Design outsourcing: how it works and who may need it

maryco
16 min readJun 19, 2023

We interviewed large companies such as Skillhunt, Sravni, TRASSIR Cloud, Anabar, and Training Data and shared key insights in this article.

Design outsourcing is the engagement of a third-party team by the company to perform specialized tasks. This format of collaboration is also called design support. We prefer using this term for the reason that it emphasizes an important concept: outsourcing is a long-term partnership.

In our studio, design support is one of the business units alongside the creative tasks of developing the visual identity, packaging, website and social media design. While working in this format, we strengthen the design function in the company by regularly performing a large amount of routine and creative tasks. Such interaction includes well-established processes both within the team and in communication with the client.

We have been researching design outsourcing since 2020 and have already written an article on this topic. We invited our colleagues from the Skillhunt recruitment agency to talk about the ins and outs in more detail. For a long time, they have been engaged in hiring competent personnel for medium and large businesses.

Outsourcing is a market trend now. It is used by companies in various industries: IT, design, real estate, retail, banks and financial technology, and E-commerce. Most often, they delegate certain business functions to focus on their core competencies. Currently, outstaffing and outsourcing schemes are popular. Under the first one, a particular specialist is engaged by the company: they are integrated into the team, their work process is controlled and their contribution is paid for according to the T&M model. Under the second one, the project is entirely delegated to a third-party contractor.

Elena Gotseva, Skillhunt co-founder with 15 years of IT recruitment experience

How and why we conducted the study

In the summer of 2022, we conducted a study of design support in order to develop in this direction, adjust the strategy of finding target customers and position the service correctly. Our goal was to figure out how companies perceive it, when they use it, what experience of dealing with the studios they had, where they are looking for contractors, how they choose them, and what they expect from the relationship.

We conducted part of the interviews ourselves. The surveyed companies included: the Sravni service, the Trassir video surveillance systems and neural network analytics modules, the Anabar marketplace analytics and sales management system, and the Training Data data annotation company.

In parallel, the second wave of the research was carried out in cooperation with our partner, the dth!nk agency. The guys practice design thinking. This is a business approach pursuant to which feasible solutions are designed that are useful for both the business and the client. We worked with Ilya Chadin, the agency’s facilitator. The process included several stages of our joint contributions:

1. We identified an in-depth portrait of current clients that use design support (who they are, how they make decisions, their goals and fears), made a benchmark of the challenges that exist in the market and found a key challenge for us.

2. We formulated an interview guideline for the existing clients and for those who are not our clients yet.

3. Ilya with the team started a series of interviews.

4. We listened to all the interviews.

5. Then we made a portrait of the client with a focus on expectations: how we can help them to solve their problems. The key is that we restated the task of the business into the need of the client.

6. We built CJM.

7. We conducted a brainstorming session to understand what value and how we will broadcast in order to develop the design support service.

Which companies and in what situations apply for design support

How we formed the customer’s profile:

  • Based on our current experience
  • Based on interviews with major businesses
  • By the method of exclusion from a number of interviews: the size and stage of development of the companies affect their willingness to work with studios

So, design support is most in demand in large companies with developed offline and digital communication in different channels and with liberal budgets for design. In addition, normally, these are companies with an established design system that you can work with:

They hire design support in the following cases:

  • The volume of tasks performed by their respective in-house department increases dramatically. Example of the situation: a boss announces that X new projects are being launched, for which creative designs are needed. Another example: business reach expands and visual communication has to be adapted to the new markets, and the in-house designer is unable to cope alone with the new tasks.
  • When there is a need to develop a design system. For example, describe the rules for creating advertising media, develop a concept for the merchandise, or draw a mascot.
  • A company is preparing for an event and needs design support for a certain period.
  • There are many typical tasks in the department that can be performed according to the guideline and that can be easily delegated. Therewith, the in-house resources can be focused on more strategic tasks.
  • In-house expertise in a specific area is not enough and an experienced specialist is needed.

The decision on whether to outsource a particular function depends on the availability of the resources, expertise and time of the company, where time is the key. An external team is engaged when a quick and high-quality result is needed, or when there is no desire to greatly expand its manpower or search without intermediaries for suitable specialists and adapt them to the team.

