The design landscape

Design Resources Shapes Image

You have more design needs than you think

You know design’s important. What people see leads to an instant value judgment–so if your brand is not tapping into those first impressions in the right way, you might be losing business.

But although you know how important design is, you might not realize how much design work your company really needs. This presents a serious challenge for everyone, from solopreneurs to Fortune 100 enterprises–and especially for both their in-house and outside marketing teams.

Most companies have more design needs than they’re prepared for, and as a result, most companies would benefit from having multiple ways to fill their design needs. This guide will help you figure out the true extent of your design demand, and suggest the most effective and efficient ways to get design delivered.

Design needs should be categorized by budget/value and frequency

In-house design always comes with a tradeoff: either the expense of a full-time design staff, or the often rushed, lower quality, inconsistent output of non-designers who are bent to the task as an afterthought to their other responsibilities. Working with freelance designers is often more flexible and more affordable, but those relationships are prone to communication pitfalls and accountability issues.

Many of the marketers we’ve worked with have endured these struggles, and we’ve found that part of the problem is in the design need estimates these businesses start with. As unmistakable as the value of design is, many specific design projects and outputs are overlooked, which leads to either cost overruns or quality shortfalls—and sometimes both. This is the problem we refer to as “Shadow Design”: all of the unthought-of design work that occupies time and resources or drags down brand quality and general performance.

shadow design

SketchDeck has been in the design business since 2014, and we’ve grown rapidly in that time due in part to our ability to accurately assess businesses’ design needs and provide affordable design work accordingly. Having worked with businesses and enterprises of all sizes, we’ve found that even a modest team of 15 marketers generates the need for approximately 350-400 hours of design work per month.

Again, that’s just the marketing team at a medium-sized enterprise aiming for modest growth. Add in the design needs from other teams and departments–sales, operations, HR, and more–and you can have enough design work to keep roughly a dozen designers employed full-time.

On the other hand, if you leave design in the hands of non-designers, you might end up building up a high cost in wages of lost productivity. These employees take longer to do design with lower quality, and lose focus from high-value tasks they should be doing.

bad design

Thus, we’ve developed a model to break down design into manageable pieces and allocate each category to the right design resource. It starts with low frequency, high budget design work:

Low frequency, high budget

high budget design

Mention design to any executive–and to any consumer, for that matter–and this is the type of design they’ll immediately think of. Iconic product design or a high-impact logo that creates immediate brand recognition and leaves a lasting impression. The kind of thing that only needs a full-scale redesign once a decade (if at all), but that can dominate public perception of a company and its value.

McDonald’s golden arches. Apple’s MacBooks and iMacs. Nike’s collectible and highly coveted sneakers. The Delorean. High-impact, high-value design work with long lead times, more work, and many iterations, which in today’s world includes website design and branding, product packaging, and other infrequent needs that might nonetheless become just as iconic as the examples above.

The fact that thinking about design starts with this type of project isn’t a problem. But many businesses stop thinking about design here, too, which means they’re overlooking the majority of their design needs. Which brings us to the next category:

Low frequency, low budget

low budget projects

Occasional analytics decks and reports, departmental memos that include a handy graphic, and other internal, low-visibility informational aides require some design attention. These projects don’t tend to be the source of a lot of stress for managers and executives, but that means they can lead to a time crunch for designers! That’s because when designers are tasked with completing the charts and infographics for these infrequent projects, they often aren’t given the time or the budget to do things properly.

Understanding that even the most insignificant visual communication has an impact on how the information is received is key. If there’s design work to do, it’s worth doing well, and that means planning for even the smallest of projects. But there’s also the opposite end:

High frequency, high budget

high quality design

If your company runs a blog or other client-education materials, makes regular use of influencer marketing, or engages in any other substantial and ongoing brand development, you’re making regular high-level use of your design team. Planning and budgeting for this type of work is fairly straightforward–you need to devote plenty of time and money on a consistent basis–but its corresponding impact on other design projects is an important consideration.

With at least some of your designers spending most of their time on your high-frequency, high-budget projects, you’ll lose flexibility when it comes to lower-frequency projects. Adding flexibility back in when you need can be relatively easy, but it does require planning ahead.

High frequency, low budget

daily design

You’ve got plenty of design work that needs to be done often, and with a high enough profile that you need to make sure it always looks its best.

The caveat? Many of these projects can only receive a small slice of your design budget. Examples include things like investor presentations, keynotes and other large scale in-person communication opportunities, case studies and white papers distributed to potential investors, clients, vendors, and partners, and materials, booths, and other deliverables for use at conventions and other events.

But that’s not all. Then, there are social media posts, web banners, PPC ads, landing page assets, emails–you stay in front of your customers and audience in a dozen ways thanks to digital media, and all of it requires design work. Yet despite the high visibility of this type of visual communication, this type of design work is often the least supported within many organizations. The high frequency of social media and similar output can make these efforts seem commonplace and low-return to marketing managers, and they’re loath to extend any budget to creating consistent and high-quality design work in these areas.

These design deliverables shouldn’t be a major budgetary line item compared to a lot of other design work, but they are among some of your core marketing assets. As a result, they require consistency in quality and branding if you want consistency in your company. Though they aren’t high on the design priority, proper planning for these projects lets you and your design team avoid substantial design-related headaches.

