Tips for choosing the right design firm

If ever there were an overly competitive industry with little to no regulation, it would be the commercial design industry. Any child with a computer and some basic software can market themselves as a designer, while the true industry suffers wide scale devaluation and thousands of business owners are taken for a ride by unqualified or even unscrupulous “designers”.

As a consumer, how do you protect yourself and your company? The answer is more simple than you may think… all you have to do is a bit of homework.

1. Self Analysis : Your Creative Brief

A proper commercial design firm will work with you in defining your organization’s requirements, but you should still have a basic idea of what you need, and what role the items will fill within your organization. In order to find a design firm best suited for your project, your organization should be aware of the following:

  • Your intended audience
  • The intended scope and goal of the project
  • Your anticipated budget (be fair and realistic here – remember, you get what you pay for)
  • How the project will fit into a larger marketing/corporate scheme
  • The individuals/departments within your organization responsible for the project
  • The specifics of each of the items you want designed

Once you have determined these initial requirements, document them and use them as a basis for evaluating each design firm. This document gives you a common yardstick to measure each design firm you will be contacting. Similarly, a professional design firm will respect the fact that you are taking your project seriously, and would ask you all of these questions (and more) anyway.

2. Generate a list

There are a number of ways to search for a design firm. Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses, so a combination of the different approaches will be your best bet for finding a design firm to match your needs.

OTHER COMPANIES: Find at least five good examples of other companies whose image materials you admire or would like to emulate. What do you like about each one? What do you not like? How do you see elements of each of these as relevant to your brand? These organizations may be your competitors, or in related or unrelated industries. Again, this is something that a good design firm will help you with or at least ask you about. In order to create a quality, relevant design for your company, they will need to know what you like, what you dislike, and who your most successful competitors are. A good design firm will include research into the development phase of your project.

REFERRALS: Ask business acquaintances, friends, and family which design firm designed the materials for their respective organizations – but only IF you feel their materials are exemplary. Be inquisitive. Find out what the individuals responsible liked or disliked about working with the various design firms. Some firms are better suited for taking a project from start to finish. Others are more inclined to work from an existing concept.

Once you have gathered a list of potential design firms you are ready to pare them down to a shortlist.

3. Create a shortlist

From the list of potential design firms, your organization’s goal should now be to create a shortlist of 3-5 firms that are best suited for your project. In order to determine which design firms are most appropriate for your project, do the following:


This is the absolute Number ONE item. A good design firm should have an extensive portfolio available online for you to view, with a wide variety of design concepts and applications. The work displayed in the portfolio should be excellent, and should display a consistency of quality.

You will also want to look at the design firm’s breadth of experience – they may be able to address your immediate needs, but will they be able to provide solutions 6 months down the road, or 1 year later, or 5 years later?

Thanks to the distributed nature of the Internet, some of the best design firms have implemented systems that allow them to work with organizations across the globe as easily as organizations across the street. When reviewing the Web site of a design firm, note the geographical locations of their clients. A design firm that has worked with clients in many geographical locations will have a more global approach to your designs.


Does the design firm have a clearly stated design process? Do they spend enough time understanding your goals and planning how those will be achieved? Avoid selecting an individual designer, on a freelance basis, to design and develop your organization’s materials. It is rare to find a single person capable of handling the combined visual and technical elements that make an effective brand image. Additionally, by depending on an individual, your organization is at risk of losing its investment should anything occur to that one individual.


What kind of value-added products or services can the design firm offer? Internet marketing and promotion? Newsletter or email campaigns? Professional printing discounts or fulfillment services? If your organization is not currently dealing with a print design agency, for example, this might be a factor for dealing with one group over another.


During this stage, your organization should make contact with the potential design firms that are on your shortlist. Does the representative conduct themselves knowledgeably and professionally? Are they quick to respond to your emails? Do they know what they are talking about? Don’t be afraid to ask questions… who will be managing your project? Since this is the person you would be working with, then this is the person you should be speaking with now. How long have they been working in the design field? Which of the items in the online portfolio was done by them or their current team? Can they provide references?

While a lot of consumers may prefer speaking on the phone, it is a better idea to communicate with your design firm by email. This way, both you and your firm have a written record of all questions, answers and instructions should any conflict arise in the future.

4. Get proposals

Once you have selected your top Web design firms, send them your creative brief (the document you created in step 1) and request that they send you a proposal. Ask that each design firm include a description of their development process and a price breakdown for the various aspects of the project.

5. Evaluate the proposals

Start off by examining each proposal individually. Before dealing with the content, evaluate the format and presentation of the proposal. The winning design firm will be creating your organization’s image materials, viewable to hundreds, thousands or even millions of current and potential customers. How do they present themselves? Do they communicate with you using their Web site and digital documents?

Maintain a list for each proposal, consisting of its strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of the respective design firm based on its other materials (web site, portfolio, brochure, case studies, etc.).

After your organization has reviewed all proposals, compare them with each other. How do they fare in terms of presentation? Do they present upgrade paths for your project, going beyond the needs of the immediate goals outlined?

6. Pick a Winner

Once you have made a decision, contact the winning design firm and let them know the good news!