Knowing when to hire a design team is one of those things that can appear to be a simple decision, made during a meeting (“Well, we need to get on that – let’s put a team together, STAT!”) but in reality it can be a complex decision process that has very real consequences on your business. This process becomes even more complex as more and more companies begin to build their own internal design team. With a team in place there’s an inclination to say that they can handle whatever design needs might arise. Maybe this is true – but not likely. There are just a few key rules to keep in mind that will help guide you in the decision to pick up the phone or not.
Generally speaking, you should hire an outside firm when:
You need more capacity.
Having a team of in-house designers in place is a valuable resource. Often, in-house teams can execute on ideas and projects quickly because they have the background and context needed to design whatever is comes up. But in-house designers are bound to the same twenty-four hour days as the rest of us and can only tackle so much at one time. This applies doubly so for teams who don’t have a strong producer or PM trafficking work to them. When it’s a free-for-all with the whole company, designers can easily get bombarded and fall behind – just like the rest of us.
If you are finding that your in-house team doesn’t have the time to take on the work in a timely way, it might be time to call in the reserves. Design studios are particularly good at picking-up in times of need and can often throw more resources at a problem than in-house teams because they are used to working on a variety of project sizes and team structures.
Be sure you’re communicating with your in-house team about this – what’s being requested, who’s going to be helping out, and what expectations are being placed on the in-house team as a result of this. Most design groups play well with others so it’s reasonable to expect that that the teams can collaborate with one another. The most important thing is to be sure you’re communicating about roles and responsibilities. Nobody likes to redo work and it gets costly so if your in-house creative director has specific views on exactly which shade of aqua-blue should be used for headlines, the whole team should be made aware of that.
You need specialization
In house design teams are often very skilled generalists. Especially when design isn’t the core business activity (e.g. you don’t sell products because
of their design) it’s often the case that a design group needs to be able to work on the website, layout a brochure, and design a booth for the upcoming tradeshow. This works fine until you need someone who can design the a highly-optimized checkout system for your website, or who can design a native iOS app to feature your products.
When your in-house team is not focused on an area of specialization, it’s smart to bring in an expert. This will often result in a more efficient and higher quality outcome. Studios and agencies often have these specialists on-hand, or have resources to bring them in when it makes sense. Again, the same rules listed above apply – make sure everyone know what their roles and responsibilities are and what the review chain looks like.
You need outside perspective.
Finally (and probably the design firm’s favorite one) – there are times when your in-house team is just too close to the problem. Maybe they are drinking the Kool-Aide too much, maybe they feel their internal culture won’t let them think broadly enough – but whatever the reason, sometimes an outsiders perspective can help jar something loose and make for better work. I’ve seen this first hand where simply coming in as an outsider gave me permission to ask some questions that if I were an in-house designer, I wouldn’t be allowed to ask. They might have seemed too stupid, or challenged the current thinking too blatantly, but as a vendor it was easy to say, “Why are you doing it that way? It seems like it’s a lot of work for both you and your customer…”
Getting outside perspective on a problem does require that you, as the client, are willing to hear the designer out. Good designers are very skilled at gathering inputs, forming a conclusion and stating that conclusion. Good clients are skilled at providing those inputs and hearing those conclusions. If you’re hiring an outside firm for this purpose, be sure you’re ready to get what you’re asking for.
Obviously, there are any number of special circumstances that necessitate hiring an outside firm to help your company out, but these rough-guidelines should help you identify if your situation qualifies at a basic level. The role of design in business is in a state of great change and defining how it fits into your business is something that every company is struggling with these days. Look to your designers to help identify when it’s time to call on a design partner – sometimes, but not always, it’s the best call you can make.