Choosing the right design solution for your company

As you can see, the design landscape is larger than many expect. Mapping out the true extent of your design needs and the variable frequencies and values of each design project is essential. An audit is the first step in getting the design work you need at a budget and timetable that works for your company.

The next step is weighing your options and choosing the right ones for the right project. Why plural “options”? Most companies do better with a mix of the different design options out there rather than relying on only one.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common options:

Traditional Agency

traditional design agency

Partnering with a traditional design or marketing agency–or multiple agencies–is an option that many of the world’s largest enterprises prefer. You’ll get top-notch design work from talented creatives that will keep you looking sleek and competitive. The self-managed nature of agencies also means you spend less time tending to design details and project management, which comes in handy on the large-scale projects they specialize in.

The tradeoff is that you’ll pay a premium for agency-created design work, and can expect long lead times. If you’re not one of their larger clients, you can also expect some delays and interruptions–agencies have limited resources, too, and you won’t always be at the top of the list.

These big-time players are best suited to large, resource-intensive projects that can take months to roll out: full brand builds or rebranding efforts, ground-up website design, nationwide multimedia advertising campaigns, etc.


design freelancer

Hiring a freelancer solves for many of the problems associated with a traditional agency. You get flexible and affordable design work from an individual with unique skills and insights that haven’t been bound by layers of corporate management and executive approval. You also receive fresh ideas and unfiltered work delivered to your desk, and you get to direct the flow and style of your design work one-on-one with your designer.

The downside is that freelancers often end up being unreliable. Established companies rarely go silent without warning, yet it happens frequently in the freelance world. Also, there’s still the issue of priority: freelancers have multiple clients, and you might not always be number one. Even if you are, there’s only so much a single designer can accomplish with a single skillset in a given timeframe.

And since they’re lacking much of the oversight built into agencies, freelancers can also require a lot of management. All of these factors make them most suitable for specific, low-demand projects: internal reports delivered below the C-suite, smaller social media campaigns, one-off PPC ad design, etc.


in-house design

The major benefits of an in-house design team are decently obvious. For starters, you’ll have a crew that specializes in the specifics of your business and your brand on call 24/7 (or at least 9-5, Monday through Friday). Your designers will also be more personally invested in your business and its growth than any outside contract worker ever would.

However, the downsides of in-house design teams are also readily apparent. You can expect to spend at least as much on an in-house design team as you would spend with a top-notch traditional agency.

In-house shares the downsides of freelancers in that they have a fixed work capacity and lack of flexibility. There will be times when they’re overworked and quality suffers, and times when they’re idle due to a temporary lack of demand.

An in-house design team also requires full management and HR supervision, adding to their expense and strain on company resources. They’re most effective for ongoing projects that provide steady work and can be easily managed: regularly occurring presentations, reports and brochures that need regular informational/layout updates without major redesign, established and consistent single-channel campaigns, etc.

Cloud agency

cloud agency design

Making use of design and communication software, cloud agencies offer a high quality-to-cost ratio. A true cloud design agency has flexible availability and cost, like an individual freelancer, and flexibility in scope like a traditional agency or an in-house team.

Because a cloud agency works with its own team of in-house and/or freelance designers, they are fully scalable and can instantly build a team for a large-scale undertaking or assign a single designer to a smaller project.

The tradeoff with cloud agencies is the low-touch nature of their services. You won’t be getting the personal sit-downs provided by traditional agencies or the dedicated involvement of an in-house designer. The nature of a cloud agency and the variety of clients they work with also means they tend to have more varied portfolios than traditional agencies, which makes supervision of the work quality on the first few projects essential.

Such agencies are of the most benefit working on design projects with variable and/or unpredictable deliverables, sudden projects with tight timeframes and–once communication, workflow, and quality have been established–larger ongoing projects such as cross-media marketing campaigns.

design matrix

Using the design matrix to map out your solutions

The number of design solutions available and each of their individual strengths and weaknesses can seem overwhelming, but keep the design matrix in mind and it’s all pretty simple. Your design options map directly onto the frequency/budget matrix, making it easy to choose the right solution for each of your design needs.

For low frequency, high budget projects like full rebranding efforts or complete website builds, traditional design agencies are usually your best bet. For low frequency, low budget work like analytical decks and other internal reports, look for a freelancer. Keep your in-house design team working on your high frequency, high budget brand development work, and take care of all the high frequency, low budget work like web banners, emails, whitepapers, and more with a cloud agency.

When you know what you really want and what each design project really entails, your relationships with all of your designers will be far more effective.

Fulfill your needs with SketchDeck

We have the quality of agencies, the scalability of the cloud, the talent of freelancers, all tied together with the hands-on approach and brand guardianship of your very own in-house team.

We can work either on high-value or low-end projects with accountability and efficiency. We’re self-managed, affordable and our global team of elite designers cover many different skills and timezones, meaning we’re always on hand to provide a wealth of fresh ideas for any design need.

If you want to know how it works, simply check out this page now!



Redefine what's possible with SketchDeck.

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