There are thousands of graphic design agencies in the UK, from the big boys to one-man-bands. How do you pick the right one when there’s so much talent to choose from? Here are some simple tips for finding a graphic design agency that’s right for the job, a good cultural fit and a long-term partner you can grow happily with.

Pin down your graphic design project up front

You might be a new start-up. You may already have a logo, created some time ago, but now business has picked up you need more marketing collateral designed. You might need business cards, letterheads and new pages for your website, even a complete website redesign to meet the needs of your company as it stands today.

Unless you’re a designer, you might not have much idea where to start when it comes to the design side of things. The first thing to do is write a basic outline of the design project, to pin things down for yourself.

Set achievable goals

What are your goals? Once you know what you’re aiming for, it’s easier to brief an agency accurately. Which means you’ll get a more accurate quote, and the end results will dovetail properly with your business needs. ‘Make my business look fabulous’ just isn’t enough! Business goals should always be SMART, i.e. sustainable, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound, and you can have more than one goal per graphic design project. The more detail you can provide the better.

Your goal, for example, might be one or more of these:

  • Increase sales by 50% a month or by 25% over the next year
  • Improve brand recognition in your sector with a refreshed brand
  • More visits to your website, measured by increased social media activity and more followers
  • Increase monthly profit by £5000
  • Win 1000 new Twitter followers to promote a new range of products

Decide the budget

Setting a realistic budget is important. It’ll help you identify which agencies are the most suitable. And it’ll prevent budget creep when you start off with something reasonable but end up paying a whole lot more because you weren’t precise enough in the first place.

What about the project deadline?

It’s important to think ahead. You might have a specified business-led deadline allied to something tangible, for example, the launch of a new range of services. Or you might not. Either way, bear in mind that great graphic design takes time. Be realistic with your own time too, giving yourself a realistic amount of it to fulfil the obligations on your side.

Remember that an unmoveable deadline can have budget implications – give an agency some leeway, and it might well cost you less than imposing a tricky deadline it’ll be tough to meet. It’s much better to work with your agency than against them.

Provide samples of graphics work you love

It can be difficult to decide on the design style you’re after. A starting point helps. You might already have a bunch of marketing collateral you love, in which case give it to the agency, so they have something concrete to work to and don’t end up re-inventing the wheel for no good reason.

Alternatively, how about a mood board? When you collect design ideas you like, for example, screen shots of web pages, other people’s logos, inspiration provided by competitors’ image and colour schemes, it gives your agency a starting point. The same goes for photos you take on your travels, colour swatches you respond powerfully to, you name it. You might even be able to point them in the direction of a brand you think is utterly brilliant, a look and feel you’d love to achieve for your own business.

Just bear in mind your personal taste isn’t necessarily the best design solution. Unless you’re a designer, you need to set personal taste aside for the best results.

Finding the perfect graphic design agency

You’ve gathered all the information together, and you’re clear about what you need. Now you’re ready to start hunting.

