Comparing apples to dumptrucks: Why price doesn't equal cost in choosing a design company


So, you just got three estimates from three design companies and you’re trying to decide which one to pick. The temptation is to flip to the back page and look at the price tag. Making a choice based on the bottom-line makes sense, right? After all it’s an objective, straightforward and fiscally responsible strategy … right?


In order to make the price tag the central criterion for your decisions, you have to assume that you are comparing apples to apples. You are not. Design companies are not the same. Not only is sameness in design companies undesirable, it is impossible.

Comparing design companies is like comparing apples to dump trucks.

In this article we explore why price is not the primary indicator of the true cost (or value) of choosing one design company over another.

Communication Design companies produce work that both differentiates their clients from competitors, and resonates with their clients’ audiences.

What do we mean by “Design Company”?
First of all, let us clarify what we mean by a “design company”. This term could be applied to a design company in a variety of creative fields, but we are applying it specifically to Communication Design companies. These are creative companies who specialize in delivering strategy, artwork, and graphic design for print, web, packaging, and other applications. Design companies work with clients to devise strategy for brand development and growth, they create and develop concepts, they produce the artwork, they create content, they execute the technical mechanics of the project, and they manage the project process from beginning to end. Communication Design companies produce work that both differentiates their clients from competitors, and resonates with their clients’ audiences.

Working with a design company is unique

Working with a design company is different than working with many other types of vendors and service providers. It is worth considering why this is so.

Working with a design company means entering into a relationship. This relationship is most fruitful when it is characterized by a team-like atmosphere of trust, camaraderie, enthusiasm, respect, creative thinking, genuine care for each other, and commitment to reaching the project goals. The company should feel like an ally, not an adversary. Design is an intimate process that (ideally) results in insight, clarity, vision, a stronger brand identity, and useful tools that lead to growth for the client’s organization.

The nature of design work is that it comes out of particular relationships with particular people who have particular visions, particular perspectives, particular experiences and particular ways of working. The goal is to find the right, umm, particular-ness for you. You want a combination which leads to a great working relationship that produces good work that meets your goals. This cannot be achieved by basing your decision on a price tag alone. It can be achieved by finding a good fit.

Prioritizing the price tag may blind you to the valuable qualities and criteria that could make all the difference between amazing work and passable work, or between a campaign success and a campaign failure.

The wrong choice can cost you in ways that are hard to put a dollar value on.

The hidden costs of the wrong choice

Maybe you’ve chosen the highest bidder with the rationale that they will provide the best quality, but then it turns out they don’t have the specific expertise to execute your project; therefore they are not a good fit. Maybe you’ve chosen the lowest bidder, but they are woefully inexperienced and can’t produce a product that represents your organization accurately. In either scenario, the wrong choice can cost you in ways that are hard to put a dollar value on. What is the cost of blown timelines? How much time does mis-communication drain away? How much does frustration cost? How about lost opportunity? Discontinuity of your brand identity can cause lasting or embarrassing damage to your brand. And how much does the need for additional attention, energy and project management cost you?

Sometimes it’s easy to put a hard number to the wrong choice: what is the cost of killing a project and starting over with a new company? Kill fees, wasted expenses, hours of time and energy. Of course, starting again never feels good, and feeling wary of the next design company is not a good way to re-start a project … plus, how do you measure your waning enthusiasm for the project?

The hidden value of the right choice

Provided your short list of design firms fit your budget, you will reap the benefits when you do not make your choice primarily on price. Again, it’s hard to put hard numbers in here, but consider the benefits of: efficiency, good communication, trust, attention to detail, timeliness, trust, innovation, experience, good conflict resolution, trust, inspiration and a constructive, easy working relationship. Did we mention trust?

And how much time will you save if you build a great relationship during the first project and can skip the whole bidding process for the second project?

In our experience, projects with good relationships get increasingly efficient over time. As a design company becomes more familiar with your brand, the creative process become shorter and results come faster — you truly have an ally.

Consider the other important criteria  

The design process is organic and highly dependant on the relationships between the people involved in the project. As such, design companies are not easily compared by the prices they charge. While price is a useful screening tool (it’s either within your budget or it’s not), final selection of a design firm should be made on more important criteria — these are the criteria that will actually determine the success of your project … and the real cost of it.

So, assuming your three design companies all fit within your budget, how do you pick one? In our next article we will give you Canister’s view on how to pick a firm you will be happy to work with.