Design partner or just bog-standard supplier?

Designers are split over the subject of rosters. Do they provide regular work or stifle creativity? Jonathan Ford and Carol Whitworth debate the issues


If you are successful and manage to get a place on your dream roster, then the benefits to both designer and client will quickly become apparent.

The consultancy should get a regular stream of work and, in some cases, guaranteed business – a real advantage when trying to run a group smoothly and forecasting workload and growth successfully. For smaller groups, or those based outside London, a roster offers a level playing field – one where a client does not judge on size or location.

If the roster you are part of is high profile there is a chance that you may get invitations from other organisations, which often take the lazy approach and compile their roster from another’s, saving themselves time, money and energy.

Some designers seem to think creativity is stifled on a roster. I believe the opposite is true. A consultancy is able to develop a strong bond with its client, and will get to know its brand inside out.

If a consultancy is good and its skills are appropriate it may even get to create the brand guidelines. Whatever, it will be fully aware of the scope and with all this knowledge in place, creativity can be maximised through risk-taking. With no fear of never working with the client again, the consultancy should be prepared to really flex its creative muscle and develop and expand the brief, thus producing its most creative pieces.

Many designers bemoan the fact that their clients don’t appreciate or understand design. Again, this comes down to fit – try spending (non-chargeable) time educating the client in your design principles and philosophy.

Maybe, instead of that normal, uninspiring boozy lunch, why not take them to the latest exhibition at the Tate Modern, for some real art appreciation.

Also, take time looking at the client’s perspective and the challenges and opposition it may be up against – traditional board members, crippling budget-cuts and greedy shareholders, all of whom need satisfying.

Some of the best work occurs on integrated projects where three or four consultancies work together in perfect harmony. The creative energy and passion can be inspiring and electric, and always makes for lively meetings. This must be inspiring, energising and endorsing for the client.

Roster members are champions of the brand, we help our clients achieve corporate objectives and of course offer value for money.

How to make a roster work for your consultancy:

Choose the right roster(s) for your consultancy

Your ethos and the client’s ethos should fit

Your capabilities should match the client’s expectations

You should believe in what the client does

Don’t just respond to every tender that lands on your desk for the sake of the money


Excuse the football analogy, but, if we’re not careful, clients’ increasing use of rosters means the design industry is in danger of being shown the red card.

My biggest gripe with the average roster is the lack of value prescribed to design and creativity. I’m fed up with the term ‘supplier’. Are we to be relegated to being on a par with suppliers of loo rolls and photocopier paper? As designers, we need to be seen as ‘partners’ in building successful brands. Cost-cutting works in the short-term for clients, but in the long-term it depresses creative results.

So, what tactics should we use to improve the situation?

First of all, management or ‘captainship’. As an industry, we offer no best practice guidelines on how rosters should be run or evaluated. This results in a client free-for-all when setting them up, which means subjective and financial criteria win out. Such constraints inhibit creativity and lead to third division players being selected.

If the Design Business Association’s annual charge-out survey acts as any reference at all, it’s only a fluctuating average that eliminates influence and experience. Without a constant benchmark, we are being asked to play the game with our feet tied together.

Second, player power. We must speak up about the true value of design. Namely, its role in gaining competitive advantage for clients’ brands. Not all clients are ignorant of this because the ones who understand design invest in it – and benefit as a result.

But this doesn’t necessarily involve a blue chip roster. It could be a case of a great in-house design team, a talented consultancy or just selecting the right person for the job.

Third, change the game plan. Rosters are like mirages. They look great, but rarely appear for real and can suck everyone dry in getting there. From experience, brand owners that don’t use rosters well pay lip service to procedures and use junior staff as buyers. Let’s make sure that clients recognise that most smart consultancies don’t fit into roster categories and pigeonholes.

In conclusion, get more fans behind design. This may or may not include rosters. Someone recently suggested that roster was a bad word and should be replaced by the phrase ‘soul teams’. It’s not a bad idea – there are enough failings out there for us to start again.

The fundamental issue is changing the way clients view design. If clients treated design with the respect it deserves, a fixed roster wouldn’t be the only solution. Partnerships would be long-term, based on trust, financially beneficial and motivating to all.

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