Insight - 03/20/23

How to Choose a Design Consultancy

7 min

By Meghan Day

How to Choose a Design Consultancy

Let’s say you have an idea and you’re interested in developing it into a viable product. You’ve done some research and realize that working with a design consultancy would improve the value and quality of your concept. Many small companies can’t afford to have a full product development team in-house and a consultancy is great a way for such companies to outsource their product development while keeping their start-up and overhead costs low. But…there are so many design consultancies out there. How do you know which one is right for you? How are they different from one another, and how do you evaluate whether or not they are a good fit for your design idea? A good fit for you? What does a good company look like, anyway?

Step 1: General Research

While your idea may be unrefined, you likely have a sense of the product category (or categories) it falls into. Perhaps your idea is under the umbrella of soft goods design or wearable technology. Or maybe it’s an educational toy, outdoor gear, or performance clothing. If you were categorizing your product on Amazon, which department would you choose? Identify the category that seems like the best classification for the project and search for design consultancies within that category. You can also search for similar products and investigate who did the design work for that company.

When you see a company that seems like it’s in the ballpark, browse their portfolio and take a look at their social media. Is there anything reminiscent of your idea in their portfolio? Do they focus on projects in the same product category, or specialize in the materials and technologies you hope to use? What do you think of those products? How about their other clients, what industries are they in?

Interwoven Design’s online project portfolio. Review online portfolios like this to see if the consultancy works on projects in your product category.

Step 2: Deep Dive

As you conduct your initial research, certain companies will catch your attention. Once you have a shortlist of promising candidates, you can send out a request for qualifications (RFQ) or credentials. The credentials usually outline how the consultancy approaches projects, including the number of project phases, designs, and revisions they provide, as well as their experience, references, relevant licenses held, and any accolades. Digging into this information is one of the best ways to get to know the company. Take special care to review the other projects in their portfolio, especially those they have chosen to feature, which tend to represent their wheelhouse(s). If they show process in their portfolio, take note. Many projects a company is working on won’t be represented in their portfolio as non-disclosure agreements are standard in consultancy contracts. Remember that you are only seeing the elements of the company’s work that have been commercialized and approved. This is especially relevant where innovation and patents are involved.

In addition to reviewing their portfolio more carefully, take a closer and more detailed look at social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn. These may show a different side of a company’s brand or process, and give you another way to get to know their style and personality. On our Instagram account we post a lot of process and studio images to give a sense of what happens behind-the-scenes. Reach out to their references to understand the dynamic of their client relationships.

a designer draws on a tablet with a pencil-like stroke
Observe where companies show process in their portfolio. Look for abundant idea generation and innovation.

Step 3: RFP

After your deep dive you should aim to have at least three potential consultancies that are a good fit for your product category and industry and maybe a good fit for you and your project. You will need more information to know for sure, and that’s where the request for proposal (RFP) comes in. In the RFP the design firm outlines the scope of work for the project, pricing, the confidentiality agreement, ideas for the project, a timeline, and more. They won’t know the final outcome yet (that’s what the design process is for), but they will have a plan for how to approach it. This document will be very clear about what is and is not included in the design service.

Step 4: Evaluation

Ideally you will have strong options to consider once you receive your design proposals. The following are key criteria to consider when evaluating your candidates. 

General Characteristics

Independent of the type of project you have in mind, there are a few characteristics you should look for in any reputable consultancy. 

Innovative problem-solving

Assess each candidate for innovation at every stage of your research. Is innovation key to their ethos as a company? Does it show up again and again in every project? Does their work seem cool to you? That’s a good sign that you’ll think their work on your idea will be cool, too.

Excellent communication skills

Use any information provided by the company as a way to assess clarity and quality of communication. A good client relationship involves clear, concise communication that respects everyone’s time. Good communication will shine through any media format, whether it is an e-mail, a blog or social media post, a project description, an interview, or a phone call. 

Integrity

Good companies have high integrity. They interact with honesty and consideration for their clients. Their processes and goals are transparent, as are the expectations throughout the course of a project. Any issues that arise can be dealt with quickly and efficiently. 

Strong leadership

A project with strong, experienced leadership will run more efficiently and be much more likely to be on budget and on time than one without. Is there such a figure on the design team that would be working on your project? Good companies don’t exist without good leadership.

sketches and soft goods prototyping materials are scattered on a desk
Innovation is critical to a successful design project. Review a company’s portfolio and score projects for innovative concepts. You don’t have to be an expert to know when an approach feels fresh and new.

Project-specific Characteristics

Innovation (again)

While it’s useful to note that innovation is a consistent feature in a company portfolio, it’s even more important that they can be innovative regarding your idea specifically. This is where the RFP is critical for determining an ideal fit.

Expertise

A design consultancy that is an expert in the type of project you have in mind will have years if not decades of knowledge to bring to the table. Are body mechanics or behavioral psychology involved? Do you need to understand current market trends? Do you need access to specialized skills, tools, or machinery for your project? It’s important that the design firm you choose can offer true expertise in the areas your project requires.

Size

Small design companies can be more agile in their development process than corporate behemoths, and are often more economical, too. It may be easier to get face to face time with your design team, and you are more likely to have a senior designer in the mix. We recommend going with a small consultancy if that is available for your product category.

Industry Experience

Any candidate under serious consideration should have a proven track record in the industry that demonstrates their suitability to take on your project. Companies with experience have worked on many different products with many different clients and it shows. You will also need relationships with a wide range of material sources and manufacturers to bring your idea to life, and a well-connected design company can provide that.

Fit/Chemistry

As with any relationship, it’s hard to know if it will work based on the compatibility on paper. You are going to need to speak to a representative from the consultancy before you can be confident that you will work well together. Ideally, you would meet with the whole prospective team. Do you have shared values? Are your aesthetic sensibilities aligned? Is the company empathetic to your needs as a client? It’s really important that they are, or the project could suffer. 

A designer creates an exo-suit prototype on a work table
Small design consultancies can be more agile and more accessible than large corporate firms.

So, basically

If you’re on the hunt for a design consultancy to help bring your concept to life, do your research. Look for companies with experience in the right product category and review their websites and portfolios closely. Does innovation shine through everything they do? Are they communicating clearly and concisely across the board? Do they seem honest and straightforward in their client relationships? Do they have the expertise and industry experience your project will need to become successful? Will they be able to give your project the time and attention it needs? Is it easy and pleasant to interact with them?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, they could very well be the design consultancy for you. Looking for more design Insights? Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!


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