Elena Gotseva, Skillhunt co-founder with 15 years of IT recruitment experience

Why NOT, or what stops companies from engaging studios to provide continual design support

Fear №1: it takes too much time for a studio to immerse in the product

According to those surveyed, it often takes a lot of time for the client to prepare detailed terms of reference, and for the studio to study the guidelines. In this case, it is more convenient to have an in-house designer who knows the product. It is enough to briefly outline the task to them, and they already know how to complete it.

We have in-house designers who perform typical design tasks that require speed: creating presentations, making layouts for advertising creatives, and drawing pictures.

In general, graphic design tasks can be outsourced to a studio with experienced designers. It’s just that it’s often more difficult for an external provider to get into the company’s vision and catch the right idea. It depends, however, and, ultimately, it’s only a matter of professionalism.

Anton Smirnov, Design Director of the Sravni financial marketplace

I advise studios to break up into mini-product teams that will study specific customers. This will allow relying on facts about a particular product and the needs of the users. It will be justified to integrate the study into the price list. After all, extra remedial works are often related to the fact that the designer performed according to their own perception and did not study the product, its users and the market generally to a sufficient extent.

Dmitriy Kachalov, Chief Product Officer of TRASSIR

Fear №2: Failure to understand the business

I can say, based on my experience, that external design teams do not understand business in the field of fintech. I saw cases when there was a beautiful picture, but no understanding of the essence.

My advice to the studios: take the time to get to know the product, this is more important than achieving an immediate wow effect. For example, if we want to update a mortgage selling page on a website offering complex banking products, we expect the designer to become acquainted with other pages of our website and websites of similar products in order to produce a relevant result.

Anton Smirnov, Design Director of the Sravni financial marketplace

Fear №3: long-lasting procedures to get legal approval before starting the work

Indeed, the contract approval may take weeks, or even months, while the start of work is postponed. This problem was particularly highlighted by Dmitry Kachalov, TRASSIR Cloud product owner, who emphasized that the responsibility rests on the two parties: lawyers from the client’s side also delay the process of the contract approval and adjustment.

Fear №4: nontransparent contents of the service and hidden additional payments

One of the speakers told us about the following case: a studio made a redesign of the website, delivered the website design layout, and then it turned out that uploading all the elements of the design system into Figma was not included in the service price and needed to be paid for separately. This approach is not in line with the standards of the market and leaves a bad aftertaste. It is the responsibility of the studios to reason out their pricing and service content thoroughly.

Continual outsourcing is also not relevant for companies that are at the initial stage of their development. So, the Skillhunt experts believe that most often startups hire staff with versatile skills:

In their initial stages, startups often engage multifunctional specialists in the teams. For example, a person who is able to perform the roles of a manager and a sales specialist and, therewith, build a website with Tilda.

Evgeniy Arutyunov, Art Director of Anabar is sure that design plays a secondary role for a startup at the time of its launch:

We have recently raised the first round of investments, and we are in the phase when it is more important to refine the product when growth and efficiency come first, rather than the brand. Now we work on the product design and consolidating this function in-house. We gradually accumulate an understanding of what kind of communication design we need. We will proceed to its thorough development when we have a sufficient safety margin and resources.

This was confirmed by Training Data, another team bringing complex IT products and services to the market.

Design increases competitiveness. While there are few data annotation companies on the Russian market, on the American market there are plenty and we needed to build up. We created the initial visual identity in-house. It was important for us to convey our positioning through it. We made different versions of the logo and selected the colors, but have not yet built a flexible design system. We will work on it as soon as the product begins to enter a more active development phase.

Roman Koutsev, CTO & Co-founder, TrainingData

How design support is seen by customers

Here are the quotes from the heads of marketing departments, brand managers, and creative directors of companies. Some participants asked for anonymity, so we omit the names of the speakers accordingly.

Design support is a partnership

Design support implies ongoing interaction between the company and the studio. Therewith, the studio should provide an individual approach and act not just as a contractor, but as a partner.

Passion should be felt at the first meetings. That is, the studio should have a sincere interest in the client and its product. The cooperation should not be just a labor-rent.

The speaker preferred to remain anonymous

Design support is an opportunity to delegate the process

Design support is the functional area of an art director who coordinates the work of designers and delivers the result to the client.

