A Guide to Outsourcing Graphic Design Services for Your Agency

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The Ultimate Guide to Outsourcing Graphic Design Services for Agencies

How to Outsource Graphic Design: A Guide for Agencies

Learn how and why to outsource graphic design services for your agency. Use our cost calculator to find the most budget-friendly outsourcing option.

Design services
April 27, 2020
24 minutes


The decision to outsource a task as creative as graphic design is never easy. Still, it can prove to be a significant boost for your agency. In this guide, you will find out how to outsource and what it might cost you.

Business process outsourcing is often met with criticism and concern. First of all, it may seem like an unnecessary expense if you already have a full-time designer; and communication immediately becomes more challenging when you’re not working in the same office. But most importantly, it’s the uncertainty regarding quality that can put many agencies off the idea permanently.

After all, in the clients’ eyes, you are responsible for delivering the result.

Despite these legitimate concerns, outsourcing is a growing trend with creative agencies. Cella’s 2019 report shows that 73% of agencies already partner with an external agency for tasks like design execution. According to Cella, the top reasons why agencies outsource are the following:

agenices reasons for outsourcing.jpg

Outsourcing can be a great way to scale your agency and maximize efficiency by getting top talents for the job to help out.

Of course, it can also be a solution to some issues you might be facing, such as:

You’ve got a few new clients, and the workload has become too big for your team to handle effectively. You have a specific project coming up that your existing team might not feel too confident about. You’re looking to cut down on costs.

Find out how and where to outsource your graphic design needs

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Good news! If you recognize one or all of these as challenges you have faced or thought about, this guide is the perfect opportunity to find all the answers to your burning questions:

1. Who should use graphic design outsourcing (and when not to do it)

2. What types of design make good outsourcing projects

3. What options are there for outsourcing graphic design (a brief overview of 3 main options)

4. How to hire the best graphic designer for your agency (4 steps for foolproof outsourcing)

5. What does graphic design outsourcing cost (+ cost comparison spreadsheet)

Chapter 1: Who should use graphic design outsourcing, and when?

Short answer: anyone who needs a significant amount of design work done quickly.

Long answer is, it depends: on the scope of your project, the budget, the quality you are aiming for, and a number of other factors too. It is crucial to bear in mind that outsourcing always carries its share of administrative burdens as well as upfront investments.

To clear things up a big, a good first step is to set your goals. What do you want to achieve, what issues are you trying to solve? Think about budget, capacity and time.

Once you have these down, a helpful tool for goal setting is the SMART model, or to make sure your goals are:

  • Specific: decide what type of design you need, or for which client;
  • Measurable: how many designs, how many clients;
  • Achievable: outsourcing is not automation, remember that you’re still working with real people;
  • Relevant: again, ask yourself why outsource (to alleviate stress from your team or to grow your agency?);
  • Time-bound: make a timeframe for both projects and your outsourcing strategy (are you giving outsourcing a one month trial, or are you already in it for the long run?)

Outsourcing design for full-service agencies

If you run a full-service agency, chances are that you already have one or more designers in your core team. However, this shouldn’t make you reluctant to outsource! In fact, getting outsiders to help with the grunt of the work will allow you to dedicate more challenging tasks to your team of trusted in-house designers.

As a full-service agency, you also probably have your fair share of industry contacts. While it may be tempting to just ask around for recommendations, this may not always be the smartest thing to do.

In Deloitte’s 2016 survey, access to intellectual capital was one of the top 5 reasons why businesses use outsourcing. On the other hand, Cella found that 55% of agencies see it as an opportunity to access specialized skill sets.

If you’re after a particular skill, outsourcing can be a way to bridge the talent gap and find an expert from anywhere in the world. If you think locally and rely on existing contacts, you might miss out on an opportunity to work with top talents.

Outsourcing design for advertising agencies

Unlike full-service agencies, many advertising agencies are already outsourcing their design. They often need to come up with many visuals in a short period—when an ad campaign starts running, it needs to keep running.

For this reason, workload can pile up very quickly in an ad agency.

If your staff has been working 12 hours a day for the past week, something isn’t right. The on/off nature of outsourcing means that you don’t have to wait for your team members to become fatigued. Even if you think working on a campaign-by-campaign basis with someone on the outside sounds like a lot of work, remember that it can help increase your productivity and help keep the core team happy.

The advantage of talent outsourcing applies to other kinds of specialized agencies (social media ad, PR…)

Outsourcing graphic design: long- vs. short term

This is a major concern for anyone who has ever considered outsourcing. We understand the reasoning: if you invest the time and money, isn’t it just better to hire an additional in-house employee?

