How to choose your design partner

December 20, 2020

It’s been known for quite some time that implementing design principles and design DNA early on is one of the main factors for a company’s future success. In fact, businesses and companies that have done so during their establishment, have proven to be the ones that grow more quickly, create long-lasting value for their clients and employees, and are generally considered to be better organizations. What does it mean to be driven by design? Design-driven businesses are usually iterating faster, tend to be very open-minded to changes, learn to listen and pivot according to customer feedback, and manage to properly reduce risks and accelerate the development of their products. Most early-stage, and even some post-round A companies, cannot afford to build an all-around design team in-house. They have to hire external design partners to help them build their first product and, more importantly, create the right organizational infrastructure for future cross-organization growth. Selecting the right design partner is rather tricky. You have to find a partner that not only has relevant experience, but also one that matches your taste and understanding of the market. You are looking for a partner that will be a real game-changer for whatever it is that you’re building. Here are the most important parameters you need to take into consideration when you’re looking for your first design partner.
  1. Direct experience — this is the most important thing. Do not choose a partner that has not done something similar for another client. In addition, ask your partner for references to clients that are similar to you and get their feedback on their relevant work. Without this, your design partner will be learning on your account...
  2. Relationship — your design partner will be one of the most important parts of the team. You need someone that will be there during the hard moments (and there will be hard moments) and someone who will be able to handle the frustration that is an inherent part of every product development cycle. You also need this partner to fit your perspective of the world and the market; if you’re micromanaging your teammates, make sure your partner knows this; if you expect zero maintenance, make sure to align expectations with your partner of choice.
  3. Cost — You get what you pay for, but this is not as simple as it sounds. Things have to be appropriately aligned. The first projects usually go out of scope quite fast, and you have to make sure these things are discussed before the work begins. You can always negotiate creative models that can involve royalties, deferred payment models, and even equity. However, entering into a relationship in which your partner is “forced” to provide a significantly lower price than their initial proposal will usually result in a big disappointment - for them, and for you.
  4. KPIs and deliverables — make sure you outline the process, the timeframes, and the deliverables of each phase and that all phases and expectations are written, discussed, and agreed upon. Open issues with contractors are a real hassle when you’ve already started the project and, in many cases, may terminate the relationship. If there are things that are truly unknown early on, make sure to define a mechanism that deals with these kinds of issues and add it to your contract.
  5. Style and taste — Last but certainly not least: if you don’t have an immediate emotional connection to your design partner’s work — leave it. The design should be exciting, thrilling, and emotional. If you feel nothing, you’re in the wrong relationship.
Selecting a design partner is an essential part of building a business, and if done right, the first steps in a long-term relationship. Professional relationships are always complicated, demanding, and might be frustrating when poorly managed, but if you build them properly, if you select your partners wisely and manage them properly, it will be a one to remember. Just like outside the office.  

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