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Design Consultancy – it’s a Contact Sport

Rugby lineout demonstrating the importance of teamwork

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Great news – you’ve got a budget to bring in an external design consultancy/agency to work on your project.

What Next...?

That’s just the start, if you’re going to maximise the investment, you also need to dedicate time to work with the designers. Ideally that’s not just you, but a team that includes senior management, key influencers and colleagues that are going to be at the sharp end of implementing the end result.

Whether it’s a designing a brand identity, new product or a wayfinding system, no one understands the business better and what’s needed, than the people that work there. Some may have a very clear idea of what they believe is required; for others it maybe more vague; and some will only know it when they see it.

Although they might all work for the same organisation and be emotionally invested in the project, everyone’s views will be shaped by their role, experience and how their brain is wired.

Role of the Design Consultant

The purpose of a design project is ultimately to come up with a creative solution that meets the business need. The designer does not have a monopoly on great ideas, their role is to lead a process that:

  • unpacks the brief to get to the heart of the requirement;
  • establishes a common understanding of the problem or opportunity;
  • creates the underlying narrative to the design solution;
  • explores design options;
  • arrives at a solution that all can understand, explain and sign up to.

The Importance of Face to Face Contact

To achieve a successful outcome, the client and design team need to spend time together. No matter how well considered a written brief, it can only ever be a sanitised, top line summary, open to interpretation. It will miss the nuance and detail that you get through talking face to face. To really capture the essence of what’s required you need to hear the stories, understand the culture and personality of the business.

Similarly, a second-hand precis of responses to a design concept report, won’t provide the richness needed to guide the evolution of the design. It’s the conversations and exploration around the brief and design that provide the inspiration.

Create Champions not a Committee

By involving a broad spectrum of colleagues in the process, you’ll create champions that will own the outcome and help communicate the narrative to the rest of the organisation.

Through careful selection of the project team, you’ll reduce the potential for a negative reception. Design is highly subjective. People that have contributed to the development process and understand the rationale underpinning the solution, are more likely to be positive advocates.  Even if it doesn’t align with their preferences.

An important caveat is to avoid design by committee, through trying to please all. All participants need to see the bigger picture and be willing to compromise. There needs to be a clear leader with the authority (soft as well as hard) to make decisions and provide direction.

Some Do's and Don'ts

Based on over 30 years of experience of working on design projects as designer and client, the below summarises some key do’s and don’ts.

  • Expect a design team to come up with a solution solely from a written brief.
  • Channel the relationship between the design consultancy and the client organisation through one individual.
  • Ask your consultant to email a design report for comment rather than present it in person for discussion.
  • Compromise too far to try and keep everybody happy (cf design by committee).
  • Provide simple, one-line feedback responses to a design idea – particularly if you don’t like it.
  • Feel compelled to provide feedback on the hoof. Take the time to consider it if needed, making sure you don’t miss any stage deadlines.
  • Dismiss advice you don’t like from your consultant team. In all likelihood they are drawing on years of experience of working on projects of a similar nature.

  • Leave egos at the door. Respect and explore ideas from all sources (ideas can come from anywhere, not just the design team).
  • Encourage your consultant team to challenge preconceptions and ideas.
  • Assemble a project team (to include senior management) to work with the consultancy.
  • Appoint a clear leader with the authority to make decisions and provide direction.
  • Schedule adequate time for the project team to brief the consultant and provide feedback at key stages in design process.
  • Provide the consultant with documents and information to help them to understand the broader context.
  • Be prepared to provide full, expansive feedback – particularly in response to design ideas.
  • Establish a clear timeline when various stages need to be signed off to ensure the project is delivered on time (and stick to it).

Ultimately the best results come from a truly collaborative approach where everyone is listened to and able to contribute. Where the client team dedicates the time. The design team is humble enough to accept that their ideas might not be the best ones, but brave enough to challenge if they think the client’s going down the wrong track.