Five Things To Do Before Spending Money On Design

  • By Stu Smith
  • Published 11/13/2015

Before working at Able, I spent many years as a design consultant helping entrepreneurs and businesses develop their brands. This was rewarding work, but also very challenging. Every time a new client came through the door, it was a blind date. The client was sizing up the team to see what we’d be like to work with and we of course were seeing if this would be the type of person/company/startup that we would want to partner with for the next 4–6 months.

In these new blind date relationships, the first thing I would try to understand is how experienced the client was with engaging designers and creative agencies. My clients ranged from seasoned purchasers of design who spoke a common language with our team to small business owners who were purchasing design for the very first time. While we were happy to work with clients of varying experience levels, the clients that understood the fundamentals of our work made the upstart friction very minimal. Time could be spent focusing on the work - not educating the other party on common nomenclature and terminology. And, because time is money… we were able to charge less by getting started more quickly.

A few weeks ago, I consulted a small business owner who was ready to take the next step in her business by hiring design talent to improve her brand. What was evident was that she knew she needed this, but she had no idea where to begin. The assumption was that better design would attract new customers and create loyalty for existing customers. These are definitely achievable goals. But, like any other investment you’ll make in your business, it can be daunting to head down this road for the first time. It’s no different than building out your location, hiring an accountant or your first employee. Until you’ve done it, you can’t know everything you need to.

The best thing you can do is set yourself up for success by investing a small amount of time in learning about designers, how they work and what to expect.

1. Learn about design

The first thing to learn about design is that it is equal parts visual and analytical. One of the easiest missteps to make as a first time purchaser of design is to have a designer make something you like, not something you need. By its nature, design solves a problem while art is meant to be an expression. Designers and artists have a similar set of skills, but they choose to use them in distinctly different ways. A good designer will learn as much as they can about you, your business and the challenge your up against. Ryan Weaver, the lead designer of my old agency used to say “Research is the hard part, doing the design and execution is the easy part.” The best thing you can do as a buyer of design is to search for the person who will help best solve the problem. You’d hate to hire someone that just makes something visually pleasing without giving a thought to its function and implication.

Because design is also visual, you should research current design motifs and trends. Some of the best places to look to give you a sense of what types of design are most current are:

Again, the purpose isn’t to choose something you like out of a catalog, but rather to have an insight into current trends. This will help your designer more rapidly select directions for your project.

2. Learn how to be a great client

A favorite quote I heard recently was that ‘Clients get the work they deserve’. What this really means is that clients influence the work they receive by changing the way they interface with their design partners. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on projects where the work was negatively impacted by the client. To be fair, this does go both ways (i.e. Designers get the clients they deserve). The hope, however is that designers and clients are consciously working towards developing a relationship that resembles a partnership rather than a vending machine.

If I managed to sum up what a great client is within a short paragraph, I’d surely be a candidate for some sort of international design hero award. Since I can’t, the best resource I can recommend on this topic is Mike Monterio’s book, You’re My Favorite Client. In this book, Mike works to take the mystery out of working with designers and provides guidance aimed at helping you have a successful project and relationship

3. Learn how to give meaningful feedback

Part of being a great client is learning how to give good, meaningful feedback on the work you’ve been presented. A good designer will help you navigate the feedback process, but it’s important to have the right mindset when responding to the work. This isn’t really about protecting feelings so much as it’s about protecting the work. Remember, designers are problem solvers and not melancholy artists. That said, the worst way to respond to a design you’re seeing for the first time is to judge it immediately and swiftly.

Pro Tip: Don’t be this guy…

You have to assume that if you’ve selected a professional, they’ve thought about a lot of things before arriving at the work they’re comfortable sharing with you. One of my design heroes, Paul Rand says “the designer fills many a wastebasket in order to produce one good idea”. This is absolutely right and is absolutely why being thoughtful with your feedback is crucial.

