I sell design for a living. I also design things, but right now that’s beside the point except inasmuch that if I can’t sell it, there’s really no need for me to make it. As with all transactions, you need a seller and a buyer. And because I enjoy selling design, I really want you to enjoy buying. (I also want you to buy it from me, but let’s not focus on that right now.)
Some people we talk to are nervous about the process because they aren’t designers themselves. This makes them feel as though they are at a disadvantage. We want to help with this. We want clients to feel terrific about having an opportunity to work on a design project with skilled professionals (even if they are skilled professionals other than us).
By the end of this piece you should know enough to be reasonably good at buying design (especially from me) because I’m going to show you that you already know how to do it. You probably make purchase decisions several times a day. Design doesn’t have to be a great mystery. Those same tools you use to buy other things can be used to buy design.
Let’s start at the top:
What Is Design?
The Wikipedia definition is as good as any: a specification of an object (your website or app), manifested by an agent (hi!), intended to accomplish goals (make you money, most likely), in a particular environment (probably through the Internet).
There will be 50 comments following this article arguing about that definition. Don’t bother with them. Let’s move on. Now that you know what design is, do you really need it?
Do You Need To Buy Design?
Most people don’t need to buy design. And only about half the people trying to buy design should be. Your designer should be a partner, helping you solve your problem. You have a goal in mind; the two of you work together for a solution. Getting to that solution includes researching the people you want using your object, the market for that object and who, if anyone, is trying to sell that same sort of object. If all of that sounds like a pain in the ass, and it kind of is, then don’t buy design. Hire a production team. You’ll save money.
Also, if you have a detailed picture in your head of exactly what your object should look like and how it should function, hire a production team to execute your idea. A design team will only frustrate you by wanting to see your project as a problem to be solved instead of an idea to be illustrated.
Think of it this way: You just bought a house. It has a big beautiful backyard. You want to plant a couple of fruit trees. Don’t waste money on a landscape architect hoping they come to the same conclusion. Just hire a couple of guys to plant the trees.
Don’t Be Weird About Money
You’re a business, calling a business, about conducting business. Don’t be surprised when money comes up. Expect it. Buying design is like buying a car. You can pay very little for one that will—probably—get you back and forth to work. Or you can pay more for a model that is safe and reliable, and gets you up a mountain, or gets excellent mileage, or gets you noticed. Asking you about the budget you had in mind isn’t a trick, it tells me which section of the car lot to walk you towards, or to direct you to another dealership. I need to know what your budget is, which means YOU need to know what your budget is.
Sometimes people don’t know how much they should be spending. And that’s fine. We can talk about that. We’ll work with you to understand the sort of work you really need and what parts of the process your business will most benefit from. We promise not to try to sell you the undercoating if you don’t need it.
And while we’re talking about things not to be weird about: don’t talk professional designers down by telling them “this will look good in your portfolio.” Designers work for a living. You don’t tell your doctor your colonoscopy will look great on his office wall. This is no different.
How Much Design Should You Buy?
Easy peasy. Buy as much as you can within your budget. And if you have a limited budget (and who doesn’t) make sure you’re working with a team that understands the core of your problem and can design a solution that addresses it, giving you the foundation of a system you can extend later. It’s better to have a quality core than a mediocre everything. Better to spend your money on one basic, well-tailored suit that makes you look like a million bucks on any occasion than a whole wardrobe of ill-fitting numbers that get shiny in the ass after a few wearings. (Just think of occasions as use cases. It’s not all about looks.)
Let me put it another way: say your dream is to have a 52” flat-screen TV in your living room. But getting that TV would max out your budget and you wouldn’t have money for a chair to sit in. Do you downgrade the size of the TV in order to get a chair? Hell no. You sit on a milk carton and you enjoy the fuck out of that 52” TV. Because a tiny TV will NEVER turn into a monster flatscreen no matter how much you cry into it, and you’ll eventually earn enough money for the chair.
So when you’re buying design, make sure you’re working with the team that best understands the core of your problem. Even if it means delaying a few of the non-essential pieces for a while. Do the core right, because you can extend a solid and stable core. Also, a really smart, well-informed team can find ways to solve more of your problem by prioritizing the pieces that get you the most, as they say, bang for your buck.
Buy Design From Someone Who Can Solve Your Problem, Not Whose Portfolio You Like Looking At
Don’t hire an agency that does sample work before you’ve explained your problem. What could they possibly be solving? They’re trying to impress you with pretty. Look through their portfolio and make sure the work is polished, sure. But don’t buy design unless you feel comfortable the practitioners have a good problem-solving process.
Remember, a designer won’t know how to solve your problem right away. (Beware of those that claim to!) But they should be able to explain their process for figuring out the right solution.
Just as importantly, talk to their former clients. Not just the ones on the list they gave you (those guys got the nice gift baskets ahead of time) but do a little googling of your own and find the clients they didn’t want you talking to.
It’s like buying a melon. Any sample the grocer is handing out won’t come from the melon you’re about to buy. And don’t buy on looks. To really know a melon you’ve got to squeeze it hard at the ends. Also, a melon analogy? Not my best moment. Let’s move on.
Hire a Design Team You Can Argue With
You’re about to spend some time with these people. You are going to have to put in some work as well. There are going to be a few sticking points. Things get heated, and that’s fine. You want to make sure you’re working with a team that’s as passionate about what they’re doing as you are, and not people who will just do what you tell them to (see above: production team). At the same time, you want to make sure that passion comes from wanting to solve your problem. Good arguments need to come from a place of mutual respect.
Don’t Hire Artists
Design is a job. It requires understanding and applying business rules, technical constraints, research analysis, success metrics, and user needs. Don’t hire “creatives.” Hire smart workers.
Work With a Designer Who Wants to Work With You
We have a rule at Mule. We don’t work on projects that aren’t essential to the client’s business. The further a project gets from a client’s core concerns, the more likely it will be run on subjectivity and whims, or be starved of the internal attention and resources it needs to succeed. The same applies to hiring a design team. Work with someone who’s excited to be working with you. You’ll get better work.
Case in point: across from my local Safeway there’s a small family-owned grocery store. (Golden, for you locals.) Best fresh vegetables and meat counter in town. Always happy to see you come in. They know my kid’s name. They make sure to stock the licorice he mentioned liking once. They’re never going to knock Safeway out of business, and they know that. But the product is good and they want my business more than Safeway does, so they get it.
In summary, buying design can be challenging and a bit of an act of faith. You’re trusting people with your business, but they’re also trusting you with theirs. Use clear, explicit contracts to protect both sides, make sure the team or person you’re hiring clearly understands the problem in front of them, and make sure they have a history of success in similar problems. With those things in place, do a gut check and ask yourself, “Are these the people I want to work with?” If the answer is “Yes!” then figure out a way to make it happen.