08 November 2006
Sara Curtis, Editor of Applied Arts Magazine
Sara Curtis, Editor of Applied Arts Magazine

Last December, Applied Arts interviewed four corporate communications professionals, all major purchasers of design services in Canada, about their thoughts on the designer/client relationship. Following is an edited version of those conversations.

Applied Arts: How often do you look for a new designer?

David Coll, Petro-Canada: Everything is driven by company strategy. When there's a change of direction in the company or we feel we need a new direction, we'll look for a new designer. Sometimes printing will determine where we go we switched our printer last year from Vancouver to Toronto, so we were looking for a designer in Toronto. All things being equal we'd probably look every two years anyway. I don't like to change every year. I don't think that's beneficial. I like to build up a certain synergy if it's working well.

Helen Reeves, iRecognize Inc.,: Depends on the project, but for a recurring project like an annual report, I rarely change designers every year. Once you find the right fit, a long-term working relationship works best. The designer begins to understand your goals. It's an investment on both sides. Some people do reviews for competitive budget reasons. I know what the rates are. I don't make the designer jump through hoops for the business.

Roxanne Pearce, Telus Communications Inc.,: We don't have a formal review system. I tend to rely on the same ones. They re not bound to accountability or our bottom line like agencies are. Within the past three years we've used three design firms.

AA: How do you identify potential new firms?

Ted Rideout, Nestle Canada Inc.,: We have a very broad experience inside Nestle. Word of mouth comes not from the street, but from people's experiences here. Design annuals are also a great way to stay current in the design world. When we're looking for a design firm, we want to meet people we've heard of. Then we narrow it down to a shortlist.

DC: I look at design annuals, and Canadian, American and European awards, and I read design magazines. I get about 300 annual reports. I'm not going to lie and say I read them but I look through them and put sticky notes on them. I may get a few content ideas, but largely I look at the design. But my main source is design annuals. I look for new names, ones I've never seen before. One other unique thing is that I look for companies who have designed books in French as well. We've gotten ideas in the past from looking at leading reports like Molson's and Bank of Montreal, and taken examples from other industries. If IBM does something that's a little out of step a little unexpected a lot of companies will notice and a lot of designers will notice, too.

RP: We always have a shortlist in our head. When there's a change in relationship or when there's a project where you need some fresh eyes, you call the people on the shortlist. There's also award annuals, listings in magazines, a little bit of word of mouth. But that works more for agencies than design firms. Direct mail is another way to get on the virtual shortlist, but it doesn't have as much an impact as the annuals or the awards. Still, when people send me stuff in the mail I do file it. Direct mail, advertising in industry vehicles, entering annual contests and award shows, it's all part of the designer's approach to their marketing of themselves.

AA: How often are you approached by design firms? Does persistence work or are you annoyed by repeated calls and letters?

TR: I get phone calls and direct mail weekly, but I tend not to put a lot of weight on them. I'll take a quick glance at a client list, but I find the client list is a bit of a red herring there are a lot of design firms who put Nestle on their client list, and they haven't done anything for us in years.
I have no problem with a phone call. I understand people have to build their business fair enough. I'll generally ask them to send something to me. But persistence doesn't work. It just gets in my way. I'd prefer to receive something in the mail first and then I don't mind the follow-up phone call. Quality work is the only thing that stands out. It's quite interesting when companies write a little something about the challenge and solution and processes they've gone through on a specific project. That background stuff is almost as important to me as the great picture of the package.

DC: My phone starts ringing off the hook in mid-August. I get approached a lot, and I'll look at everything that crosses my desk. I ask for references. I have friends who are analysts and will get feedback from them. With some firms, persistence pays off if the person is professional about it. If I believe they believe what they're telling me, I don't mind persistence. I don't want to alienate anyone for trying. But when a company is parachuting someone into town to try to do all your business with one phone call, it's obvious. I did have one bad experience. One firm had a young fellow who was making phone calls and he was fairly aggressive. I told him to send me some stuff and I'd be happy to look at it. The material wasn't too bad but he had such a cocky attitude, saying things like, "We're an award-winning company." He was really trying to put on the flash. It was embarrassing. At one point he actually called me "Dude" on the phone. That sealed the deal.