The good news is that it’s not an either-or situation. The great thing about outsourcing is that you can make it as much of a long- or short term solution as you like. If you opt for an outsourcing model with an hourly charge (or per project), it should be easy for you to assess what it might cost you.

When thinking about outsourcing, most of us intrinsic pessimists would immediately think: 'But what if I don’t like the work?'. Interestingly enough, what you should be considering is: 'What if I love it?' If you’re looking for outsourcing as a long-term solution, working with a freelancer on a month-by-month basis can turn out to be a whole lot more expensive than hiring an in-house employee.

To kickstart your thinking, we’ve compiled a short overview of the pros and cons of each model.

pros and cons of long and short term outsourcing.jpg

We look at different outsourcing options and provide a more in-depth financial analysis in chapters 4 and 5.

When not to outsource

Spoiler alert: this article will likely make you want to consider outsourcing. However, despite some of the many benefits, there are certain situations when outsourcing does not make a sensible decision in the long term. Some of the reasons not to outsource might include:

1. You’re building a company culture.

If your ultimate goal is to build a self-sufficient in-house team, your employees might feel threatened by someone else taking over their tasks. Unless everyone is happy about the idea, don’t do it: studies show that stress in the workplace can increase resignations by 50%. Don’t lose your team spirit or your team just because you wanted to save some money!

2. You can’t retain ownership of your brand.

It’s perfectly fine to outsource technical, administrative, and yes—even creative tasks. But remember that you need to be in control of your brand (image). If someone else is planning, writing and designing for your brand, eventually it will stop being your brand. Take Apple’s example instead: while most of their manufacturing is outsourced, the core design is still done in house. Anyone can make a smartphone; only Apple can make it an iPhone.

3. You can’t help micromanaging.

No one wants to admit they micromanage, but still, some people do it. If you don’t want to call it by this ugly name, at least think carefully how comfortable you are with design happening out of sight. If it’s just going to make you more doubtful and stressed than usual, spare everyone the frustration and stick to an in-house team.

Chapter 2: What kind of designs should you outsource?

So you’re ready to outsource? Great! Remember to outsource only your weaknesses or tasks you delegate easily. So what kind of tasks does this include?

Good design outsourcing jobs include tasks that have a fixed scope, are easily definable and have a clear deliverable at the end. Most designs that can be successfully outsourced meet most of these criteria. If you ask someone to produce five concepts, you might end up with tons of billable hours and five ideas that don’t have anything to do with your initial thoughts or any work already done.

To help you out, we’re suggesting 5 design projects that can make a terrific outsourcing opportunity.

1. Logos

Everyone needs a logo. Still, when small business owners weigh their options on how to best approach the design of their logo, they might think that hiring a branding agency to do this is too expensive.

And it’s not like they don’t have options to choose from!

Logo design has such a tremendous price range: anywhere from $15 to $15.000! The $15 one is usually not the best or most original, but if your business is struggling and you aren’t sure what good design even is, this might seem a tempting route to take.

On the other hand, industry professionals know why logo design is so costly. It’s not the actual design of a simple icon or piece of text; it’s the hours of research (of the brand, its audience, competitors) and a considerable amount of talent which are required to translate the key branding messages into one simple, memorable design.

But what if you could offer a full branding service at a lower price by outsourcing logo design? A quality freelancer will be able to produce 3 or 4 logo prototypes, leaving you time to focus on all the thinking that goes into it.

Your client is thrilled with the wealth of options, and you get a moment to shine, presenting the elaborate concept you’ve had the time and resources to work on!

2. Web design

How important is web design again? Well, one survey says 94% of people make their first impression of a company based on web design. Another one says that 90% of people continue shopping because of great UX (user experience).

The inevitable fact with this type of design, however, is that it requires a very specific set of technical skills. Since you can imagine that these skills are high in demand, it’s understandable that designers who specialize in UX and UI design don’t have to work on perfecting other skills (like illustration, logo design, etc.)

As an agency, you usually want to hire talented designers with a diverse skill set. However, web design often doesn’t come with the package (or at least not at an expert level). Asking your designers to refine or learn this, when they’re already overworked mid-campaign, will only leave them frustrated without any work done.

Instead, get a pro on board to make this as quick and painless as possible and leave the professional development for another time.

website design agency.png

3. Social media advertising

A 2017 study from Ofcom shows that visual assets were the single biggest content contributor on social media. It’s not surprising then that most creative agencies dedicate a considerable amount of time to producing this type of visual content. Cella’s study shows that 97% of agencies create visual content as part of their social media service.

