What to look for when hiring design professionals

Design is more than just a superficial aspect of your business. It’s not lipstick. Beyond crafting your touchpoints, an effective design team can provide another dimension of value in branding, communications, and customer experience. When design is synergistic (or better yet, integrated) with the rest of the organisation, the final product is noticeably more customer-oriented.

But given the nascency of design as an industry, being a client can be confusing and worrisome. Finding the right designer is daunting. Should you hire a freelancer or a design agency? How do you decide which design agency to go with when their portfolios look similar? How can you be sure you’re hiring someone who genuinely understands your needs and isn’t going to send you a boilerplate design?

In this article, we detail the 12 Qualities of Effective Design Organisations from a client’s perspective. The 12 Qualities are a series of design management principles made for corporate design teams. They detail the culture, sensitivities, and organisational capacities that underpin mature and successful design teams. 

Nevertheless, we admit that it can be difficult to glean all 12 qualities from a first meeting. Moreover, not all of them will be relevant to you depending on your needs and work style. So, we’ve also included the way these qualities can manifest as certain skills or competencies to equip you with actionable information.


Foundation refers to the underlying current that keeps the design team knitted together. Like other types of organisations, a design agency without a mission or vision works for the sake of working. So teams without foundation lack focus, purpose, and cohesion. 

A good mission or vision

A design agency that has taken the time to lay these foundations probably has a mission, vision, or purpose statement. For some, the existence of this statement may be enough. However, if you’re looking for a partner that will treat your wins as their wins, you’ll also need to assess the quality and compatibility of their vision statement. 

For example, a weak statement is:

“To be the global leader in rentable home entertainment by providing outstanding service, selection, convenience and value.” (Blockbuster’s vision statement)

And a strong statement is:

“At Netflix, we aspire to entertain the world—creating great stories from anywhere and offering greater choice and control for people everywhere.” (Netflix’s vision statement)

Did you catch the nuance? A “global leader” only looks at who’s behind them and does what they need to stay one step ahead. Meanwhile, the strong vision statement with aspiration looks forward and creates its vision, irrespective of its competitors. They focus on providing value for you, not providing more than their competitors do.

Leadership that empowers

A good design leader is not necessarily the best designer, but rather a good leader who understands design well (and then hopefully happens to be an amazing designer). Pay close attention to the culture. Do team members have the autonomy to explore and make their own choices, or does leadership micromanage every little detail? 

A large part of design is divergent thinking and exploring multiples. If leadership only focuses on efficiency and treats their designers like machines, you may lose out on the beauty of design and design thinking. 

Authentic user empathy

Another important thing to look out for is if a design team can really put themselves in your customer’s shoes. Desk research and trend reports aren’t always enough. They need to understand the specific context of your business.

Designers need to be in an environment where they have ample time for qualitative and quantitative research to develop a customer-centric solution. When prospecting, ask about how they plan to go about research.

Empathy allows designers to work with intent and advocate for users. Image via Nielsen Norman Group.

Clear on the ROI

Lastly in foundations, you’ll want to check if leadership can clearly articulate the return on investment of design. A designer who understands that design isn’t lipstick wouldn’t even bat an eye at the question. 

Good leaders will be able to articulate the value they add to a business and back it up with numbers. Leaders with this understanding cultivate a workplace culture where designers don’t just “make things”, but rather, create another dimension of value in the customer experience.


Output refers to a design team’s ability to produce “sufficient, robust, and relevant work”. An effective design team considers how they approach the final product and lay the groundwork for the definition of quality and definition of done. 

It’s not just about how nice their work looks, but how that work is constructed and delivered to you. So as a client, the output is generally the easiest and most important of the 12 Qualities to assess.

Teams that consider how their work fits in the entire customer journey

Given that design tends to focus heavily on the user, designers are some of the best profiles to play transversal roles in crafting the customer journey. A designer or agency that insists on working in isolation from the rest of your business severely limits the potential impact of their work.

Teams that can design at the interface, structural, and strategic level

On the flip side, a design team that does consider the entire customer journey should have a certain breadth of skills. For example, if you’re looking for someone to help you refine your branding and communications, you’re not only looking for a brand identity designer but also graphic, motion, and information designers. Or a unicorn who can somehow do all of it.

With these profiles, this team can design the interface (the touchpoint), structure (style guides and customer journeys), and strategy (planning and conceptualising). Leadership in this kind of team should also be clear on how your big-picture goals translate into day-to-day decision-making about small details in the interface.

Teams that can articulate and communicate the meaning of quality

Speaking about small details, how a design team handles the logistics of feedback is also an indicator of their culture. The non-designer tends to judge design the same way they would judge fine art. As such, the optical science of design (like the logic of font scales, information architecture, and color theory) can easily give way to personal preferences.