HR: They haven't found me in my new job yet. (laugh) In my previous two (as VP corporate communications at Noranda for 11 years until February 1999, and then at Ontario Hydro Services Co. for just over a year) I got a lot of phone calls and a lot of mailers. I don't think I ever worked with someone who sent me direct mail or called me. Because I keep up to date on who's doing what and what I like, if it was one of those I would call them. The DM and marketing never really influenced me. Not to say that some of the marketing isn't good, but I know I've never followed up actively on any of those.

RP: Between Web developers, designers and media types, I get several calls a day. I find this very annoying; I'm in meetings all day long every day. The fact that someone thinks they're going to get me at my desk to have a conversation on their schedule I find pretty short-sighted in today's world.

AA: What do you look for in a designer?

TR: When we select a designer, it's both a business and a design capability process we go through. Because we enter into a relationship that's like a partnership, there has to be compatibility all the way down the line for Nestle. It's not atypical relationship it's very much viewed as a partnership. We look to add value to each other's businesses. We have two formal reviews during the year, but it's not just us reviewing them we review each other. From a communication point of view, they're asked to make sure everything they create is compatible with the packaging if they create point-of-sale stuff it has to be compatible to what has been communicated on package. All the visual properties must work well together. The design firm has to ensure that.

RP: I look for someone who listens well and doesn't bring an elitist approach and has a passion for pure and true design. It's a fine balance: someone who holds true to what they believe in and yet doesn t forcefeed it down people's throats who maybe can't live in that pure world. Listening skills are really important. I look for a systematic approach not only to their thinking about design, but also to their approach to a project. I always find it wonderful to talk to a designer things that are on seven pieces of paper suddenly become a flow chart. If they're good, they bring a clarity of thinking. People who rely too much on technology as opposed to relying on their sense of design make me nervous. It makes me nervous to see designers with a mouse in their hand instead of a pencil. I really look for thinking. There's a sense from some clients that you're paying for the output or the product as opposed to the thinking, which I find disturbing. They say things like, "We didn't run that, so we re not paying for it." That's horrifying. We're paying for the designers' brains. Great work is an output of great thinking, and you can't always demonstrate great thinking by just showing the final product because you don't really understand what the objectives were. They have to understand the world clients live in: we do have bottom line accountability, we have to explain budgets to senior management. The designer has to understand it and assist in that. Oh, and we also look for someone who does good work.

DC: We're looking for design that I feel is compatible with the direction of Petro-Can we're a fairly conservative company in a conservative industry. We want to present the company in the best light. A classy design, but it can't be overdone bright colours are generally out. Everything I do here I have to sell to a committee as well as the executives. They need to generally see some kind of precedent. That's why I get all the other reports. They help me to explain my ideas. Everything has to be backed up with rationale. You really have to tie it in to the strategy. The challenge is to work within that framework and try to make the most of it. We're maybe a little biased toward boutique firms because of the personal service aspect, but the danger is that they're too small sometimes. They have to have the staff. A lot of Calgary companies will outsource production; that scares the hell out of me. I need stability. We also want to be the No. 1 client when we're working with a designer. We don't want to deal with a firm that's churning out 60 annual reports. And because we're Petro-Canada, we wouldn't even consider a designer in the States.

AA: What is your review process like?

TR: With the companies that are on the shortlist, we start by having a couple of face-to-face meetings with the principals, to find out about the company and its business philosophy. Then we put them through pointed questions about how they do business, their financial status, what added value they could bring to Nestle. Find out if the chemistry, experience and quality of design is right. Typically we have three or four meetings. Then we ask for a business proposal. By that time we've narrowed it down; we like the design end of things, it's just whether or not we can do business together. The final bid is a combination of price, service, how much resources they're willing to put into our account, and the quality of those resources.

