The Do's and Don'ts of recruiting a digital design partner

One thing we've heard over and over again from our clients is that finding and selecting the right digital design agency and subsequently getting the best out of them is really hard.

Often, they've never gone through the process before, or sometimes they've hired an agency with the wrong alignment for the university's needs.

So without further ado, here's our advice (ten do's and don'ts) gathered from our experienced team. It covers how to get the best from digital design partners for your university website transformation, based on years of being on this side of the procurement process.

The Do's

Here are our top five recommended things you can do to bring in the right digital design partner and to achieve a great collective outcome for your website project.

#1 Select a digital design partner with higher education experience

This seems obvious but designing for higher education websites requires specific knowledge.

A capable digital design agency with no experience of higher education, but with a track record of delivering large projects with lots of stakeholders, might get up to speed relatively quickly.

But because there are so many considerations that are specific to a university website (course page design to name just one) you can minimize risk right from the outset by placing your faith in a design partner with demonstrable knowledge from the previous university website design projects.


#2 Tightly define the project

We typically see lots of details about design personality in tenders but the parameters of the project are what counts most at the procurement stage.

The digital design partner needs to know your target budget, what templates will be required, an indication of the number of components which will make up those page templates, what unique pages of content need prioritizing, how the university is differentiated, what functionality is required and what technical implementation (including platform) is being considered. The tighter the brief the better the outcome for your project.

#3 State your coding requirements

If you intend to develop further components in-house over future years, it particularly pays to lock down the details of the front end development, for example, the frameworks and coding standards used, to avoid any mismatch in expectations and to ensure your developers can work efficiently with the code if required in the future.

#4 Communicate the content strategy

The digital design partner can't be in the dark when it comes to content. Are you proposing to migrate all the current content, a portion of it or to use the new website design as an opportunity to create new content? Will new content be available to the agency or should they base the new designs on the current content?

Whichever path you take with your content, defining the approach and communicating it through the project brief is critical to help steer the digital design agencies tendering for the project.

#5 Seek long-term design partnerships

The launch of a new website is only the beginning, and the best higher education websites benefit from continual incremental investments in digital design.

This is where the institution can derive maximum value for money as the design patterns, ways of working and understanding of the project have already been established.

Setting aside a specific annual budget for digital design or moving to a retainer model can be really beneficial to build out further components, bring in new functionality and to create new campaign-orientated templates.

The Don'ts

Here are five pitfalls identified by our team to avoid.

#1 Requesting creative concepts for the pitch process

The creative pitch a.k.a. speculative design is still commonplace but doesn't necessarily add value to the evaluation process.

The digital design agency needs to understand in depth what objectives you have for the new site, what unique personality and atmosphere is to be created online, how the project sits within the broader brand and design context for the institution and what feedback stakeholders have provided. This can only really be explored thoroughly once the project is underway and a digital design agency is firing blindly in creating concepts without this activity.

A better answer, therefore, lies in assessing the portfolios of design partners, and their examples of real, live websites along with a clear rationale for the design decisions made for them.

#2 Running re-branding exercises and a website re-design project concurrently

The appetite for re-branding projects often seem to heighten around the same time as major website re-designs but running these concurrently can cause major problems.

Most digital design agencies will want to create a visual personality that is sympathetic to the brand.

During a re-brand exercise the brand positioning tends to be in flux and without this safe ground it's very challenging for an agency to create new designs that inter-operate appropriately with the brand.

If re-branding is on the agenda, it should ideally be concluded before the website re-design commences.

#3 Underestimating the complexity of "search"

We've all enjoyed sites with powerful search features and with so much content on offer for a variety of audiences it's now a fundamental requirement for university websites.

But we've seen many institutions underestimate the scale and resources required to deliver highly capable global and course search functionality.

At their optimum, search projects need digital design expertise to create different search views and deep technical knowledge to set-up and optimize the results. See the University of Sydney, Goldsmiths and the Winchester University for examples of well-executed search projects.

#4 Selecting a platform partner after the digital design agency decision

We know the content management system decision is complex and also absolutely crucial for institutions.

This activity should come alongside or as a precursor to the appointment of a digital design agency to ensure they have the experience and a thorough understanding of how best to design and build components for the underlying platform.

#5 The Intranet can wait

Institutions often face pressure to deliver outward-facing digital activities such as the creation of a new website at the same time as developing internally facing initiatives such as launching a new Intranet.

These are rarely handled effectively in tandem and scheduling a large scale Intranet project to commence following the launch of the website tends to make most sense both from a resourcing perspective and so that components from the website can be re-used to build up page layouts for the Intranet project.

Selecting and working with the right digital design agency

Our team has learned first hand what helps and hinders the selection process and subsequent activity of digital design partners. And we know that finding the right agency and working effectively with them can be both challenging and rewarding.

The agency-university partnerships that last over the long term tend to be based on an honest and open approach. Following these points is a great start in developing a positive relationship that generates great digital creative activity.

Have you got further advice on running successful digital tender initiatives or tips to get the best from your digital design agency? We'd love to hear.