The pro’s & con’s of taking design in-house – Part 2

by | Mar 29, 2017 | Uncategorized

This is the second article in the series ” The danger of taking design in-house – pro’s & con’s.

In part 1 we looked at what design really is and all that goes into it and the disconnection between designers and non- designers. in this article we’ll cover the pro’s & con’s of taking design in-house.

Part 2 of this article will review

  • what an effective design process really requires to ensure successful on shelf sales and
  • we’ll will look at the pro’s & con’s of both approaches

Let’s begin by looking at what it actually take to run an effective design department or agency?

So what does it actually take

So what does it actually take to run an effective design department or agency?

Understanding how to develop designs that both attract and convert consumers to buy at the shelf. Packaging is often the first touch point of your brand and product, and statistics show that over 70% of purchasing decisions are made in the store. Remember, your product has only a 2–3 second window to engage the consumer.

Design Processes

So often non designers think they can just put a “pretty” features and benefits label on a product and have it sell like hot cakes. What they don’t realize is that packaging design has a strategic side—a well thought-out process that generates specific performance criteria.

Whether you choose to bring design in-house or keep it outsourced, there basically a 5 stage process you’ll need to still go through to move from concept through to completion.

Your process must begin with an overview of your target audience, consumer values and lifestyle, competitors, retail environment and brand vision, mission and promise. This information informs your designer and will shape the design concept. The design must be focused on   the message that speaks to your target consumers the most. 

The pack must become your unique selling platform

The pack must become your unique selling platform where the design must capture your target audience attention and inspire them to engage with the product enhancing their desire to learn more and ultimately close the sale by putting your product into the shopping basket. To achieve this outcome your designer/agency needs to go through the following steps: 

The brief – If things are going to end up poorly…it’s here in the briefing stage. Designs will only ever be as good as the designers understanding of the brief. The better the brief, the clearer understanding the designer has as to the expectations and strategy behind the brief, the more likely you are to get a product close to your expectations. There is a saying in sales which states: “Prescription without diagnosis leads to malpractice”. This is exactly what happens with poor briefs or interpretations of them.  BTW. The brief is also another reason why it pays to hire a professional.

1) Because they bring their experience to the table,

2) They are more likely to challenge the marketer as opposed to simply saying “yes”.

3) They are more likely to understand the strategic component and how to endure it’s delivered.

4) A professional agency has written, co-written dozens of briefs and reverse briefs. They bring their vast experience to bear on the brief figuring out what’s missing and what’s working. The entire briefing process is designed to ensure everyone is singing from the same song book in terms of expectations

The plan – Whether the work is completed in-house or outsourced, a project plan bound by timings, dollars and quality is essential for any design. A) it keeps the designer honest and B) it ensures the outcomes of the project without blowing deadlines and budgets. When designers are in-house there is often a tendency to have them quickly “work up” another design either for the current project or other graphic work that needs doing, thus distracting them and blowing out your timings and budget.

Research and expectations alignment– Prior to beginning a design project there needs to be a component of research. This work will help to provide you as the client, the reassurance that your designs won’t confuse or offend customers based on the design. Research will also support the designer understanding as to:

  • the product’s positioning in the market and how to enhance the emotional connection between product designs and purchase impulse.
  • how to blend both the qualitative and quantitative research and the complete data profile, in order to make better design decisions based on high quality insights.
  • establishing the appropriate perception of value in the mind of the target customer ensuring they feel good about the purchase even before they actually experience the product.
  • inspiring the desired emotion within the consumer such as excitement, intrigue, desire, passion, or even hunger.
  • selecting the most appropriate texture, color, shape and imagery. All of which defines the perception, the value and the shopping experience of a product
  • considering environmentally sound choices appropriate for the project budget.
  • communication and messaging. Unclear communication on your pack can cause lots of frustration for the consumer.
  • how to strongly communicate the brand and evoke an emotional response from the pack
  • Setting up the colour palate etc. and so many more….

Developing the concept and refining the selected designs ending up with the best and most desired outcome. This is another area where project timings and budgets are easy to blow out. Especially when there is design by committee…

The fatal curse of “Design by committee” or by non designers

There’s a saying “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” A variation of this saying is “a Volvo is a Porsche designed by committee.” These statements all say pretty much the same thing When there are too many cooks in the kitchen all you get is a mess. Unfortunately in the end  consensus means that no one ends up happy. And when too many people have design input, you end up with a soulless product on shelf that does not sell. If you’ve ever been part of a process where you’ve heard….

  • “The logo needs to be bigger”
  • “Why can’t we use all of this empty space over here?”
  • “I’m not creative, but…”
  • “It needs more… something.’
  • I’ll know it when I see it”

The above are all signs of “design by committee”.

They are also signs of the non-designer not really understanding or appreciating the efforts of an experienced designer. So who takes the blame if the design fails? The committee? The most vocal individual on the committee? Would you have surgery by committee? At least if your designer is part of an agency, other designers or design strategists with experience, skilled professionals can offer real expertise and not simply hollow design suggestions like “It just needs more pizazz!”. If the design isn’t working , you need a senior, experienced designer to bring the design back into line or it won’t sell from the shelf. “Design by committee” is one of the major con’s in bringing your design in-house.

Production. Finally there’s the production piece of the design puzzle. This piece is known as “finished art”. This is where the designer will need to be able to supply high quality finished artwork so it is print ready.

Latest/up-to-date Tools – a typical design project will incorporate a whole slew of tools. Your designer’s toolbox will often determine the quality of how they go about creating, designing and analyzing more efficiently.