The whole relationship comes down to how committed both designer and client are to get involved with each other. The best designers see through what we tell them we want and identify what we need. It's a commitment to be an extension of the eyes and ears into the communication world. We're very good marketers and business people, but our number one discipline is not communication. We rely on the designers for that. The commitment they put on that is very valuable to us.

RP: We would call a firm we're interested in, have a meeting, talk about their philosophy and then ask for a presentation. At that point it becomes a bit of a pitch. When looking for a firm, reputation is the most important; experience and reputation go hand-in-hand. I wouldn't even talk about money when deciding between firms. I wouldn't mind having some sort of hourly rate card type of discussion, but I try not to make decisions based primarily on price. We're one of the largest companies in Canada. We need quality work. I'm not going to be successful if our partners aren't successful. I mean, I don't want to get hosed. But if someone is successful they have a sense of what the market will bear. Once we've picked someone I need a sense of timing or a workback schedule, and an estimate.

HR: I'd probably meet with four or five design firms, to see what they're doing. Of those I like, I never have more than three do a quote. I don't ask them for spec work. I'm able to judge by the quality of their past work. That's enough. I don't think with a short brief they'd be able to give the spec project their best work anyway.

Of the three who give me quotes, I know I like all their work and could work with all of them. I take all of them seriously, and I don t go for necessarily the lowest quote. When I've selected one, I have a meeting with my boss and the company I'm recommending, to make sure the relationship works. The designers have to be able to make presentations to management teams and executive boards.

DC: This past review I looked at all my usual references. I had narrowed it down to six Toronto companies. I interviewed all six and narrowed it down to three, and then asked all three for bids. It is our usual policy to invite three bids.

All three were very strong candidates, although I always have a favourite going into the bid situation. But Bhandari and Plater, the firm we wound up going with, weren't my first choice. Before even meeting any of the designers I had virtually made my choice. But I went in and right away Sunil Bhandari and Laurie Plater and I started talking about ideas. We probably spent a lot of time very casually talking about the company and what we could do, and I found that they thought exactly the way I did. By the end of the meeting we were talking about the actual words that would go on the cover. I was very impressed with the two others, but it boiled down to chemistry. Meeting them in their office was key sometimes when you go to an office their staff looks very stressed, or they don't introduce you around. That tells you something about them. (Bhandari and Plater) just struck me as a real team. You could feel the creative energy was there. Part of it is just a gut-feeling and chemistry that you can't explain. They have to be able to convince me that they can think strategically, that they'll be flexible about making changes, and I won't have to feel guilty for phoning them after hours or early in the morning. We've had the odd cover that's been scrapped at the last minute; an executive didn't like it for whatever reason, and he's on holiday for two weeks, so there's no time to debate it, it just has to be changed. A good designer will enjoy that challenge.

AA: Would you ever hire a design shop of, say, only a few people?

TR: Size does matter. We need someone who can deal with the capacity of work Nestle does. They'll be working with all our divisions retail, foodservice and they have to be capable of taking on sizable projects. The designers that we choose tend to blur the line. We don't just look at them as designers; we look at them as brand communicators, and that sometimes spills over into other disciplines.

RP: For a single project I have no problem with a one- or two-person operation. But for a long-term relationship it would make me nervous.
Sometimes we can give designers the luxury of lots of lead time, but sometimes I need something done right away. Size gives flexibility to a design firm. I think depth of bench strength gives a little bit more comfort. If a small shop loses one person it can really change the dynamic.

AA: Do you look for designers who have done work in your industry?

RP: It's not important that they ve done work in our industry. That brings preset thinking as opposed to clarity of vision. It's not a bad thing necessarily, but I don't go looking for it. I try to approach communications from the point of view of disrupting the category, so I don't want people who will look at it in the same way they always have.

TR: We do want someone who has worked in our industry. It's not that someone who is new to the industry wouldn't be able to bring a design capability to that, but the executional part has proven to be very unsatisfactory when that's happened. We expect them to manage our projects literally start to finish. They need to know how our factories work, how our printers work. We ask all of these guys to not only partner with Nestle, but also partner with each other.

