How to hire a good design team

We often write posts for an audience of fellow designers, but what about our clients? It’s time to share the love. This one is for all our friends on the other side of the equation — the company leaders, the marketing directors, the project managers, the inspiring entrepreneurs, we think about you constantly!

If you’re tasked with finding and hiring an external design team for your next project — whether it’s a brand update, app design, or packaging for pot brownies — we hope this post can offer some advice from an inside perspective to help you make the right choice.


1. Review portfolios with an open mind

Looking carefully at a design portfolio is one of the first and most basic ways of assessing the capabilities of a team or individual. It makes sense! Take a look and see what stands out. The not so obvious thing we want to stress here is this: don’t look at a designer’s portfolio and hope to see the exact solution you want for your next project.

Clients with a specific design need are often comforted by seeing similar work in a designer’s portfolio. However, if you prioritize this requirement above other aspects, you’re likely going to overlook some very talented people. Why’s that? Because good designers are just that — good designers. They can understand a problem, even if they’ve never encountered it before. They can research, diverge, and converge to create effective solutions to that problem. They can iterate, revise and ultimately produce something valuable and tailored to your organization’s needs.

One of our clients reached out because they saw an old concept image we created for salt packaging way back in 2010. The client was literally googling ‘salt packaging design’ (when a search for ‘package design’ would’ve been suitable). We’re lucky they found us, but it wasn’t this old work that made us a good fit for their new challenge — being good designers made us more than adequate.

Websites are websites, so hopefully you’re not asking a web designer to design an electric car. Package design is package design, don’t engage a packaging studio to write a workshop on rocket propulsion.

If you’re looking for a new marketing site for your accounting business and don’t immediately see other accountant sites in the designer’s portfolio, don’t worry. Ask questions about the designer’s process and capabilities. Look for tangential similarities — are there other websites in the designer’s portfolio? Hopefully yes. Do they include thoughtful responsive layout design, message integration, custom visuals, and interesting interactivity? Hopefully yes! Does it matter the other sites were for cat cafés and real estate agents? Heck no!

Designers often welcome a new challenge which can bring great energy to a project. Feelings of novelty and excitement can be motivating and usually have a material impact on the final quality of the solution, as well as the process required to get there.

Key takeaway:

If you’re reviewing the work of a highly recommended, talented creative team and don’t immediately see a piece of directly similar work to your need — don’t worry. Ask questions, and look for tangential similarities.

Things to consider when reviewing a design portfolio:

  • Does the quality of the work match your organization’s expectations?
  • Does the designer have an overall aesthetic style that resonates with your organization, your audience, or your vision for the project?
  • Are there successful examples of past relevant work? Remember, look for examples of the type of work you require (like contemporary web design) instead of literal instances of the final design piece you require (like a website for accountants).

2. Understand how the team works

Every design professional sells a process. It’s often the result of that process that gets all the attention (at least on Dribbble etc.) but really the process is the main deliverable of any design project. Learning more about a team’s tailored approach to your project will give you a chance to feel out the personality fit, while gaining valuable insight into how the course of the design engagement will play out.

Different teams will use their own expression of the design process — understanding that process is important before commencement.

There’s a lot to cover in this topic so you need to spend time asking questions and examining all aspects of the project arc to make sure it’s logical and effective for your needs. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus in on one critical step in the process: discovery.

Discovery is all about problem definition. Since design is nothing more than the solution to a problem, it’s easy to see how this first step is essential. Without a clear understanding of the design challenge (aka the problem), design is destined to fail.

So we recommend looking carefully at this part of the process when vetting or comparing different design teams. Does every team offer a discovery process? Are there questionnaires and meetings to provide valuable input and insights? Is there some kind of creative brief doc that the designers produce to formalize their understanding of the project’s goals and parameters?

Discovery leads designers to insights on authenticity, audience profiles, and the competitive landscape. In our opinion, these are each critical aspects to define before any design concept or solution can be explored.

Key takeaway:

If the design team doesn’t have a process to properly understand your problem, there’s a pretty good chance they aren’t worth any more of your time.


3. Share your budget

Oh budgets. The B word. B for butterflies in your stomach. B for one of the last things typically B-rought up, awkwardly, at the end of an otherwise awesome introductory phone call. “Soooo, ya, oh and one more question here…” someone might sheepishly say.

Talking about money is important. It would be great if more people were better at it. But it needs to be done, particularly if you’re trying to make a decision about who to engage, and if budget is one of the main differentiators between otherwise comparable teams.

🐸 : How much money do you have for the project?

🐱 : We haven’t set a budget yet. What do you think is reasonable?

🐸 : Based on what we’ve heard, we think $40K for Phase 1 would be fair compensation for the value of our work.

🐱 : What?!! We were thinking $10K max.

🐸 : Oh, so you do have a budget in mind…


If a designer asks you how much you have to spend — share your thoughts, even if it’s only a rough ballpark. We understand you might not know how much a particular design engagement could cost, but try to avoid responding with something like: “We haven’t set a budget for this project yet (usually untrue), what do you think is reasonable?” It just sets the table for disappointment.

We understand that clients might be holding out in the hopes that a designer’s quote will come in under what they expect. This might be happen in some cases, but if you’re dealing with talented people that know the value of their work, this approach will almost certainly backfire. Trying to salvage the conversation once the designer states their price and reveals a significant misalignment can add extra friction to what might otherwise be a manageable situation.

If a significant mismatch in terms of budget is revealed early, the conversation can be paused before too much time is invested on either end and the designer can recommend other teams that are more suited to your budget.

Key takeaway:

Be upfront about money. Say how much you have, before anyone asks you. Why? Because it will usually work out in your favour. If a talented design team has a good vibe about you and your project, maybe it’s OK that you only have $10K to spend. Money isn’t the only thing going through a designer’s mind when considering opportunities. A lot of really talented creative teams would prioritize meaningful work with good exposure over an extra couple thousand dollars.


4. Put your best foot forward

This might be a no-brainer, but some clients need to recognize the two-way nature of every potential relationship. Intro phone calls and meetings are chance for both sides to test the waters and decide if a collaboration will ultimately be productive.

If you don’t have feet, try putting your best paw forward.

Remember that just because a creative team has shown interest in your company or project, it doesn’t mean there are no other opportunities they may be considering simultaneously. It’s frustrating how often we encounter folks that don’t seem to get this — clients with rude meeting etiquette, who interrupt, who half-listen while scrolling on their hand computers can be off-putting. It’s particularly egregious if the client has called someone in for a meeting and is not yet paying for their contributions.

What can be more telling is how clients listen to, or interact with their own team members, or other people sharing their space. All of these things stand out to designers. Why? Because designers are trained to notice details, dissect communication (verbal, visual, and otherwise) and empathize with others. Designers with experience can spot red flags from a mile away.

Sure, having a bad meeting might seem innocuous in the grand scheme, but if it alludes to what an ongoing working relationship might be like — this can very easily encourage a talented team to say “no thanks.” Opportunities to collaborate with authentically talented people are valuable and should be treated with respect.

Key takeaway:

You want to hire a good creative team. You want people who have unique abilities to tell your unique story in a way that helps your business succeed. Recognize that the opportunity itself might not be enough to convince a team to come on board. A good personality fit is important to designers, and intro meetings are a chance for both sides to make a gut check.


So there you have it, some notes from the designer’s perspective. Get in touch if you’re on the client side and have any questions — we’d love to hear from you.

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