Suitable service adds value to the design

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.In looking back over the two-year history of this column, we have covered the subject of design from many perspectives.We...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

In looking back over the two-year history of this column, we have covered the subject of design from many perspectives.

We have critiqued the work of our peers. We have examined the way in which our profession is practised. We have even engaged in a little social criticism. But one thing we have yet to discuss is the value of a good suit.

Ten years ago, the only suits you would find in a design firm were on the partners’ backs. (The quality of the label was measured in direct proportion to the length of the client list.)

By entrepreneurial necessity, designers tended to assume all of the duties of running a business, including sales, client relations, account management and creative. But over the last six or seven years, the exigencies of an ever more competitive marketplace have required designers to hire someone else to wear their suits for them.

Nowadays, there isn’t a successful firm around that doesn’t have a suit whose job it is to develop new business, manage accounts or service clients. Why is this the case, and just what is it that makes a suit a good fit?

The most important cause of this trend is a sharp increase in the value of service. Good design is simply not enough: it has got to be delivered quickly and efficiently. And even that is not sufficient: clients expect you to be able to anticipate their needs, not just respond to them.

The ability to anticipate those needs is part of the value-added service that an experienced suit brings to the table.

A good suit is not just a salesman or a messenger; he or she must have a solid background in either marketing, brand management or public relations, coupled with an understanding of how good design relates to all of those disciplines.

Depending upon the nature of the account, suits are often the principal contact between client and designer. In this role as liaison, the suit must understand the needs of both. If he or she is too marketing-oriented, the design suffers; too design-oriented, and the marketing objectives may not be achieved.

Allan Boyle, director of design at Nestlž Canada, defines the ideal suit like this: ‘The suit acts as a two-way interpreter. The typical brand manager does not understand the language of design, and designers do not always understand the language of a marketing brief. The good suit is one who can translate one into the other and vice versa.’

As such, the good suit has the potential to create an atmosphere of mutual trust between client and designer, a trust that is fundamental to the success of any project.

The best suit will practise a special kind of diplomacy, acting as a strong advocate for the designer when communicating with the client, and effectively advancing the client’s marketing needs when communicating with the designer.

It is clearly a delicate balance, and those who can maintain it to the mutual satisfaction of both client and designer are rare indeed. So how can you tell whether you are looking at a suit that fits this well?

Listen carefully to the language of the initial presentation: look for a balanced attitude toward both client and designer.

An effective suit will promote the value of design as an agent of competitive leverage, and he or she will be able to demonstrate how it can help you achieve your marketing objectives.

Slavish homage to either design values or marketing issues will betray the suit whose skills are out of phase with the synergy that is required to put your product out in front of the competition.

In the final analysis, the value of a good suit is that it not only looks good but feels comfortable – on both the client and the designer.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.