Dennis Field posted a great article about this very topic over on the Invision blog. I suggest digging deeper into this as a guide for giving great feedback, but the summary is:

  • You should build trust
  • Develop understanding
  • Discuss all feedback (don’t just email it)
  • Present the problem, not the solution
  • Recognize designers are people (read: professionals) too.

4. Understand the different types of designers

Since there are so many different types of design, it’s rare that you’ll find a generalist designer that’s capable of doing everything you need. It’s helpful to know the differences so you can find the type of designer you’re looking for more quickly. Below are just a few types of designers you’ll come across:

Graphic or Visual Designer

Generally, these people are what you think of when you think of a traditional designer. They are skilled in various areas of print and digital media and usually have a strong emphasis on the creation and curation of brands.

Packaging Designer

These designers specialize in creating compelling packaging for products. They’ll have a core skill set similar a visual designer but with a strong emphasis on the mechanics of how design is applied to physical objects.


The main focus of an illustrator is telling stories with their visuals. The areas of focus can range from iconography to fully rendered characters and scenes.

Letterer or Typography Designer

These designers focus on the mechanic of type and create everything from custom logotypes to full blown typefaces (fonts).

User Interface (UI) Designer

A User Interface designer creates beautiful, intuitive interfaces for web, mobile and applications. They work hand in hand (or are often one in the same) with UX designers.

User Experience (UX) Designer

A UX designer’s role is to architect the flow of an application or website to ensure the user’s path is well thought out. The deliverable of a UX designer tends to be wireframes (blueprints) and flow charts.

Front End Developer

Wait, I thought we were talking about designers! Well, nowadays many interfaces and websites are designed fully in the browser. A front end developer builds the design with code and usually collaborates with one of the other types of designers.

5. Make sure you’re communicating clear expectations

The first thing you’ll learn is that every designer, developer or agency has a different way of pricing. Depending on who you talk to you could run into hourly, fixed bid, value-based, team for time, equity-based or retainer pricing strategies. You’ll also learn that everyone has a different process methodology. This all can be pretty confusing when all you’re looking for is compatibility and clear pricing. The best things you can do as a client is to clearly communicate the following:


This can be the most painful thing to convey if you’ve never put together a design budget. The fear is usually that telling your price is showing your cards and might cause you to overpay. Actually, the opposite is true. Being able to articulate the number you have in your mind early in the process helps your design partner to gauge your expectations. You should go into these negotiations with a stated price and let the design partner tell if that works, or why it would have to be different. If the designer doesn’t have a very compelling justification… run.

Buying design, like buying a car, is a financial transaction. At some point money will come up…What that number tells me is how to guide you toward the appropriate solution for you, and to stay away from solutions that are outside of your price range. - Mike Monterio


It’s a great idea to go into the purchasing process with a timeline. Timelines communicate a myriad of things from urgency to project type. A designer will approach a two week project much differently than a two month project. For that reason, it’s important to be thoughtful when putting together your timeline. Stating you only have two weeks for a project when you really have 6 can inadvertently damage the quality of your work because it forces the designer to alter their process to meet the deadline. On the flip side, allowing too much time might cause your designer to overthink and over-engineer what really just needed to be an MVP.

Opportunity Costs

One of my design colleagues has the great practice of asking his clients early in the sales process “What is the one thing we could do to completely mess this up?”. Getting to tell your design partner just how important the project is to you is huge. When I’ve asked this question to clients, I’ve gotten some crazy responses:

  • We could lose tens of thousands of dollars
  • I could lose my job for choosing the wrong agency
  • We could miss our crucial shipping deadline and have infuriated customers
  • We would look like amateurs

An upfront level of honesty with your design partner helps them understand what the stakes are heading into the project. Don’t miss the opportunity to share this before it’s too late.

All of these areas are great places to focus before investing in design. The most important thing to remember is that designers are professionals that you hire to do a job. It’s really important to lean on your designer’s expertise and work towards a relationship that has a feeling of mutual partnership. It’s both the designer and client’s responsibility to earn and maintain trust.

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