DC: I don't want a designer who has done 20 other oil patch books. We're looking for innovative ideas that we can adapt.

AA: Would you consider a designer who had never done the type of design you're looking for?

HR: I actually prefer working with designers who do a lot of different things. If you go to a company that only does, say, annuals, their creativity isn't the same as companies that do all kinds of stuff. More can be brought to the table. I always like to do annuals that have a fresh approach. If you re not doing them all the time you haven't developed a pattern.

DC: With a firm our size, we wouldn't take a chance on someone who had never done an annual report. It's just too big a job. What I would do if I was interested was get them working on a smaller project.

AA: What do you look for in a presentation to you?

HR: I'm looking for the scope of their work. I'm looking for them to explain the communication strategy behind the piece of work: what was the client trying to say and how did the designer get that across? I like to know the suppliers they use. Do they do their own typesetting? What kind of photographers do they like? Do they know writers? Sometimes they can t reach into other areas. If it was a big job I'd want to know they had contacts. If we're doing a Web site, do they know other people in that industry? I like designers who have a bit of an edge I don't know what that means. I want them to be able to express an opinion even if it's unconventional or not mainstream. There's a positive tension that I look for. I don't want someone who's going to give me back my own ideas. I want someone who is going to challenge those things and take them to the next level. And it takes a certain personality type to do that.

AA: Once they start designing, how does the process go?

RP: We have a very thorough process for both marketing communications and design. We have a formal document called a "communications brief." Anything prepared internally we ask to review. We have three points of presentation. One which I call the concept stage where we want to see the thinking and directional approaches to things. The second is some recommendations. And I never send any more than one recommendation beyond me and my team. We discuss options and once we both the designers and us agree on one as the recommendation, we present it internally to stakeholders in the organization. I avoid testing. But when we do test creative externally, we try to do it in one-on-one situations. When we were redesigning calling cards, we produced mock-ups, put them in wallets and showed them to people one-on-one on the street and videotaped it. The design firms help us with that one-on-one, person on the street testing. We do that with three or four options before getting to the final one. If it's appropriate.

AA: At the first presentation, do you like to see several potential solutions to a project?

TR: I think given the process we've set up, and the amount of learning the designer puts into our brands, we're not a mile away from the solution when we come to the table. But I do prefer pencil sketches rather than a final recommendation. I need the designer to be able to explore the full potential of their creativity but also be well aware of what the brand s positioning is. They have to bring their strong recommendation to the table. It does compel a great degree of creativity, to work within tight parameters and still create packages that are different and will sell when they get to the shelf. But it's harder to be creative if there are no rules set down. They have to pay very close attention to the brief and what the marketer's intentions are. Rarely is it design for the exercise of design.

HR: I like to see things as a work in progress, and I don't think it's realistic to ask someone to come up with the perfect answer, or to think you can get it right the first time it may be esthetically wonderful, but does it address the needs you have? Unless the designer was working with you developing those, it takes time.

At Hydro, I saw about 40 different logos. They tried to capture a number of attributes, to show us we could go in different directions. We ended up testing about eight or 10 of them. Whenever I've got a new designer, I tell them if the final end product is exactly the same as the initial proposal, to me that is a failure. We didn't take it to the next step. If the boards are the same, it didn't work. Sometimes you get hooked on an idea, but in a good process it will automatically change.

RP: At the first stage, if there's one (solution) I'm happy, if there's three, that's fine. I don't pay for how much people produce. Sometimes the more they produce the more frightening it is. What I love is when a designer says, "Here are the directions we can go: one is more emotional, one more functional. Within that, here are some of the directions we can take." They don't have to be that well developed. It just allows us to put a bit more dimension into the brief; we're really just fleshing out the brief at this point.

AA: How hands-on do you like to be in the design process?