The speaker preferred to remain anonymous

Design support is a reinforcement of the in-house team

Design support is when the studio promptly takes up active tasks. The speed of the response is very important. Effectively, the studio becomes a part of the team, the studio manager and the client have to be on the same wave.

Famous Italian accessories brand

Design support strengthens the team because the company benefits from additional outside expertise. We are ready to outsource routine, scalable work based on the guideline to a design studio as a design partner: e.g., to create outlines for a lot of banners of various sizes during the advertising campaign season.

Engaging a competent studio may prove costly, but the studio will bring on board all the necessary resources, rather than just put a junior staff to do the work.

Mango Insurance Company

Design support is sound maintenance of the product. The company buys the service when it does not have sufficient in-house resources or when the in-house resources have to be employed for different tasks. In such a case, the flow of routine tasks may be delegated and the studio will perform them according to the guideline.

Popular social media in the CIS

Design support helps in the following cases:

— When the in-house designer is ill, on vacation or quit, and the scope of tasks (e.g., a package of banners, parts of the interface) needs to be completed quickly, efficiently and on time.

— The company is in process of changes and new content is needed.

Anton Smirnov, Design Director of the Sravni financial marketplace

Design support is a view of outsource professionals

Design support helps companies when a fresh outside perspective and an experiment are important. For example, to produce creatives or landing pages with a new approach.

One of the major Russian banks

Any major brand needs design support. When you give your brand book to professionals, they know how to work with it. Highly skilled designers have good design eye, extensive experience and understand what the client needs.

Famous Italian accessories brand

Things to consider when choosing a company for outsourcing

In this part, we rely on a detailed CJM based on the results of the interview.

What companies most often pay attention to:

Companies pay attention to the ability to think strategically, that is, to assess prospects competently. Empathy and involvement of the team, sincere participation in the cooperation are equally important.

Elena Gotseva, Skillhunt co-founder with 15 years of IT recruitment experience

What is the basis for a long-term cooperation

How design support works

We explain the internal processes of the design support with an example of the experience of our studio.

Principles

We deal with companies that fit our values. This includes friendliness, an initiative of mutual growth, and aspiration to create a quality product, fascination with the result. It is equally important that the prospective partner be able to evaluate competently the work of designers, not invalidate it, maintain a dialogue based on mutual respect. In our work, we advocate transparency, consistency and clarity of the process. Therefore, we demonstrate to our clients the way to complete the project from its starting point to the final and explain the basis for the pricing, as well as what caused the choice of particular design solutions.

Start of work

Our work begins with a detailed briefing. We ask the client about its request (the type and approximate scope of the tasks) and discuss the formats of interaction that are familiar to it. In turn, we explain our experience, work processes in the studio, pricing, which task managers we use and how we integrate into the client’s team. Experience shows that it is impossible to accurately calculate the workload at the start, but it is possible to agree upon the processes, tools, pricing principles, work schedule, and convenient means of communication. And, most important, at the end of the briefing we offer our client the best solutions that fit its request.

With some customers, we have weekly meetings at a set time. As a rule, in case of very large volumes of tasks, we provide an update about the current progress: how many tasks have already been completed and what has been improved in the work. An alternative may be calls after closing the tasks to get feedback and make suggestions on what can be adjusted in our interaction and to discuss the prospects of the tasks.

At the beginning, we always offer a pilot project — this is a preliminary stage at the start, where we understand the convenience of our interaction and the comfort of communications on a small volume of tasks. It helps our client to get acquainted with our work system, assess the project costs, test our skills and feel the connection.

Payment options

We use the Retainer scheme for the design support. It is suitable for large projects with a large and regular volume of diverse design tasks, for example, launching new projects or advertising campaigns, entering the foreign market, design of offline events.

The Retainer is a subscription scheme. The client books a design team for the required period — a month, a quarter, a year. The dedicated designers assigned to the project will promptly commence performing all the necessary tasks. Thus, the client gets confidence that its tasks will be completed on time, and we, in turn, that the business has a constant workload that we can handle. Also, the Retainer scheme helps both parties to plan the budget in advance.

Under the Retainer scheme, we receive advance payment at the beginning of each reporting period. For the tasks beyond the agreed scope, the client pays under the T&M scheme and unused hours expire. The amount of the prepayment may be different: it is assessed based on the estimated workload per month and the anticipated type of the tasks, as well as which specialists will be involved in the project. The rate for the tasks beyond the scope depends on the amount of the down payment: the larger it is, the cheaper the rate will be and vice versa.

