Choosing A Designer, Part 3

Out of the Blue

Most of the top design choices were predictable. But there was a wild card in the mix: Minga Berlin. Minga Berlin is website that sells socks, and only socks.  It’s an e-commerce website, but it looked like an art portfolio. Despite being aesthetically pleasing, it was also easy to navigate and effective. Even the socks looked cool. Ok, so who made it? On the bottom of one of the pages was a little strip of text: “Design Bureau Alexander Munk”.

I researched the Design Bureau.  He was based out of Berlin (predictably), and it appeared he had handled numerous corporate designs. When I first called Alex it was early in the morning in the States, so mid-afternoon in Germany. It was out of the blue, and either I woke him up or startled him by speaking English. Our conversation was scatterbrained, but by the end we had agreed to meet the following week in Berlin.

Andreas, one of the Wishlist founders, and I planned to meet and spend one night in the city.  Our time in Berlin, and meeting Alexander, is a story in itself and will be covered in another post.

By the end of Berlin we had two valid, professional proposals on the table (the design firm out of Münster being the other).  Although the price was relatively close, it was clear the firms were radically different.  What we had was a safe, professional, traditional design firm vs. a dynamic, creative, but potentially unpredictable single designer.

We took our time with the decision.  Andreas laid out specific questions for the follow-up phone calls, something we should have done better from the very beginning.  This helped clarify much of the uncertainty, and brought reassurance to working with a single designer.  But still the duality existed.  We knew with Alex that what we would end up with was either an original world-class design, or a messy three-month setback.  Being that we’re a startup, it seemed worth the risk.

Today, we all agree that hiring Alexander was one of the single best early-stage decisions we made. It wasn’t without its difficulties, geography being the brunt of it. But constant Skype communication helped, as well as a few trips to Berlin (even if not that much work gets done, it’s good for team dynamics and for just getting to know each other). It’s an ongoing process with a designer.  You need to find someone that you can work with for years.

I’ve come to believe that no matter what we had chosen in those early months we would have been unhappy with the results. There’s informality to traditional outsourcing that standardizes (or perhaps even trivializes) whatever you ship abroad. It makes it nearly impossible to outsource the things you value most, like design…unless of course that offshore is a bohemian in Berlin who also designs socks.  Then you’re ok.

Choosing A Designer, Part 2

Off-Shore, Round 2

While in Madrid a friend introduced me to a website called freelancer.com.  It allows you to put out a job request, a contest, and then people compete for the job by submitting designs. What I had witnessed with my friend were hundreds of variations of logos, all for a prize of something like $200. The designs were clever and well thought out.  So we decided to put the job request out on freelancer.com.

Perhaps with small incremental tasks the site can be effective, but what we were looking for was an entire web design. Also, upon listing the contest, I couldn’t understand why all the artists had demanded the contest be “closed”, meaning their work wouldn’t be seen by the other artists. It became clear towards the end, as the submissions were either amateurish or blatantly plagiarized.  Before the submission deadline had expired it was clear we wouldn’t find what we needed.

So we regrouped, bit the bullet, and decided to drastically increase (by about 10x) the amount of capital we were budgeting for design.  Andreas knew a professional team in Münster, Germany that he had worked with numerous times when he was a consultant in California.  They had built sites for Microsoft, Toshiba, and several other large multinationals.  I was going to be in Germany, so we set up a time to meet with them. It was also at this time that Charlie, our lead developer, came up with the most obvious and important idea of the whole process. Instead of giving designers websites that we liked as examples, why not try and find the designers behind those specific websites? We all separated and came back together several days later with our favorite website designs

Choosing A Designer, Part 1

In the early months, nothing proved more difficult than choosing a name (link to the name story) and choosing a designer. The process of choosing a company name took some time, but eventually resolved itself internally. However, choosing a designer was full of lessons learned the hard way.

When forming a budget, design is one of those things that looks like it can be cut back on, but in practicality it is probably the last thing that should ever be cut. I’m not sure the importance of design can be overstated. Early on we had assumed design would cost us several thousand dollars. By the end of the design creation, it would come to occupy nearly a third of our first-year budget (it would be closer to half of the budget if you include html conversion and web development to bring the design to life).  Yet this change in capital focus was probably one of the best decisions we’ve made.

Early on we figured we could save on design by outsourcing the design process. We used a platform called “oDesk” to choose our designer.  The field was narrowed down to three designers. The team took a vote and predictably we each favored different designers.  Ok, stalemate.  We discussed it, throwing opinions back and forth, but with only minor attempts to persuade each other.  Then, we looked at everyone’s second choice.  A clearer picture emerged.  We ended up going with Brian, who was my first choice, and contacted him to let him know.

“Well, I hope he doesn’t suck,” I remember thinking, “because it will be on me.”

Things started off well.  The process of logo development went smoothly.  We received blue and white images of possible logos, followed by color combinations to help choose the ideal palette.  The suggestions seemed to match what we wanted[A1] .

This was back in the Squared days, before the company had been renamed Wishlist.  Most of the logos had some play on the number “2” included.  We selected a logo and, with the logo complete, we paid the first installment (something like $300), and moved onto the web-design.

At this point things began to derail.  Brian, who had been communicative and easy to reach, suddenly became flighty and uncertain.  The initial web designs came in weeks late, and when they did… it was obvious something had gone wrong.

What happened to the detailed design brief we had sent?  Is that rock climber wearing lipstick?  It was everything we had wanted to avoid.  A 90’s style e-commerce site laced with obvious stock images.  We gave Brian our feedback, and weeks later we received the second attempt (the image above is actually the second attempt).

It was clear we had made a mistake. Perhaps Brian also realized he was in over his head. His emails became ever more erratic.  So we ended the contract and chalked the whole thing up to bad luck.

This was one of those early tests that reaffirm the faith in the people you’re working with. Brian had been my choice, but when he failed everyone was quick to accept personal responsibility. There was no blame in the failure, which I was thankful for, and this type of internal accountability would set the tone for how we would handle future conflicts- that is, without blame, only focus on resolution.

But we weren’t finished with off-shore design just yet.