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Selection Bored

24 May 2011

How do you choose between companies? You have invited 3 design companies to come and present to you, but how do you chose?

Austen Miller, Senior Partner, 3form Design

Think designer and we think portfolio. Think portfolio and we think a folder of pretty pictures. So is this coveted gallery of all the best work the basis on which we are meant to select a designer or design firm?

It is very easy to be impressed by strong visuals and that is precisely why you get shown them. He or she may even add to the theatre with some on the spot sketching. I suggest, that they know how impressed we all are when street artists casually do portraits of passer-bys.

But it is not an artist that you need for developing new products. Although it is the artistic attributes of a product that lures us all, it is the combination of art, science and technology that enables product designers to visualise, analyse and ultimately create their ideas.

Yes, you need creativity but this needs to be combined with technical and engineering prowess.

The presentation is not to overstate the USP’s of each of the highlighted products but to show you the added value gained through their involvement with the process. The number of portfolio presentations I have sat through where I have wondered if the designer thinks he is selling me the actual product is staggering.  Yes, if I was buying a piece of street lighting I might be impressed by the power saving of using the new ultra bright LED arrays. But as this was probably the basis for the design brief anyway, it is not so relevant to the abilities of the design team but Phillips R&D division.  I want to know how did the process start, what issues they were faced with and how their involvement added value.  I want to know that  they are capable of not just massaging some marketing wishes into an aesthetically pleasing form but commanding a design process.

Does this mean that they should have experience of working in your industry?

Not at all, the experienced designer is a specialist in the design process as you are the specialist in your own field of expertise. The designer must demonstrate to you that they can apply this process of creativity to a variety of markets, embracing specialist compliances and implementing a range of technologies in order to provide robust solutions.

In fact, many companies bring design firms into their development programs to add a new dimension to the way they think. Compared to in-house design teams, agencies are exposed to a broader set of experiences. Every client brings new perspectives, and every new market brings with it a whole set of new discoveries. The design agency becomes the melting pot for an enormous array of technology, ideas, and business philosophies. The cross fertilisation that takes place is a healthy injection for all companies from whatever market.

How do you know the portfolio is real?

This is big problem for the unsuspecting interviewer. There is an unfortunate situation of “chicken and egg” for the new (less than 5 years old) design business; to win clients you need to have had clients.

I know of some very successful design firms that started with a bogus portfolio. Clearly the fact they made it in the world of business makes it more forgivable, but there are hundreds that don’t and this makes it a problem.

It is not difficult for a creative to suggest a very plausible case study but unless it has been acted out for real, the experience you are looking for is not there. This should be easy to verify if the product is on the market but of course there will be reasons why it isn’t.  Not every product idea makes it to market but if you are unsure ask for a reference. The other very common reason for bogus portfolios is the designer that strikes out to make it on their own and claims their previous work as theirs. He should declare this as work from his previous employment. It is very unlikely that they were the whole solution and were more than likely under the direction of a more experienced line leader. Failure to be honest about the portfolio should alarm you as to the reason for being covert. Although he may be associated with a successful product there is a good chance he hasn’t valued the experience of his previous employer and believes he on his own is all you need.

Beware. If you’re suspicious take time to look at the timeline of the projects compared to the date of formation for the company that is presenting to you.

Team or talented individual?

For the individual working from a site with limited overheads there is no reason for him not to be charging less. This you might think is a very attractive solution and be wondering why is there any business case for design companies with larger overheads? The benefits in paying for design teams are very straight forward. Creativity is healthiest when ideas are debated and alternative knowledge is shared. The individual working on their own is unwittingly starved of the variety that feeds the creative mind with new thought.

Teams not only offer a greater diversity of knowledge and opinion but they also offer you the security of numbers to keep a project going when an individual may be having an off day.

If you value the team approach you need to be sure that the use of the word team is not a euphemism for “bums on seats”; lots of designers individually pumping out projects as multiples of an hourly rate. Teams tend to have structure, the project being overseen by a senior more experienced figure with individual designers of mixed skill sets working through the ideas. For teams that recognise their own failings as creatives to be administrators, they have account managers who champion the client and make sure the project is efficient.

If your only point of contact is the designer that will be working on your project then maybe you’re not going to get the team involvement you expect from going to a firm.

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