Social media marketing is and will remain critical for both your clients and your agency. How about some stats to illustrate that?

  • There are 3.5 billion daily active social media users worldwide (around 45% of the population).
  • Facebook has over 2.3 billion active users monthly.
  • 73% of marketers find social media an effective tool for their business.
  • 71% of consumers who have had a positive experience with a brand on social media are likely to recommend it.

(Source: Oberlo)

Remember that social media needs to be engaging, constant, and current. And while your clients might have excellent ideas on how to do that, not all of them will have a well-thought-out social media calendar that you can structure your work around. A survey conducted by Buffer shows that over 50% of companies don’t have a documented social media strategy.

More often than not, your clients will get “their best ideas” in the middle of the night and ask you to deliver results the same day. Of course, social media also has to be responsive to current trends, and sometimes it can be even impossible to plan everything.

Outsourcing this part of the work will ensure that you can deal with any “emergency” situations without having to compromise the efficiency of your workflow.

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4. Reports, manuals and, presentations


I’m not a designer, but I’ve worked closely with one, as she was creating our organization’s annual report. From my perspective, it looked like every designer’s nightmare: piecing blocks of text together and creating 20 different styles of charts. There was also a lot of back and forth every time the writers decided to change things up just a little bit (designers know that even one additional sentence can mess up the whole outline).

When she got the job, it’s possible this designer hadn’t anticipated this particular task. Freelancers, on the other hand, usually know precisely what they’re getting into before they start working on a project. And some of them might love designing reports, manuals, and company culture books (humans are a strange breed).

report design mockup.png

Similarly, while skilled designers may think nothing of it, presentation design is costing companies a lot of time and money. This survey suggests that an average of 4,3 hours are spent on designing presentations every week. If top managers and directors have to do this themselves, it translates to about $15,000 annually in billable hours.

Provide a cost-effective solution to your clients as your outsource force delivers these types of design timely and at a lower cost.

5. Email and newsletter design

You might not think much of it at first. I mean—how much design work does this one really entail?

Those all-important open rates depend on a good copywriter, good design can make or break the decision to visit a company’s website. From including your logo to clearly labeled call to action (CtA), learning how to design emails is truly a process worth your time. After all, 60% of marketers say emails are their biggest source of ROI.

Be smarter than your clients. Let them know just how much great graphic design can help with their email campaigns and connecting with their audiences on a regular basis. Help them create a marketing strategy which will include a set of email banners and visuals to use in accordance with their marketing strategy.

Chapter 3: Three options for outsourcing graphic design

When I say outsourcing, you say… freelancers! Well, that’s not surprising. In the US, freelancers are estimated to make 43% of the workforce this year, and a whopping 75% of the workforce in the arts and design industry are freelancers.

If it’s a wide selection you’re after, freelancers are probably the best choice for you. Using platforms like Upwork or Fiverr is usually preferred, as they ensure both you and the freelancer hold up your end of the bargain (without the need for complicated contracts).

However, remember that freelancers aren’t your only option to outsource design. If you know what you need and how much money you are willing to spend, you might want to consider one of these three options for you to consider.

  1. Freelancers: You can use a platform or get in touch with a freelancer through some of your contacts. Pay is usually per hour or project, and it greatly depends on a number of factors, including location and expertise.

  2. Unlimited design services: You pay a monthly fee and submit as many designs as you like. Turnaround time is usually pretty quick, for smaller projects generally, it’s usually 1-2 days. In most cases, you’re paired with one freelancer working for you, but if for some reason they can’t deliver, there is always someone else to take over

  3. Design agency: You have a team of designers on hand. High efficiency and creativity. This is usually the most expensive option.

Whichever option you choose, you won’t have to worry about finding some genuinely talented graphic designers. The difference comes down to time and financial management.

Chapter 4: Steps for foolproof outsourcing

While Hubspot’s 2018 report suggests most agencies (67%) planned to increase their team size, Cella’s 2019 report shows that 71% of leaders do not have time to develop their teams. Agencies are always on the lookout for top talents; however, this is often a slow and inefficient process.

Interestingly, Cella also reports that close to half of the respondents (47%) consider there aren’t enough qualified candidates to choose from when it comes to graphic design. A possible reason for this is that agencies still aren’t considering all the advantages and possibilities of outsourcing.

Another challenge for successful hires could be the recruitment process itself. You need to consider all the specifics of hiring a graphic designer, but also need to bear in mind the fact that work will be done externally.