  • If you don’t have a clue where to start, can your social media communities recommend a great agency, someone they use and trust? What about friends, family and colleagues? Word of mouth is a fantastic way to find design excellence
  • If not, Google search is a good starting point. Local and national searches will deliver different results. Decide if you want a local agency that you can pop in and see in person, or whether you’re entirely happy working with a far-flung company by email and phone
  • Unless you have a big bucks budget, it’s no good choosing an agency whose client roster is full of massive blue chip household brands. Big doesn’t mean best; it just means big! They’ll be used to working with huge budgets, and it’s less likely you’ll get a good cultural fit. On the other hand, many excellent local agencies have a mix of big and small clients.
  • Always check agency portfolios online, and take a long hard look at their websites. Do they update their site regularly, do they blog frequently? If so, it’s a clear sign they’re on the ball. Do they display a reasonable number of projects in their portfolio, and what does the client feedback – if any – say?
  • You’re looking for a good relationship, an ongoing collaboration, so it makes sense to read carefully agency web content and see if it appeals to your way of thinking. Do you think you’d get on as people, or do they sound totally unlike you, saying things you just don’t believe in, in a tone of voice you don’t warm to?
  • Are their testimonials genuine? If an agency has to write their own, there’s something wrong. If they have a handful of genuine-sounding testimonials, it’s a good sign. Some agencies will give you client contact details, so you can contact them yourself and get the bottom line direct from the horse’s mouth.
  • Have they done work for a business like yours before? If so, you’re on the fertile ground. You can ask them how their work benefited the client and what they’ll do to make sure your design project is different… but just as good.
  • Read each agency’s blog and see if they discuss the way they work, their ideals, ideas and beliefs. If they dovetail with your feelings, that’s another sign you’re on the right track.
  • It helps if they reveal their pricing structure on the site, but it isn’t common simply because every project is different. Any graphic design agency worth their salt knows that no size fits all, that every project is unique.
  • Get social too. Follow short-listed agencies on Twitter to see what they’re saying, how they say it and whether you feel good about the way they interact with their communities. Drip-feeding an endless stream of link-stuffed, sales focused Tweets via tweeting software is less attractive than a real person tweeting open, honest, personal and interesting stuff in real time, during working hours

Narrowing things down

At this point, you’ll have narrowed things down nicely. Ideally, you’ll have a handful of suitable design agencies left on your list. Ideally a maximum of five, a manageable number to take to the next stage.

Time to make contact

Now it’s time actually to get in touch. You might prefer to pick up the phone, or you might be happier getting everything down in writing so you know you’ve got the message across and can refer to it.

Make your first communication simple, clear and brief, introducing yourself, explaining what your business does. Give a very short outline of what you think you need designing and ask whether they have the capacity and resources. Back everything up with a simple Word doc containing all the information we’ve specified at the beginning of this post, plus your contact details, and wait for a response.

  • If they don’t come back to you within 24 hours with confirmation they’ve got your message, cross them off your list
  • They might be too busy, or the project might not suit them, in which case you can cross them off
  • If they’ve emailed a confirmation and said they’ll get back to you, give it a week. If they don’t come back to you with something solid within the time, or within the timescale you’ve requested, cross them off your list
  • Ideally you’ll get a more or less instant email response or phone call, in which case you know they’re keen

Wait until you get all the responses back before taking the next step. From then onwards the decision process might involve any or all of this:

  • Stepping back and relaxing for a few days to let all the information you’ve gathered percolate through your mind – much more sensible than rushing in
  • Sense-checking your choices with the help of a trusted colleague, network member, colleague, friend or family member
  • The agency’s terms and conditions, which you should read carefully before making a decision
  • The payment terms
  • The way they manage projects
  • Whether or not you ‘click’ with your main contact there
  • Who will manage your project
  • How many people will work on the project – and can you meet them all?
  • Do they do everything in-house or contract projects out?

Compare, contrast and decide

Compare the responses you’ve gathered. Make certain your budget stacks up with what they’ll deliver. Ask extra questions you might have forgotten. Clarify any fluffy bits. Have a good think. Then you’ll have a decent idea of who you like best. Now it’s time to arrange a meeting or have another chat to confirm your thoughts and feelings.

100% confident?

Now you’re fully confident you have all the info and insight needed to make a good decision. Let the agency you choose know you’ve chosen them and they’ll provide the relevant paperwork, take up the reins and kick your project off. It’s also good to let the agencies you’ve rejected know your decision and, ideally, why you came to it, both for good karma and common courtesy’s sake.

Build that relationship

We know the best design work is born out of good, warm, long-term relationships. Meaningful relationships deliver great results. Ideally, your agency will become a valuable business partner, much more than a one-off wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

This is what to aim for: a relationship where you both more than happy to pass on word of mouth recommendations for one another, where you grow together hand in hand and the agency knows you well enough to make proactive business-savvy suggestions and recommendations. In essence, a strong design partner you’re happy to work on any and every design project – on and offline – with.

Will we fall in love?

Building a solid, enjoyable relationship with our clients is something we love. As a result, our clients enjoy working with us. How about you? Will we fall in love? Get in touch