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Commissioning Digital Design

Commissioning Digital Design and A Client's Perspective

Commissioning digital design work might sound like a daunting task. Perhaps you have a great idea for a project, but no idea if it's even possible. Perhaps you have a website, but need a better one. Perhaps you know know what you don't want, but aren't sure what you do. It can feel intimidating choosing, briefing and working with an agency.

This showcase has focused very much on the designers themselves, but design as we know is a two-way relationship. So for this final feature we're flipping the perspective, and we've spoken to three of the clients mentioned by some of the digital design studios we've profiled elsewhere.

Rob Gethen Smith is the chief information officer at the London arts organisation the Southbank Centre, which has been working with Bureau for Visual Affairs on creating new digital platforms, looking to update its formerly disparate online presence with a single digital identity. “We were changing from a very traditional approach and print-based output – there was a very fragmented experience with our digital channels, whether it was emails, banner ads or YouTube videos there as no consistency at all,” says Rob. “We started with a blank piece of paper – we wanted to create new space for arts and leaning, which we had physically, but not online.”

Rob knew BureauVA’s work through his previous role working at the Tate, whose site had been overhauled by the agency. “One of the concerns for us was they’d done so much work in the arts sector already,” he says. “But we needed someone who knew that area so we could get going quickly.”

The experience of commissioning and undertaking the project was “unusual,” according to Rob, in that they wanted to find an agency that was, in his words, “willing to help us do it, but not necessarily have their name all over it.”

He says: “We needed someone to help us turn ideas into things with creative spark and energy. We realised we wanted to build digital projects in-house, but with only one digital designer we weren’t going to get very far.”

The team has been expanded now, but nonetheless, what was vital was finding the right agency to help realise the Southbank vision, and creating work that could then be taken in-house. “We adopted an agile development process, rather than asking [BVA] to create one waterfall digital piece,” Rob explains. “The relationship has had to adapt along the way, so that [BVA is] doing less and less now, and that’s deliberate. In that scenario there’s no room for ‘hero’ designers who want to be left alone to come up with something.”

Above all, though, what it comes down to at its most basic is chemistry. “It’s all about the people at the end of the day,” says Rob. “It’s down to personalty and synergy – as soon as I met Simon [Piehl, BureauVA co-founder] I knew the relationship was going to work. It wasn’t going to be all roses: he can challenge you, which is what you need, as much as he can help you.”

Chris Rogers, London Symphony Orchestra St Luke's digital projects manager, agrees. He commissioned Sennep to create the organisation’s Play site, an interactive education tool that teaches users about the make-up of a classical orchestra.

“You take the competency that the agency can do the nuts and bolts as a given, then it’s about personalities, and past work,” says Chris. “We realised they weren’t just a web agency, they’d worked with installation-based stuff and apps.”

This knowledge of the sector, or at least an interest in the arts world and an understudying of the realities of working with it was a huge plus for LSO. Chris says: “They had to have an understanding of the budgetary constraints, and be realistic on the expectations with time. They were very frank – they said “we’re not trying to fleece you, we know the arts.’ It was very clear they understood what we were trying to do.”

Though LSO spoke to several agencies, Sennep had been recommended to Chris through a designer friend, and it was then, as he said, up to the agency’s credentials and personalities to sway him. He says the fact the agency pushed the project into a new direction was crucial, and set them apart from peers who simply wished to execute the plans the LSO had initially mapped out. Chris’ advice to people looking to commission design is to be open to these new ideas: after all, it’s a digital designer you’re commissioning, and as such, someone who likely knows more about the field than you.

He says: “Try not to present people with a firm finished concept or idea – go with what you’re trying to achieve and let them do the work. Try and leave things as open as possible and appreciate the work the designers are going to do.”

Sarah Douglas is creative director at Wallpaper* magazine, which brought in Nicolas Roope (who she had known for a while) and Marc Kremers to consult on the publication’s digital platform. While most of the digital design work is carried out in-house, Sarah says that the external eyes were invaluable in being able to “look at the site completely objectively.” She says: “Having external people really helped us see that we had so much stuff on the site - things were getting hidden. They helped us expose and reformat the site.”

The key to appointing a digital design team that’s right for your project, Sarah says, is first being very clear in what you want to achieve. “Start by working out what your content is and what you’re trying to work with,” she says. “Look at everything around you for inspiration - you might go to the Hayward Gallery, or a gallery in Paris, and find something that will inspire you.”

So in a nutshell, it seems it’s all about people and shared vision. Expertise, as Chris pointed out, should be a given: it’s about whether you click, whether the agency understands your organisation and whether they’ll truly push you to get the best possible results. The other key thing in your commissioning, as Kate points out, is that little spark that unites all creative projects - keeping your eyes and ears open to anything and everything around that could inspire you.