Both choices are equally valid; however, the size of your business, your personal abilities and responsibilities, project budget and numerous other factors can become powerful arguments in favour of choosing the DIY approach over a design firm—or the reverse.
While the services of a professional writer or graphic designer may not be needed for all visual communications projects, most will still rely on outside assistance. If you are producing a brochure or a poster, you’ll need photography and printing suppliers. If your design project is Web-based, you are likely to swap a printer for a programmer or a site-building service.
Once your company has identified the need for a new email newsletter or promotional flyer, the typical first phase of the creative process focuses on coming up with the idea.
You and your team, in-house or otherwise, will ask questions such as: Should we use Flash to build our Web site? Can we make the headline shorter? Does this photograph communicate that we ____________ ? (are a sustainable company? offer a delectable assortment of pastries? have the requisite investigative experience to find a long-lost relative?)
Next, you will need to locate potential vendors, get competitive bids, budget and schedule your project in the same possibly tedious yet straightforward fashion you’d handle anything else.
The processes of trying to generate creative ideas and figure out logistics offer an excellent indication of whether or not you should handle a given project in-house or externally. If you know your business needs a new brochure, can visualize every page and know the difference between Web and print image resolutions, you are in a good position to give it a go yourself.
In contrast, if you do not have a feel for design, or if descriptors such as “camera-ready art”—or “HTML/CSS coding” and “FTP client” in the realm of the Internet—sound unfamiliar, you are likely to save a lot of time and money by sourcing out such tasks. Similarly, if the number of vendors you’d have to manage seems daunting, a freelance designer or firm can offer project management alongside creative services.
To DIY or not to DIY?
While professional “creatives” such as copywriters and designers tend to frown upon promotional materials produced in-house, this is not much different from accountants wondering why people do their own taxes.
Everyone’s situation is different, and so is every project, so this decision will almost always come down to project size and budget. If you are looking to design an e-commerce Web site, you will highly likely need to seek highly trained outside assistance.
However, many small local UK businesses will never have such needs but do have the in-house skills to competently handle many design projects on their own.
Today, businesses routinely produce business cards, flyers and even entire Web sites in-house. Technology, particularly the proliferation of desktop publishing software and the vastness of available online resources, has greatly reduced the costs and simplified purchasing of many design-related goods and services.
Our own iStockphoto presents what is perhaps the best example. A decade ago, a small business looking for a professionally produced photo of a family to use in a magazine advertisement would need to spend several hundred pounds, and sometimes much more, to license such an image from a handful of large stock-image agencies.
In 2000, iStock pioneered the community-based business model now known as microstock, which eventually made millions of professional stock photographs available for licensing at a fraction of their previous cost—literally a few pounds.
As the microstock industry evolved, it also expanded the types of design-related resources; for example, iStock currently offers photos, illustrations, video, audio and Flash files.
Consequently, iStock customers offer numerous successful examples of small businesses choosing the DIY route. Local companies often find the right photograph or illustration and ask a printer to combine it with some text to produce promotional postcards and signs, bypassing the need for a designer entirely. Larger organisations internally produce collateral pieces ranging from presentations to reports using a handful of great stock images and desktop publishing software such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Publisher.
Still, be cautious. Just because you can do it yourself does not mean it is the best course of action. A professional designer can contribute incalculably more than hands-on layout or programming skills.
A conceptual contribution in the areas of typography, colour scheme and image selection is particularly valuable in corporate identity and cross-media projects, where the continuity of look and feel has a measurable effect on brand recognition and long-term success.
While the DIY approach may be more labour-intensive for the business owner or manager, it is familiar and uncomplicated; purchasing photography or printing services is not rocket science. Dealing with a design firm can substantially ease the conceptual and project-management workload, but it is not as straightforward.
Contrary to commonly perpetuated myth that all creatives are bohemian, ego-centric and difficult to work with, the real issue lies in lack of shared comprehension: a graphic designer has no idea what it’s like to manufacture your widgets, and if you are seeking outside design help, the reverse is likely equally true.
As such, finding the right firm or freelancer for your project is only the first step. Substantially more important is properly briefing them—on your project, company, industry, general business and project-specific expectations, among other things to be discussed in the next article of iStock’s “Design for Small Business” series.