Commissioning Design

By The Drum, Administrator

March 15, 2002 | 7 min read

Photography, Bill Sykes Images, Photonica

Design is important. It's no surprise, or at least it shouldn't be, certainly to readers of The Drum. The right corporate identity provides the cornerstone for a company's image, portrays (or at least should portray) the style and personality of the company and sends out a message to clients/customers/consumers about exactly what kind of company it is.

As an extension, marketing literature, annual reports, even office interiors, are all influenced, helping to convey not just the look and nature of a company but its feel as well.

But, as many client companies out there will no doubt have experienced, it can be one thing to know all this and quite another to know how to implement it.

Currently, it seems that there are more design consultancies in Scotland than there are pebbles on Portobello beach. With so many to choose from, how does a prospective client find the one that will help them create the desired image for their company?

As with any job, the first task is to actually decide what it is you want your future design consultancy to do. Is it a complete brand makeover or do you just want a new brochure knocking up? Do you have a budget in mind?

"Start with a brief," advises Carol Mathews, director of operations at the Glasgow Science Centre. "Until you know what you want you don't know which type of consultancy you're looking for. You also have to think about the purpose of any project you're going to commission. How's it going to be used, what's the schedule, the budget etc?"

Celia Stephenson, the head of press and PR for Scottish Screen, agrees. She says: "I think the most important thing is to be absolutely sure what you're looking for and then brief them (the design consultancies) properly. Be absolutely clear as to what you want, because if you're not there's no way you'll be able to brief them properly."

Once there's a clear picture in your head as to what your design consultancy should achieve, a decision obviously has to be made as to which ones you'll contact. And how many. This is where past experience helps out many marketing managers. But if you're a first-timer in the business it can be tricky (the aforementioned pebble on the beach situation). The method most frequently employed by Scottish marketing managers seems to be word of mouth. Ask around; who's got a reputation? How did they get it? Who's hitting the headlines in The Drum magazine?

Jo Lenny, marketing officer at Glasgow's The Tramway, has recently gone through her first design pitch with the company. She says: "I'm approached quite regularly by design companies and I'm always happy to meet them and talk to them. In the department there are a lot of people working with agencies, so there's plenty of people to consult with internally. Also The Tramway has a history of working with a lot of agencies, so there were a lot of names on file. I think it's really important to get an overview of what's out there and how different design consultancies work. It's also important to know you can work together and develop a relationship."

As Lenny points out, Scottish design consultancies have a habit of approaching potential clients and making themselves known. Rather than being irritated by cold-calling and mail-shots from consultancies, the Scottish marketing decision-makers appear to approve of it.

"People send you things in the post and you hold on to them," remarks Stephenson at Scottish Screen. "It's horses for courses really. You might get things in and think 'they'd be good for this project, these guys would be good for that project' and so on."

Dr Jo Melville is the director of marketing at the Edinburgh College of Art. Again, word of mouth and consultancies approaching for the first time are both valued resources for deciding whom to contact. "Reputation and word of mouth is very important. We also look at people who have made approaches. When people cold-contact us we keep them on file and they are then looked at when we look for an agency."

Another piece of advice commonly issued by marketing managers in Scotland is to keep your list as small as possible. Contacting every single design consultancy in the country might seem like a good idea at first, but it'll get overwhelming. Fast.

Clare Forster, design manager at Glenmorangie, comments: "We just try to keep it small. If there's too many it can just get out of hand and you can't manage it."

Forster is backed up by Mathews at the Glasgow Science Centre: "I don't like to waste people's time, so I think you should have an idea of what companies you're looking at beforehand. I wouldn't go to more than three companies. It gives you a chance to compare creative, suitability and, of course, budget."

"I don't like going to too many companies," says Melville. "I don't think it's fair. I don't usually go above three. I think that we, as a client, have to do our homework and know who we should be looking at. This can mean talking to people internally and, on an unofficial basis, externally to gather opinions."

Philip Hogg, the divisional marketing director of Miller Homes, advises that when you're approaching agencies do not just go down the tried and tested route of going with consultancies who specialise in your specific sector. He says: "I think it's important not just to look at agencies with specific industry experience. You get agencies that have specialised in one sector for years and have worked on loads of companies in that sector, but I think it's better to draw parallels between experience in different agency sectors, so you get them looking at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes over-familiarity can breed complacency."

So, after the tender documents have been sent out, and you've decided which consultancies you'd like to see more of, what then?

Stephenson, again, brings some invaluable advice: "When you get the submissions back and they come and see you, look at what they're wearing. Shiny suits can be a bad sign. In my experience the best designers are the ones that put the effort into what their design looks like, not what they look like."

Shiny suits aside, a clear goal has to be kept in sight. What are you actually looking for in your consultancy? Most marketing managers seem to advise thinking long-term.

Melville at the ECA says: "When we're looking for a design agency we're looking for a company with which we can develop a long-term relationship. There has to be a compatibility of ethos. Creativity is also paramount, as well as the ability to work to deadlines, work within budgets and understand constraints."

"What's important is getting a strategic overview," remarks Hogg at Miller Homes. "Not just looking at the current project but looking at how the brand can develop over time. Looking at something and saying 'OK, I'm not briefing you on this now but in six months time will the brand be able to adapt and grow?'"

"Looking back, the thing that all the design consultancies I've ever worked with have in common is that they all have good people that I felt I could work with. If you're developing a brand or a range of printed material, or whatever, it's important to be able to develop a relationship with the designers as well."

In the end, appointing a design consultancy is a lot about trust. Trust in the consultancy to be able to follow through on their promises, trust in the designers to be able to handle your brand in the best way for your company and trust in yourself to be able to let them. Take it from those with experience: appoint someone you feel you can work with, as opposed to just working for you. If you don't you might not be just wasting their time but, more importantly, yours as well.


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