastructure? The list goes on…

*“Not charge enough and then request more money…” — This happens in normal circumstances too, if a project scope expands because you change direction or add new features. This is okay, and even common. But you don’t want your project to be not scoped properly just because someone wasn’t listening to you from the beginning.

*“…to be completed by a particular day.” — Be careful though to request a reasonable turnaround. This means at least a week, not the next day.

*“…Lots of layers of people within a company structure” — For example: An executive creative director > who oversees a creative director > who oversees an art director > who oversees an associate art director > who oversees a senior designer, who oversees a designer > who oversees a junior designer who’s actually doing the work. Yes, for real. Large agencies can get this convoluted!