Scaling

We understood from our experience how to scale the team to meet the growing volume of tasks. We have got a system of “bundles”. One bundle consists of a lead designer and a team of 3 designers. Jointly they can work about 700 hours a month (550 h — for designers and 150 h — for team leaders).

When a workload from one client is less (e.g., 150 hours per month only) then the time of one designer and one third of the time of the leading designer are required.

When the workload increases, we increase the number of such cells. If the workload is 2,000 hours, then 2 team leaders are involved, who lead a team of 10 designers. Above that, the engagement of other specialists may be needed occasionally.

EXAMPLE. In October, on Project X, the volume of motion tasks did not cover the load for one motion designer (about 100 hours). And at the end of November, the number of tasks increased dramatically and we assigned 10 more motion designers in addition.

Service areas

As a part of the design support, we upgrade and develop design systems. In the first case, we integrate into the existing processes and strengthen the design department. In the second one, we implement the plans for development of the design system and offer new ideas.

Accordingly, we perform three types of tasks: creative, routine, and specific.

Routine ones are those that support the design system. These include simple tasks: various resize tasks and adaptations and more complex ones: websites, presentations, and illustrations. As a rule, the junior staff gets assigned to this type of tasks. If something more complex is required, for example, KV, then we assign the middle-level staff.

Creative tasks involve development of a special project or a visual design for a new market. The tasks of this type are performed by a lead designer supervising creative engagements and a creative designer.

Specific tasks require involvement of expert designers profiled in a specific area, e.g., a 3D specialist or a motion designer.

Our key insights

The research helped us to look at the design support service from the client’s position, to hear its expectations and needs. Here are the most interesting points about the design support that we noted:

  • Every year the popularity of outsourcing in the market is growing, and many companies begin using this format of work. Design support is mainly demanded by large businesses having developed offline and digital communications with different channels, large design budgets and, as a rule, a well-shaped design system to work with.
  • An external team is engaged when a quick and high-quality result is needed, or when there is no need to greatly expand its manpower or search without intermediaries for suitable specialists and adapt them to the team.
  • When selecting staff for outsourcing, companies pay attention to their ability to plan a budget in advance and build all the processes competently. The promptness of the response is very important.
  • All other things being equal, the client will always choose the studio that has passion, that is, a sincere interest in the customer and its product. Equally important are the empathy and involvement of the team in the cooperation, as well as the mutual understanding between the lead designer and the client.

Thanks to the research, we managed to draw up a portrait of our target client, find out what challenges it has and what is important to it for comfortable interaction. Some insights:

  • Our clients value parity-based communication. That’s why we moved away from the formal and cold tone-of-voice and formed a welcoming and friendly one. And we also began adapting to the client — if they are comfortable with informal communication by telephone, we are happy to maintain it.
  • Our clients prefer contractors that can be relied on, e.g., to entrust a large number of tasks and be sure that they will be completed on time. As well as the contractors that are able to build processes, plan costs on a long-term basis, which is often difficult due to the lack of information at the start.
  • We managed to look at the relationships with the client not only from the formal side — we saw people with unique backgrounds and values. And the most successful projects are the result of well-built relationships and personal matching.
  • We realized that it is important for the client to work with people who are passionate about their business, so we began to talk more about our team and its members. Some designers of the studio have columns in expert media.
  • We started talking about our products through storytelling. Using friendly tone-of-voice and funny illustrations we explain complex things in simple language.
  • We began to talk differently about ourselves at the first contact with a client. Previously, we tried to adapt our presentation to each client, talking about relevant skills only. For example, to the customers who needed design support, we demonstrated that we are able to work with routine tasks. To those who came for visual identity development, we talked about corporate visual identity cases. It turned out that since we made them associate us with something specific, we deprived ourselves of the opportunity to get other tasks.
  • Thanks to the research, the pilot test format for dealing with new customers was developed. It is a demo version of our future work and an opportunity to try implementing a small number of tasks in a short period of time in order to feel the connection with the team and make the final decision.

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maryco

Design team. We create visual communication for brands in the digital environment and offline. Visit us http://maryco.ru/