Why Tech Companies Should Hire Design Consultants

Shaun Modi
Apr 24, 2015 · 6 min read

Our thoughts for entrepreneurs trying to hire designers.

There is no shortage of interesting technology startups. Yet there seems to be a real shortage of seasoned design talent. When we say “design consultant”, we’re talking about independent designers or firms who eschew formal work settings in favor of developing their own creative space and process. Steph Bain, my founding partner at our design firm TM and co-author of this post, would like to share our thoughts on this interesting topic as of late.

Here are several reasons why we encourage technology entrepreneurs to consider hiring professional design consultants:

  1. You can’t stop progress.
    While searching for your dream design candidate, there is surely a backlog of features and product improvements that need to happen to keep your business growing. Hiring a design firm will help move your product and team forward. You should never be blocked on design.
  2. Progress can be measured.
    Consultants charge by the hour or on a project basis. This makes it easy for you as a company to evaluate the impact of design on your organization. Every day and hour will count more.
  3. Not every company needs an in-house design team.
    Just because a company creates an app or website doesn’t mean they need to build an internal design team. Many companies settle for less and hire a junior person for cost savings, difficulty finding the right person or both. Hiring pro design consultants can bring a high level of experience to your product without the stress of assembling, managing and mentoring a significant headcount.
  4. Decisions can be made more quickly.
    We’ve all been there — stuck in a meeting where we’re looking at a design for the 10th time and there is no end in sight. You ask yourself, “How many cooks are in this kitchen?” When you hire an expert, there is an expectation that she knows what she is doing. The same goes for the design firm, who values the opportunity to do business with an interesting client and team. This mutual respect fosters fluid and effective decision making.
  5. Collaboration is easier than ever.
    With the advent of simple tools like Invision, Flinto, Slack and Google Hangouts, product teams are more connected than they have ever been. Design and engineering should be unified with a healthy feedback loop. Your product organization should have visibility into the iterative design process. These tools blur the line between consultants and in-house designers, as everyone is always available via “X” channel.
  6. Both parties get to “try before they buy”.
    Design hiring today is a giant gamble. The candidate generally spends one day on site and an offer decision is made. Sometimes a designer does a trial project which is helpful, but usually it is conducted in isolation and the engineering team does not get a chance to collaborate directly with the candidate. This process provides little security for either party involved. Time and time again we’ve seen designers come in-house just to leave a few months later because of mismatched expectations. By hiring a consultant, the company and designer get to date before they decide to get married.
  7. You will have access to a larger pool of high quality creative talent.
    Nearly all early stage startups are unproven and many have rudimentary design. This makes it difficult to hire full-time designers because it is a giant risk for the candidate. Most talented senior designers already have a great job at a creative company. By hiring the right consultant or firm, you’ll have increased access to top talent.
  8. Relationships can last as long as you want.
    There are no rules to how you resource your design needs. Your consultant can also be your de facto in-house designer for as long as needed — weeks, months or years. The only difference is that she will be allowed to work on other projects. In our opinion this is a plus because it gives the designer more independence, sources of inspiration and creative outlets — all of which will help make the designer more well rounded and produce better results. If the designer doesn’t meet your standards, end the relationship. If the designer is incredible, you will have a better chance of convincing them to join you after working together for a period of time. Most of the clients we take on at TM are long term engagements, and this is part of what has inspired this post.
  9. Good design breeds good designers.
    After bringing in a talented firm who helps improve your design dramatically, it will be much easier for a you to hire an in-house team because they will be more attracted to your product.

Consultants Who Inspire Us

Below is a selection of our favorite products throughout history created by design firms and consultants.

IDEO, Apple Mouse: In 1980, Apple asked IDEO to develop a mouse for their radical new computer, the Lisa. The basic mechanism design is used in virtually all mechanical mice produced to date.
Design Studio, Airbnb Brand: London based Design Studio helped to rebrand Airbnb, the world’s “most compelling hospitality idea”. The firm set out to create a top-to-bottom transformation of the Airbnb brand. In the process they created a mark that anyone can draw, no matter what language you speak.
Fuse Project, Jawbone Jambox: Yves Behar and his team at Fuse Project redefined the personal audio category with Jawbone. Using principles of minimalist design, fewer parts and simpler assembly, Fuse Project designed the JAMBOX to be portable while maximizing audio output.
Vignelli Associates, NYC Subway Map: In August 1972, the NYC’s MTA unveiled a drastically different subway map designed by Massimo Vignelli and his team at Vignelli Associates. It showed the transit system as a series of straight lines that sometimes veered at 45 degree angles, rather than a more realistic tangle of curved paths. Most other metro systems in the world use a diagrammatic, not a geographical approach — most notably Harry Beck’s 1933 London Underground map.
Henry Dreyfuss, Model 302 Telephone: In the 1930s, Bell Labs asked Henry Dreyfuss to create a new telephone set, to be used across AT&T’s vast phone system. Dreyfuss was a young man and an emerging voice in the field of industrial design. Dreyfuss and Bell Labs unveiled their Model 302 telephone in 1937. The object’s curving sidewalls swoop upward from a square base to cradle the graceful arc of the handset.
Frog Design, Apple IIC: Hartmut Esslinger and his team at Frog Design worked with Steve Jobs to develop Apple’s famous “Snow White” design language and later the Next computer. The Snow White design language became standard for most of the company’s equipment and computers.
Ray and Charles Eames, IBM Pavilion at NY World’s Fair 1964–1965: The New York World’s Fair featured 140 pavilions spread over 646 acres of land. It served as a showcase for many American companies, including IBM, General Electric, Dupont, and Ford. Ray and Charles Eames and their office were responsible for the exhibitions, graphics, signage, and films, all of which focused on the influence of computers in contemporary society, and the similarity between the ways that man and machine process and interpret information.

Thanks for reading. We hope you found our 2 cents on the subject matter useful. Please feel free to drop us a note with any comments you may have!

-Shaun and Steph at TM

TM Design Stories

Things we believe by Shaun Modi and Steph Bain

Shaun Modi

Written by

Partner and designer at TM. Previously at Airbnb and Google.

TM Design Stories

Things we believe by Shaun Modi and Steph Bain

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