Consistency – The more experienced the designer the more consistent the quality of the designs. The less time is wasted to-ing and fro-ing between the designer and the marketing team .

Quality Control– this is one of the most difficult things to ensure when you bring design in-house.  Quality trumps just about everything else, because quality is what attracts consumers to your pack on shelf. When all you have is marketers critiquing your work and no other designers, your work quality will naturally slip.

Experience/Expertise – it’s important to have experience and proven expertise designing and executing the individual parts of a packaging design project.

Now let’s look at the pros and cons of doing inbound yourself versus hiring a design agency agency

The pro’s & con’s

Let’s start this pro’s & con’s exercise by looking at bringing your design in-house.

Doing in-house yourself: Pros

  • You have complete control over every aspect of the process.  You control the the look and feel, the style, and the overall design. You are able to influence the design directly by injecting your own expertise and the opinions of other key stakeholders directly into the design.
  • You can change the brief at will and manage in the changes.
  • You have total project management control of all the stages of the design process. With an in-house designer you are able to delegate other design work that needs doing.
  • Because the communication chain is shorter, you are able to make quicker decisions.
  • Because the designer is in-house you can make as many changes as you like without having to pay for additional rounds or designs.
  • Because you have been involved in the design process you’ll develop a greater appreciation for what works and what does not, the shortfalls and the upsides.
  • You’re able to pivot and make changes promptly without having the to-ing and fro-ing that typically happens with an agency.
  • You may still require the servcices of a finnished art service

Doing in-house yourself: Cons

  • Like all skills and expertise, it takes time to understand and master all the moving parts and processes involved in developing a design that will sell on shelf
  • There is a learning curve and like all learning curves, bringing design in-house will take a time and cost investment. There has to be a period of trial and error you need to be ready and willing to go through.
  • Your knowledge and experience of the packaging design process is limited by your own knowledge of and experience. You may not be able to do as good of a job as a professional packaging design agency.
  • The designer you are willing to pay for may not be experienced enough to convert strategy into design as quickly as you need it done.
  • Your designer may not be up to speed with the latest technologies or design trends and so you end up with a below par design.
  • A professional design studio will know the most cost effective ways to design your materials to keep your printing costs to a minimum. You may not get this by doing all yourself.
  • You will be pulled away from other areas of your business because of the significant time and energy investment required.
  • By bringing your design in-house you’ll miss out on the perspective, knowledge, complete expertise and experience a professional design team will bring to the table, so favorable results may take longer to appear.
  • If your designer gets sick or needs time off, there is no one to fill in the gap at a moment’s notice.
  • A design agency has the experience and expertise to have the innate awareness of what works and doesn’t work to get products to sell off the shelf. They will typically have a wide array of clients and as a result will have profound know how as to the most appropriate strategy to apply. A design agency will know exactly how to drive results and can show you best design options that your product requires to get sold.
  • You run the risk of the “employee designer” not working out (which can cost you significant amounts of time and money).
  • What do you do when you have to roll out multiple SKU’s in Multiple different size combinations? Here’s where you’ll require the services of a professional agency.
  • Your designers will get stale not hanging out with other creatives.

Now let’s take a look at some pro’s & con’s of hiring an agency.

Hiring an agency: Pros

  • You get a team of specialized experts working on your behalf.
  • The agency can help you get real clarity on your brief ensuring the best outcome.
  • You get strategic design and research built into the design
  • You are hiring professionals to deliver professional outcomes. Like going to a surgeon for a specific desired outcome.
  • Your design process will, theoretically, get up and running faster. This is simply because with an agency you’ll often have more than one or two people working on your design to achieve results (it’s the difference between a ten hour job for one person, versus that same job split three or even five ways).
  • You are freed up to devote more time to other critical business functions.
  • You get to delegate instead of execute.
  • You have cost transparency up-front.
  • You get to take advantage of the fact that your selected agency will have dealt across a broad range of industries and clients they have better knowledge at measuring competitors.
  • Your agency will be able to head off costly printing errors with a QC production process which you may not get in-house.
  • You can avoid may costly re-do’s.
  • You won’t be surrounded by “yes men” who will simply comply with your thinking. They will challenge you to ensure the very best outcome for your design. Whereas an employee may not stand up to you or the marketing team to state their case for their design.
  • Legacy data. If you have been with a design agency for a while they will have access to and quick recall of legacy data and historical information and campaigns that your in house designer may need to spend hours going through files to access.
  • Easily manage a multi SKU roll out
  • Ensure printing requirements and colour matches avoiding costly printing errors.
  • A constant stram of new creative and innovative ideas

Hiring an agency: Cons

  • Hiring an agency can be a higher upfront cost.
  • Although you do have input, because an external party is creating your design you are putting the voice of your company in the hands of an outsider.
  • You will lose some control; you will not be able to oversee every small detail and action that happens.
  • You run the risk of the relationship not working out (which can cost you significant amounts of time and money).
  • The agency will challenge you and your thinking and will (should, if they are any good) push back.

Whilst none of the pro’s & con’s above lists above are exhaustive, there are enough pointers to provide you with insight which can help you choose whether or not to bring your design in house or leave it in the hands of a professional agency.

Of course on paper if you conduct a simple cost benefit analysis, financially it may make sense to bring your design in-house. On the other hand if you don’t cost in all the lost opportunity costs of time and money or other associated outlays, poor brand exposure, and other benefits lost by pursuing the in-house design option.

Do you need help building a business case..either way?

Happy to work with you on your numbers to see if it will make sense to bring your design in house or stay with a professional design agency. Feel free to email me at