The Ancient Chinese Guide to Hiring a Designer

If you’re looking for fortune cookie advice on how to choose a designer, you’ve come to the wrong place. (Though, “Crows everywhere are equally black” may apply here…)

Sun Tzu once said,

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

In combat it’s easy to see the tactics. The soldiers, the tanks, the jets—it’s all tactical. It’s important, but isn’t what ultimately wins the war. Strategy, on the other hand is decidedly the slowest route to victory—all planning and no action will lead bosses and clients alike to channel Larry and shout, “Git ‘er dun!”

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Tactics without Strategy

Take Rachel, for example. Rachel’s a smart entrepreneur that wants to sell health-food widgets online. She has her operations plan nailed. She’s developed an awesome product, found a trust-worthy manufacturer, and done her homework regarding her supply line.

While Rachel’s operations strategy is robust, she’s completely clueless when it comes to the marketing side of her business; it’s all a big void. She doesn’t know a browser from a search engine. (It’s true, see her at the 0:11 second mark of this video.)

She’s chosen to go direct-to-market model; she’ll sell directly from her website rather than involve distributors.

Which means she needs a website, and quick.

Rachel Googles “graphic designer” and comes up with 32,600,000 results. After browsing around on several sites, and seeing some beautiful portfolios, she’s narrowed it down to two options:

    1. A one-man shop with a portfolio full of beautiful sites and a tag-line that boasts, “we design beautiful websites.”
    2. A small local agency that has designers on staff but is focused on marketing and advertising in a social-media world. The sites showcased in their portfolio look fine, but likely wouldn’t make it into any design shows.

Option one would provide Rachel with a very tactical site. She would end up with beautiful pixels and a pretty shopping cart. “Beautiful website” aside, she would still be fresh out of visitors.

She would make a lot of noise before ultimately being defeated.

Option two would provide Rachel a decent looking site and a shopping cart that works but, more importantly, would aid her in her primary quest: to find and sell to customers. She’d be given help with both strategy and tactics—both of which she needs.

Rachel’s operations plan is sound, she has a major marketing strategy deficit; She needs both strategy and tactics.

Strategy without Tactics

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Justin. He’s been blogging on the topic of fishing for upwards of four years now. His readership is plentiful and active. While Justin has built a solid readership, his site is nothing to look at—his WordPress theme could be accurately described as a ““obviously free.” Yet, despite having little design sense, he’s garnered offline attention was recently interviewed by a major outdoor magazine. The article is set to go live in a month and Justin would like a fresh layer of paint applied to his DIY blog.

Which means he needs a new website, and quick.

Justin Googles “graphic designer’ and comes up with the same 32,600,000 results that Rachel found. He also narrows it down to two similar options:

    1. The first option is a solicitation from a trusted friend who specializes in getting folks online and blogging. He tells Justin, “Dude, I do this all the time; I’ve got you covered.”
    2. A very talented one-man shop boasting “We build beautiful standards-compliant websites”

Option one would give Justin more strategy, when what he clearly needs is stronger tactics. He has a blog, he knows how to engage his readership and market himself as a thought leader. This option wouldn’t hurt Justin, per se, but it wouldn’t exactly strengthen him either.

Option two, however would be a better choice. He has a solid strategy—he needs to develop his brand by strengthening his tactics. In this case the stereotypical “we build beautiful websites” style of designer would be a fine fit.

In both these options it maybe obvious to an outsider looking in what the individual should choose. For you, dear reader, it’s important to honestly evaluate yourself and see where you fall short.

Are you a Rachel? Do you know your business inside and out but need some help with marketing strategy? Or are you like Justin, savvy in the ways of the web but wouldn’t recognize complementary colors if you livelihood depended on it?

Andrew Hahn is a creative director for circa42. He also plays one on TV at his day job. Follow him on twitter.