DC: You have to be hands on but you have to know when to let the designer do their work. Knowing their role is an important part of my job. You have to work together or it's a disaster. Copy is written in house, by me, so I'm really involved in that sense. I present what the designer does to the committee. Occasionally the designer may be involved, but I think people here feel more comfortable critiquing stuff without the designer here. I also take them around to meet Petro-Can's executives, and try to sit them down with the execs and have a discussion about where the company is going, so they're hearing first hand. Later, when I say someone wants a change, they may be a little more understanding about it. When I'm looking at photos, I don t say, "Cut this one out." I always talk about why. I'll always make my opinion known but I'll let them make their choices and defend them. I don't say, "I want to see that tomorrow." You have to give people time to produce something that's well thought out.

AA: When you hire a design team, do you want to deal only with the principals of the company?

HR: I want to work with the person who's doing the work. Whenever designers come in during quoting I always ask them to bring the designer who's going to be doing the work. But that doesn't mean I want to see the principal during the quote and never see them again, which has happened to me before.

RP: I'm pretty comfortable working with juniors on projects. Sometimes juniors are really great designers that are just new in the industry. That said, if I had any concerns that we weren't getting the quality, I wouldn't hesitate to go to the principal. But I don't think you necessarily get the best work out of the top guys.

TR: When we're establishing the relationship we need to be involved with the principals. On a day-to-day basis we look to someone who is a senior account manager. We're quite willing to work with junior account managers as long as they are clearly working under the wing of a senior person. So there's clear accountability at the design firm for every project at a senior level.

AA: Have you had any really bad or really good experiences with designers that you'd like to share?

HR: I haven't had a lot of really bad experiences. But I've heard about some. One story a friend told me was that she was working on an annual report and the company decided to change its whole business strategy. She called the designers and told them and they said, "That's okay, we can still use the same design strategy." That would have driven me crazy. I've also heard of corporate clients that see the design team as someone to implement this person's ideas. They try to bully them, and that's not right. The best experiences I've had with designers have been where everyone respects and knows each other's role. When that happens you can come up with some really great work. I don't like when designers say they can't do something and I know they can. Or when they get stuck on an idea, but it's not going to happen the CEO doesn't like it or something but they don't let it go. It's knowing what to fight for and knowing when to let go. Some designers can't let it go. One of the things that's really important for the designer is follow-up or check-in. I've worked with some that are so good the principal would call to see how it was going, was there anyone we were having a problem with? I was really pleasantly surprised about that. It's also nice if they keep in touch after the project is over. I like to see work they're doing.

RP: I had a really bad experience with a design firm that wasn't sure of what its core competencies were. Design firms who want to be ad agencies are as bad as agencies who want to be designers. It's really important that people know what they are. I recognize that sometimes it's hard to say no to something you think you can do, and you want to be able to broaden your scope, but we all struggle with what our brand understanding is. If we start to change that brand promise, then we just confuse the customer. We had an agency and we had a design firm. The designer wouldn't sit at the table with the agency because they saw them as competitors. We went into a focus group to look at creative directions, and the designers slipped in advertising concepts without us even knowing it. We're sitting there behind the glass and they're testing TV spots. It was very disrespectful of us and our agency.

It's our job to help everyone understand their job and give them the confidence to know their role isn't at risk. Let's get on with it and do great work. Brands are too important and too complicated to not be able to do that. You can't have all different groups working separately and autonomously or you're just not going to have the strong brands that we need today.

TR: There are times when personalities just aren't going to work. I don't mind an arrogance that might be put on in terms of a company's creative capabilities. But an arrogance about who we are without any time spent learning about us is certainly not helpful. And it becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly. I've talked to hundreds of designers in the 20 odd years I've been doing this. It's apparent where someone is interested in true communication and getting at the consumer. It's mostly a sign of inexperience when the horn gets tooted before the car arrives.

About this article
The above article by Sara Curtis is reprinted from Applied Arts Magazine, with permission. (c) 2001 by Applied Arts Inc.

About Applied Arts
APPLIED ARTS is Canada's leading visual communications magazine, targeting graphic designers, art directors, new media designers, photographers, illustrators, and corporate communications professionals.
Published bi-monthly, including the prestigious Awards Annual, Applied Arts informs and inspires its readers by offering insight into the techniques and challenges behind outstanding Canadian design work.