What Do you Pay your Design Team for, Exactly?

When faced with the visual communications of a blue-chip company, it’s hard to miss that you’re seeing deep pockets. Five years ago, had you asked me what Deloitte was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that they were one of the largest accountancy firms in the world. If you handed me a piece of their marketing collateral, or pointed me to their website, however, I could have told you that they meant business.

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi present in each piece of marketing collateral, modal pop-up window and critical internal communication served by companies of Deloitte’s caliber that you so rarely see from smaller organizations, even when those small enterprises hire good design teams. The fundamental difference, then, isn’t necessarily how well funded a design team is, but rather how they are used. Graphic designers study a vast array of skills; psychology, marketing, communication, color theory, art history, typography and design principles are all critical areas of study for each designer, whether self-taught or university educated. Designers also, of course, learn how to use design software.

When I started my career as a print-artworker in a small print brokerage in Scotland, I was shocked to discover that local university students were willing to pay me a significant hourly rate to teach them how to use Adobe software, the industry standard tools of modern graphic design. What I didn’t realize then, but have learned since, is that the lack of focus on these tools was because this aspect of design is, by far and away, the least important part of the education of any graphic designer. Throughout my career, I’ve noticed small business owners making a similar mistake; commissioning a design for a brochure is an entirely different matter than paying someone to make your brochure.

In my early twenties, I made two decisions that drastically changed how people perceived me. First, I let a much more stylish friend take me shopping, and I bought what she recommended. Second, I started going to hair salons, where I would let hairdresser do whatever they liked, so long as they didn’t give me a cut that I would be wholly uncomfortable with. I had come to understand that I didn’t know anything about style, and I couldn’t be objective enough to know what cut really flattered my features. More importantly, I put away my pride, and recognized that my opinions on these matters weren’t as relevant as those from people who truly knew what they were doing. I decided that I’d rather admit my ignorance, take the hit to my pride, and oh, I don’t know, actually have people want to date me for more than just my sparkling personality. The factor that likely made this so difficult for so many years is that there were always people perfectly willing to sell me however many pairs of cargo-pants I wanted, or run whichever clipper-guard number I chose across my scalp for a nominal fee. In fact, I only made these changes when I finally realized that it wasn’t simply an article of clothing that I wanted, nor did I want a haircut for a haircut’s sake. What I really wanted, and what I needed, were the social benefits that an article of clothing or a styled cut would offer me. Only when I understood this did I go to experts and let those experts make the decisions that they needed to make for my benefit. Design works this way, too. You’ll have no trouble finding friends, relatives, or online freelancers perfectly willing to create whatever you like in their software package of choice, exactly how you want it. You’ll also never have trouble finding someone willing to perform a bowl-cut to your exacting specifications.

Therein lies the difference. Large, experienced companies aren’t paying someone to swing the hammer; they’re hiring someone to architect the house. This is where that je ne sais quoi I mentioned earlier comes from; there is an invisible structure behind every piece of collateral a competent designer creates. There is a system of grids, an order, or hierarchy, of the elements created with white-space, color, size, or shape designed to reduce the cognitive-load on your target audience and ensure that they consume the collateral in the most effective, efficient way possible. The piece is styled exactly to give a certain impression or emotion, or to appeal to a particular group of people, and to then delicately lead this group towards a carefully defined goal. Each paragraph, header, image, button or shape is placed, sized, and colored precisely in relation to other elements in service of a larger purpose. Small business owners almost always miss this point, at least at first: you’re not paying for a piece of collateral; you’re paying for what it does.

Designers are expensive. I’m not talking about the ones you find on fiverr, or the artworker at your local print-shop. I often see small business owners paying $150, $200 or more per hour hiring high-quality, thoughtful, intelligent designers to whom they’ll dictate the exact placement of every image, logo, and paragraph. If you fall into this camp, I’m about to save you a ton of money: Stop hiring designers; you don’t need them. Here’s the thing; if you recall the topics of study I listed above, competent designers don’t need to use 99% of that knowledge they spent years learning when a business owner dictates exactly how to lay out their websites, brochures or signage. Gestalt theory, grid systems, visual hierarchy, all of a sudden, they don’t need any of it. Oh, they’ll still charge you the usual rate, you’re just not going to benefit from their experience, and you can be damned-sure your piece isn’t going in their portfolio. At this point, you may as well have hired somebody, anybody, who can work the software for a tenth of the cost. This is where you must make the call; do you really want to hire someone who simply operates the tools in the exact way you’ve asked for, or do you actually need to work with someone who knows how to get the results you’re looking for?

The trick to extracting the greatest return on investment from your design team, to using that team like the big guns do is to give your designers a problem to solve, not instructions to follow. As a designer, I’m not here to lay out your home page exactly how you want it. There are people on the internet who’ll do that for less than $10 an hour. Designers are trained, instead, to fix problems, to create solutions, and to drive action.

Don’t tell me this:

“I want a(n) [ITEM] with a(n) [ELEMENT] at [LOCATION].”

Instead, tell me this:


Now I’m in no way saying that business owners shouldn’t have input into the process. You know your organization and its goals better than anyone. Just pay attention to where you place your input; is it relevant to the bigger picture, your brand, or a larger goal? When I hear feedback or objections relating to a piece I’m working on for a client, I always try to interpret what it is that they’re truly asking for. Designers will sometimes miss things that are important to you, and this is where the client-designer relationship really bears fruit. Sometimes “make the logo bigger” is unfounded micro-management, but often it means something like “I don’t feel that our branding is clear enough to leads who haven’t heard of our company, and I’d like our logo to have a chance to really stick in their memory.” The real value in a designer is that they’ll tell you when the former is the case, especially if it may hurt the objective of the piece, and they’ll hear you and adjust when the latter is true. The cycle of feedback here is critical, and when the relationship is in balance, it really comes to form a delicate dance that produces beautiful, and tangible results. So the next time you speak to your design team, remember what it is that you’re paying for. Ask for solutions, and that’s what you’ll receive.

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