So, how to spot and hire top talent for your agency? Here are four simple steps to follow:

Step 1 - portfolio evaluation

Unless you’re a graphic designer yourself, it can be hard to judge a portfolio. Sometimes the work is stunning, but not the right fit for you. So, when you look at a design portfolio, make sure you’re considering these points:

  • Relevance—Does the portfolio include the specific type of design you’re after? Has the designer worked in a similar industry as your client? This can be a big plus!
  • Simplicity—It takes a lot of skill to translate complex branding and marketing messages into simple design. We’re not saying that you should scour the internet exclusively for minimal design. However, make sure that your graphic designer of choice has the ability to deliver a punch with the simplest of ideas.
  • Collaboration—Design does not happen independently in a creative agency. That’s why it’s always a great sign to see evidence of collaborative projects since it’s imperative for this outsider to also work well within a team.

Step 2 - Interview

As someone who’s probably hired graphic designers before, you probably have a prepared list of interview questions for graphic designers. With a quick Google search, I’m sure you can find plenty more. However, few people take time to consider what kind of answer they are actually looking for. Of course, there’s usually no right or wrong here; but if the specifics are removed, you might be able to filter out a general idea of what you’re hoping to hear from the candidate.

Let’s look at some important interview questions and examples of good and bad answers.

graphic design interview question 1.jpg

This is a clever way of finding out what designers think of their profession and, ultimately, what motivates them.

Good answer: creativity, communication and a basic understanding of marketing concepts

Even if they don’t have the last one, it’s a good sign that they at least know this is important.

Bad answer: talent

As opposed to creativity, talent doesn’t imply something you can work on. When people talk of themselves as “talented,” it’s likely they won’t take criticism well.

graphic design interview question 2.jpg

This is also a great way of finding out how much they know about agency work without having to pose a scary exam-like question.

Good answer: I’ve worked most closely with copywriters and enjoyed the process. Sometimes we had different ideas on where the focus of the copy was, so I liked learning more about the big goals of campaigns.

Even if they don’t mention everyone, it’s nice to know they have collaborated with people from various teams.

Bad answer: I like to get on with my work and get things done. I can always ask for feedback later.

Even if they’re super-efficient, having to rework a design ten times because they never wanted to pause and ask for feedback can be pretty draining and expensive.

graphic design interview question 3.jpg

Good answer: The first thing I do is research the brand (client) and their audience to get a better understanding of who I’m designing for. Then I study the brief carefully and try to come up with my own ideas. Finally, I research similar designs and start working on the first draft.

Of course, this is just an example, but the idea is for the designer to show you there is a structured thinking process (even if we all know this doesn’t apply in all cases). Again, as a marketing agency, you really can’t afford to hire someone who designs as a hobby. You need someone who understands and appreciates the tricks of the trade.

Bad answer: I don’t really know, it depends from project to project.

Sure, this isn’t untrue. But it doesn’t provide any sort of valuable information. Even picking one specific example and talking about that is much better than being vague.

graphic design interview question 4.jpg

Good answer: I love pencil illustrations. I find them beautiful and versatile. I think I need to improve on creating infographics. Often, it’s hard for me to imagine how best to showcase the most important information.

Everyone appreciates honesty. Even if you think infographics are super important for your business, you should consider working with this capable, honest designer. After all, a detailed brief can do magic!

Bad answer: I am really hardworking and a fast learner. I’m not great at UX design.

Even if these answers are completely honest, they are vague. Sure, you can always ask additional questions and get to all the details you need to know. But what does this answer tell you of the candidate’s communication skills?

Step 3: Assigning a trial project

Trial projects are a chance for you to see your prospective hire in action and determine if their style and work ethic match the needs of your agency/project. But, does this work with freelancers? Yes and no. Technically speaking, a trial project is just another project for a freelancer. They get paid by the hour or by the project basis anyway, so in that respect, there’s no real difference.

While the freedom to choose projects is a critical part of their job, most freelancers dream of establishing long-term relationships with a handful of clients. Make sure they’re aware that this trial project could be their ticket to that long-term commitment, and they might put in some extra work for it.

On the other hand, most design agencies won’t offer the possibility of a trail project. They will usually include case studies on their website to showcase what kind of work they’ve done before.

Another great thing about unlimited graphic design services is that they usually offer a trial period. At least that’s the case with ManyPixels! Try us out for 14 days and get your money back if you’re not happy with the service.

Step 4: Discussing time and deliverables

Freelancers know the importance of good communication: 78% feel that soft skills are equally important as the skills required to do their job. As such, discussing time and deliverables are probably the most critical part of the entire onboarding process.

