You have a leak in the office, you call a plumber. Your accounts need doing, you call an accountant. Someone leaves your business and steals your best client, you call a lawyer. You need a new website that will give you great stand out in the market and drive your business forward. But what the heck – you design and build it yourself. You’ve got people who know how to code. How hard can it be?
It has long amazed me how little researchers understand or value the input of marketing communications and design professionals. From Powerpoint presentations to printed materials or videos, the researcher’s mantra is to go it alone, save the money, DIY. But in my experience, using a professional, who has studied their craft and who has applied their skills over years, always improves the quality of what you get, projects the right messages and in the long term makes for better business.
Over the last 12 years working in the research industry I have witnessed this DIY approach time and time again. Mostly it springs from a fear of spending any money on something that could technically be done in house, but more importantly it reflects a lack of understanding of the value of good design and communication. Many researchers are the worst proponents of the ‘buy a logo off the internet’ and ‘jazz it up with some clip art’ approach to design. Research agency websites are a notorious riot of clashing colours, excessive copy and confusing layouts. This is not doing us any favours as an industry. In an increasingly visual age, people expect things to be clear, well laid out and intuitive. But much of the material put out by the research industry is unprofessional, unimaginative and out dated.
As David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful, once said, “you can’t teach good taste”, but there are some things that researchers can do to learn how to use design well and how to project a professional and original image.
Meet and like an agency
Never go ahead with a relationship with any creative (design, web, PR, advertising) agency without meeting them and seeing their work. If you cannot spare the time to meet them before asking them for a proposal, you cannot spare the time to do the project. You must like what they have done for other clients. They should be able to give you logical and strategic arguments for why a piece of design looks as it does – not just because they like a particular colour and thought it looked ‘nice’. As with working with any agency, you need to ensure you pick a team that can demonstrate they really understand research and the needs of your clients.
You should never use or expect an agency to do creative design work in order to impress you and win your project. An agency that does this is not going to be professional or able to deliver the right strategic solution because they have not been fully briefed. A decent agency will only do creative work after having been commissioned.
You need to establish an on-going relationship with an agency and work with them regularly and then they will be quick and able to respond when you have an urgent request. If you work at a research agency and have used a design agency on an internal project – such as your website or design templates – then you will know how they work and be able to use their skills to the benefit of your clients too.
Set a budget
The most efficient way of getting any new piece of design work is to set aside an amount that you have agreed to spend on it. Then if you ask agencies to pitch for your business, tell them what your budget is. Ask them how they would break it down to deliver the project. If your budget is too tiny then the agencies will say so and no one will waste a great deal of time putting together a proposal which is unrealistic.
A web or design agency will do a fee based proposal based on time but their rates will be based on experience. You can easily do some research on the web to find out rates – they will vary from £200 a day for a relatively inexperienced freelancer to £200 an hour for a large agency. If you have no clue how much things cost, ask around. There should be no embarrassment discussing professional rates for work, if you see a website you like, find out how much it cost – you can always ask the agency who designed it to tell you. Just be realistic. A web designer I know recently received a call from a client. They had found an automated service online which meant they could create a website for £135. The call was to ask my friend if he could do it for less! You can of course outsource design to India and pay less than the minimum wage, but the result will not be what you want. Guaranteed.
Finally, it’s unfair to play a guessing game with agencies; the proposal should be focused on how to solve your problem, not how to do it cheapest; you are not buying a commodity but creative thinking; going for the cheapest option is often short-sighted.
Use a brief brief
This will not be news, we all get briefs all the time. But most of them are not at all brief! Research briefs tend to be 20+ pages of bullet points. This is really not necessary. You should articulate the objectives, the core communication messages, deadlines, budget and give the essential information. But you don’t need to include the entire background to your business or compete with War and Peace. Be focused and try above all to prioritise and be clear about your core message.
Let the designers do their job
Although it’s really helpful to give a designer parameters for a project (what it should not look like, or examples you think are good, or technical parameters and limitations), it is not helpful to tell a creative what the final solution should be. Having a good brief will help with this, but it is really difficult to be ‘creative’ if someone is telling you to use photo A in position B with drop shadow C and font E. Let them come up with the solution based on your brief. They don’t have to do this in total isolation and should share ideas as they implement them, but don’t tell them what things should look like. That’s why they are there, use their skills.
Using a creative brief once you have commissioned an agency is the way most creative companies work. They will not start any design work without signing off a creative brief. This takes the issue of personal ‘liking’ out of the equation – we are able to determine whether the design solution we are discussing answers the brief and is appropriate for the business – not whether one member of the team wants to use cartoons as illustrations or likes Comic Sans.
Good design means good business. A coherent, well-thought-out and professionally executed design strategy can achieve excellent value for money and return on investment. In a crowded marketplace, getting the right messages to the right people in the right way is essential – there is no place for one hit wonders. Good design and good business are a long-term relationship and it’s a relationship the research industry would do well to cultivate.
Lucy Davison is Managing Director at Keen Mustard Marketing