A team that can articulate its own definition of quality and good performance will know how to find compromise in situations where your preferences go against their professional expertise. 

Adhering to their definition of quality and definition of done reduces the instances of these situations anyways. Basing critique on agreed-upon principles makes it much easier to critique output objectively. This in turn makes meetings less tense and more productive.

An iterative delivery plan 

Design is an iterative process. There are very few, if not zero, circumstances where it’s good for a designer to disappear and then come back to unveil a “fully polished masterpiece”. This is called the Pareto Principle, and there are two main reasons for it:

Firstly, how should you proceed if this “masterpiece” is leagues away from what you were expecting and paying for? To what extent would you be willing to forgive this deviation? Probably very little. And so the designer has to return to square 0 and re-do your project, driving up costs.

Secondly, continuous delivery or an iterative delivery plan allows designers to validate their work periodically. Getting work out into the world is a prerequisite to making an impact. 

Example of the impact of an iterative and incremental delivery by Henrik Kniberg. Image via ScrumAlliance.

Most of us are conditioned to fear failure and think we have only one chance to get things right. But in design, this is rarely the case. Tinkering with small details for weeks will not create the same value as failing fast and learning quickly. So, keep an eye out for an iterative and incremental delivery plan.


Management refers to the way leadership handles the practicalities of running a team. Design management, in particular, requires a certain mastery of balance, as leaders have to juggle your brief and their designers’ creativity. 

As a client, management is perhaps the most sensitive topic to probe. You might ask, “why does their management matter if I’m getting what I’m paying for?”. And the answer is well, yes…but.

Yes, because practically speaking, short-term contracts don’t require deep reconnaissance of a design team’s management, as long as they do what you’re paying them to do.

But not quite, because (and again) practically speaking, a long-term partnership with a poorly managed design team will suck the joy out of the collaboration and leave you with subpar work.

Zappos is well known for treating their company culture as a competitive advantage, not a means to an end. Image via Hazel blog.

A nurturing environment

Disciplines like design require sensitivity, collaboration, and constant switching between different modes of thinking. It’s not just mechanical work. Design teams that work upwards of 40 hours a week are constantly teetering on the edge of burnout. 

As creatives, designers need time away from work not only to recharge but also to take in a variety of stimuli and widen their perspective. And broadly speaking, fatigued employees make mistakes they would not usually make, driving up costs. 

A team with diverse perspectives

In addition to having a variety of stimuli, design teams with diversity in perspective encourage meaningful divergence. Groupthink in design teams can limit exploration. This means that design teams with limited diversity may need to spend more time ideating on a solution to your brief because they tend to think the same way. 

As a client, you can expect agencies with diverse perspectives to explore a wider and deeper range of opportunities than an agency full of clones. This can be incredibly valuable, provided they can translate this exploration into their output.

Good communication

And as we mentioned previously in the output, the creative nature of design does not negate the importance of delivering work and communicating clearly. When it comes to design, no news is not always good news!


As a client, you’ll know a design team is effective if they…

  • Have a mission or vision statement that doesn’t focus on “being a leader in…”
  • Have genuine empathy for the user and consider how their work fits in with the customer journey of your business
  • Empower and nurture their staff by encouraging autonomy, exploration, and diversity
  • Clearly articulate the ROI of their work
  • Clearly articulate their definition of done and definition of quality
  • Have an iterative delivery plan and don’t neglect communication

It’s important to remember that the 12 Qualities aren’t a checklist but a series of principles. You are unlikely to find a team that “ticks all of these boxes”. Different agencies will have different strengths and weaknesses.

So, identify what’s most important for you and focus on finding something compatible. Design is a collaborative process and this includes you. We cannot stress enough how draining it is to endure a bad cultural fit for the sake of output with surface-level benefits. And similarly, how invigorating it is to produce synergistic work in a nurturing and collaborative work environment.

By taking the time to choose the right agency, you set yourself up for long-term success.

Pixel Tie is a digital-first creative agency. We craft meaningful digital experiences for brands and people, with your business’ needs in mind. If you like the way we think and would like to work with us, contact us and we’ll get back to you shortly.

Further Reading

12 qualities of effective design organizations – O’ Reilly

The 6 Levels of UX Maturity – Nielsen Norman Group

Design Management (An Introduction) – Interaction Design Foundation

What is Agile? – Atlassian


Founder & Creative Director at Pixel Tie. Rémy has a particular enthusiasm for all things digital and interactive. He is also a Serial Bread & Cheese Eater, Mountain Biker & Proud Philatelist.

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