And what about companies? Well, according to the 2016 Deloitte survey, 64% of companies wanted to improve their Vendor Management Organization (VMO). Of course, there are various mechanisms to do this, most importantly using external resources (freelancing or time/project management platforms). However, a word of advice is to be results-oriented. Creating a clear set of expectations and deliverables at the start of the process can save considerable time micromanaging each individual part of the work.

micromangaing illustration.jpg

Chapter 5: How much does outsourcing graphic design really cost?

This is what you came for, right? Well, since we practice what we preach, I’ll try to be as specific as possible to help you work out how much you will have to pay if you decide to outsource graphic design.

Of course, even with the best of intentions, it’s impossible to give you a comprehensive price list—so many things come into play here like the type of project, duration, location, kind of outsourcing service.

Location is especially important when working with a single designer (freelancer). Depending on the exact geographical location, hourly rates can vary quite a bit. Here you can find some rough figures for hourly rates in certain parts of the world.

graphic design hourly rates by location.jpg

(Source: Salary Expert)

While your first instinct might be to go for the cheapest option, remember that this entails some additional complications. First of all, when a price is suspiciously low, you often end up getting what you paid for.

Secondly, while the cost of hiring a high-quality designer can be considerably lower in some parts of the world, there are still obstacles you may need to overcome. Cultural differences and language barriers can create immense problems, even with the most skilled designers. And without a project manager to oversee the work of your selected designer, these challenges can become even more challenging to overcome.

Of course, a major factor you must bear in mind is time zones. Agency work is agile, and if someone delivers outstanding results, but 5 hours too late, it simply isn’t good enough. Sure, it’s possible to preempt these situations with some good planning. But remember that a phone call can usually save 4 or 5 emails, and if your designer is halfway across the world, they may not always be up (or awake) for that one quick call!

How long does design take

If you’re going to be paying for design by the hour, it’s pretty important to have at least some idea of how long it will all take. When you have a designer in the office, it’s easy to check up on them and make predictions about when the final result can be delivered.

On the other hand, when working with a freelancer, timeframes could turn out to be quite flexible. After all, you never know how many clients they have at the same time, and if some of them are being pushier than you to get their design requests delivered. This is why it’s especially important to discuss timeframes before the start of the project.

Finally, perhaps the most significant factor in determining how long a designer will take to finish the task you set is your creative brief. The more information you provide, the less time your external designer will have to spend researching and will get right onto execution. Still, since some research is usually needed, you may want to agree with the designer up front how much time they should dedicate to this.

To give you a very rough estimate of design duration here are some ballpark figures:

  1. Business cards: 1-3 hours
  2. Double-sided flyer: 3-5 hours
  3. Logo design: 10-30 hours
  4. Postcard: 2-4 hours
  5. Banner: 6-10 hours
  6. Pocket folder: 4-6 hours
  7. Click ad set: 3-4 hours
  8. Custom made illustration: 2-4 hours
  9. Social media graphics: 1-3 hours
  10. 10-page brochure, e-book, report or slide deck: 15-20 hours

Cost comparison: what does outsourcing graphic design cost?

Still can’t work out what the best outsourcing option is? Don’t worry. If you can figure out how many hours of work you need, we’re here to try and calculate the costs. Use this spreadsheet to compare how much you will need to pay for graphic design if you decide to make a full-time hire or outsource to a freelancer, design agency, or unlimited design service.

Make a copy of this non-editable spreadsheet and put in your own values (number of hours needed) to get a cost comparison.

graphic design cost calculator for agencies.jpg

Of course, bear in mind that these figures are orientational. For example, a design agency will charge very different fees depending on the type of project and seniority of the designer assigned to work. Similarly, your overhead cost will be affected by the kind of project and how long it will take to execute.

Instead of a conclusion

How to outsource graphic design? Well, now you know there’s no one way to do it. While you may have thought previously that freelancers are the be-all and end-all of outsourcing options, I hope that this guide at least expands your horizons in that respect.

Another key takeaway for all creative agencies could be that it’s worth thinking about outsourcing as a long-term investment rather than a quick fix for the current busy period. Design is going to remain a critical element of your day-to-day, and so it makes sense that you should look to boost your resources.

Finally, remember that outsourcing is usually a great way to cut down costs. Variables come into play, and, yes, you won’t be in charge of the entire design process. But you can get access to some outstanding talent to help you push your agency forward. And usually for a fraction of the annual price of a full-time hire.

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Danica Popovic

April 27, 2020

Having lived and studied in London and Berlin, I'm back in native Serbia, working remotely and writing short stories and plays in my free time. With previous experience in the nonprofit sector, I'm currently writing about the universal language of good graphic design. I make mix CDs and my playlists are almost exclusively 1960s.