Guest Post by Amy Graver, Principal and Creative Director, Elements
Over the past several years graphic designers have been asked to take on an increasing number of services that go beyond what we originally set-up shop to do. The design landscape has completely shifted and changed with no end in sight. Our roles are continuously evolving and it has become a question of keep up, or get left behind.
What we discovered after surveying several firms of varying sizes, is that there is no right way to do business. Some firms have expanded their offerings and added experts to their employee roster, while others outsource and partner with services to fulfill client projects.
But, as Christopher Simmons of MINE, San Francisco notes, “Our list of services has always just been ‘Design.’ Once we’re in a relationship with a client, they generally trust us enough to do everything for them. Sometimes that’s outside of what we’re able to provide ourselves, in which case we’ll bring in a freelancer, or hire a specific illustrator, developer, research consultant, etc.”
More Involvement At Strategic Level
My firm, Elements, is pretty lean with four employees, but we have an expansive list of freelance “partners,” allowing us to offer more services, without the overhead of employing more people, which is always a risk. In addition, we are being asked to become more involved at the strategic planning level, working more in tandem as a trusted partner with our clients. This seems to be a common theme, and one that most agencies — including my own — embrace.
Kevin McConkey, principal of Grip in Chicago, notes that the changes the industry has seen in recent years isn’t necessarily new. “Service lists at successful agencies are almost always in flux. As better applications are enabling more in-house employees to execute on production, our services have evolved into more strategic realms such as increasing valuation through virtual product development and messaging of goods and services.” His staff fluctuates between 6 to 10 people.
A Bit of Ingenuity
Of course, meeting new demands when you have a small staff requires a bit of ingenuity. “We believe in aggressive professional development among our staff. Our core tenet to this philosophy is that the only skill you need to work at Grip is the ability to learn new skills. We have also developed a very strong network of specialists in ancillary industries to help with complex executions,” McConkey states.
Simmons, whose firm consists of him, a designer, and an intern, echoes this sentiment. “I meet new demands by being genuinely interested in our clients’ businesses. I read articles related to their industry, proactively research competitors, talk to them about their operations, strategy, HR issues, everything. If you’re informed you can anticipate those new demands collaboratively. Then we can ensure we have the resources in place to meet them, but we can also look at ways of meeting or alleviating those demands on the client side.”
Stanley Hainsworth founded Seattle-based Tether, in 2008 with just himself and a designer. “The goal from the beginning was to create a storytelling engine. I didn’t begin with offering everything from the beginning,” he notes. “As a startup you provide as you see the need. In the same way I hired employees as the work came in, I started with one writer, or one interactive designer, one video person, etc. And then I built those disciplines around that person, or around that first piece of work that facilitated the discipline.” His storytelling machine now employees more than 70 people.
Cathi Pavy, creative director and principal at BBR in Lafayette, La., who has increased her staff in recent years, says she stays ahead by “hiring the best people and working with the best partner-vendors. Every service we have brought in-house has paid off and the timing was perfect,” noting that some things pay off more than others. “Online marketing seems to be the big winner, because it’s easy to show immediate results, which clients love.”
But she cautions, that hiring staff in times of need, can also come at a steep price. “Offering too many services is not the problem. Adding too many employees at one time with a very demanding workload can be a challenge. Things fall through the cracks, quality gets compromised, and systems are lost,” she says.
Collaborate Or Learn New Skills Or Both
The real danger is saying yes when you shouldn’t. At Elements, I never take on a task to keep a client happy that I could not confidently handle to the best of our abilities. If you are concerned about losing the work, seek out an expert and collaborate. It’s better to dive deeply into your expert skill set than to try to expand in areas you are unsure about.
One way we stay ahead of the curve is by learning new skills through training seminars and online courses. Also, attending trade conferences and events gives us a better awareness of what’s going on with our peers in the design industry at large. We feel a responsibility to anticipate our clients needs before they do and to always be prepared to offer them when needed and necessary.
Hainsworth takes another strategy to learning. “I hire those who have the expertise, and then of course, I learn from them. If I hire an interactive creative director, for instance, I learn the lingo and nuances associated with the interactive realm, so I can at least stay knowledgeable,” he says. In contrast, Simmons says, “I’d much rather invest in people who can expand and contract with the work than have to manage that fluctuation by hiring and firing an army of specialists.”
Maybe you finally feel like you have the perfect mix of offerings and talent, but retaining great talent is another challenge altogether. Pavy says at BBR they focus on what seemingly matters most to people. “We have worked hard on creating a great culture and staying true to our mission of providing a work-life balance to our employees.” McConkey encourages personal and professional growth. “Learning to trust the people in management-level roles and give them the autonomy to execute successfully has been one of the most important developments at Grip. Our next generation leadership are repositioning the company for both success and relevancy,” he says, adding, “Having a front row seat to this evolution is absolutely thrilling.”
The real key to staying on top of things is to be flexible and work on building relationships with your clients. As Hainsworth points out, “I’ve always believed, and still do, that designers are some of the most strategic thinkers out there.” We have the capabilities to evolve, it’s just knowing what to invest in and when. I’ll leave McConkey with the last word: “Hard work and buying cocktails always pays off. Ironically, working too late and staying out too late rarely does.”
Amy Graver is the Principal and Creative Director of Elements, overseeing all projects that come through the studio. She works closely with clients to identify their marketing and design needs and develop effective strategies with her team to meet and exceed their goals. Her design work has been recognized and awarded internationally by leading industry publications such as Print, Package Design, CA, HOW, GDUSA and more. A fierce proponent of design, Amy is a co-founder and past vice president of the AIGA Connecticut chapter and past president and board member of the Connecticut Art Directors Club. In 2012, her book Best Practices for Graphic Designers, Grids & Page Layouts was published by Rockport Publishers.