What’s Your ROI? Demonstrating the Value of Design

By Laura Seargeant Richardson, Creative Director at argodesign

Why designers are moving away from resumes and reviews to demonstrating their value in a new light

John Hayes, the CMO of American Express, is quoted in Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership as saying, “We tend to overvalue the things we can measure, and undervalue the things we cannot.”

As designers, we are familiar with this line of thinking when it comes to communicating to clients the ROI of design, but rarely do we consider the implications for us as individuals. From a business perspective, ROI is generally considered the amount of return on an investment relative to the investment’s cost. Any design agency is only as good as the creative talent within its walls because design is a service. And just like design as a service, creative talent is notoriously hard to measure. But, what if it wasn’t? Increasing our value as designers means bringing to light that which can be measured about ourselves. In other words, the investment potential we offer to a company.

I created my first ROI deck seven years ago out of necessity. During my annual review, it became clear to me that my manager had no idea what I had contributed over the course of a year. Just speaking to a few colleagues fell short of any real measurement of my worth. So, I decided then and there to take charge of my personal brand and to expose what others said about me throughout the year—not just during review time. Taking it a step further, I researched and developed a set of value-based metrics that I believed established my ROI as a designer. These metrics weren’t just what made me special or what distinguished me from my peers, but what I perceived to be most valuable to the business in its pursuit of corporate goals.

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To determine these values, I started with a set of “career cards” that had been developed to help junior designers advance in the firm. The cards focused on personal growth in the areas of design fundamentals, facilitation, storytelling, team leadership, technical knowledge, problem solving, attention to detail and more. While these were illuminating, they didn’t really convey what was valuable to the business. And this is the crux of the matter. Rarely do we attempt to tie what we do on a daily basis to the overall health of the company. Just what do design firms value? I started to pay greater attention to what drove the bottom line and the expectations of the leaders I served.

For example, the Chief Marketing Officer was measured, in part, by his ability to grow our social platform. Knowing how the company valued him, I was able to use my writing contributions for publications like GOOD, Fast Co. Design and The Atlantic to communicate how I was helping his bottom line. The marketing team relayed this to the Chief Creative Officer and attributed my contribution to increased website traffic, newsletter subscribers and even potential new hires. And when the CMO left the firm five years later, he wrote me, “Working with you was one of the highlights of my time at this design agency. You challenged me and inspired me—and your unique view of the world added enormous value to the agency and to me.” Our goal as designers should be to increase the tangibility of our value whenever possible. That tangibility increases when we align our efforts to five major business drivers of the design firm.

[Related: Born This Way: Millennial Designers Bring Their Values to Work | The Future of Creativity: Understanding Value]

Design Projects

As designers, particularly in consulting firms, this is how we think of contributing to the business. However, do you know how much revenue your projects generated? Determine how much your projects made in relation to the office revenue. Begin to capture positive client feedback, and colleague feedback specific to any given project. Capture your contributions. Keep track of any outside recognition or awards your projects received. Write a case study to be used by the organization and offer to speak about the project at conferences. If applicable, help write the patent defense for the product.

Design Culture Within the Organization

Competition for talent is fierce in any industry, particularly design. Designers should focus their efforts in two areas: employee acquisition and retention. How are you contributing to these two areas? Internally, mentor others where you can. Recognize colleagues for great work. Share accolades with the studio. Be a voice for change, if needed. Create new ways to retain talent and share these with your manager and Human Resources. Externally, find and refer talent to your agency. Share your company news on social feeds. Ask to be a part of the hiring process and help improve it.

Client Acquisition

As a service industry, design is reliant on finding and keeping great clientsthose that can pay their bills, but are also great partners to work with. There may be less opportunity for junior designers to help with business development, but you must ask. Your contributions could include everything from actually preparing business development proposals to utilizing conferences as a way to network for the firm. Just like employees, it’s far easier to retain good clients than find them. Look for opportunities during projects to begin relationships with key clients. Be easy to work with, be available, and be inspirational. Provide them company swag when you can (surprisingly, this goes a long way to making clients feel special). The ROI can be a longer term pay off, but it’s well worth it. Particularly, when a client comes back five years later and remembers you.

Marketing the Firm

Design is reliant on communicating value, whether its value to specific clients, value to the community or value to individual designers who want to rise in their chosen profession. Marketing is the voice of the firm. Designers should strive, wherever possible, to be that voice. From your Twitter and Instagram accounts to speaking and writing on behalf of the firm, it’s easier than ever to determine your ROI in this area. Consider a recent LinkedIn update I contributed on behalf of my current agency. In two days, my update received 393 views.

While marketing helps the company, it also helps you develop your platform and personal brand. It’s a win-win and perhaps the most overlooked area for increasing your ROI within a company.

New Income Opportunities

As the design field matures and as clients further recognize the value of design, more design studios proliferate. The end result is that most design firms appear to offer the same services. As such, these firms are seeking new ways to provide value to their clients. For example, experience audits, collaboration toolkits, organizational transformation and innovation workshops are being offered to extend a design firm’s value beyond the design of products and services. Brainstorm what new lines of business you can help create at your company. Create presentations of your ideas demonstrating the potential income from those opportunities.

We must remember that part of the unspoken job is designing our careers. We can never assume that what makes each of us valuable is recognized by those around us. Better than a resume, an ROI deck shows just how valuable you really are to a company. In an industry and an agency with short-term memory (from the revolving door of staff among other things), your ROI deck transcends what people remember about you and what you remember about yourself. An ROI deck is tangible proof, not just perception.

When I finally finished my first ROI deck, I realized my design worth for that year. I contributed meaningfully to nine projects, co-wrote five client proposals, presented at five conferences, authored ten publications, mentored five colleagues and referred seven people for jobs. Was I valuable to my company? Hell, yeah. I really was. And so are you.

Laura Seargeant Richardson is the creative director at argodesign.


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