Collaborator or subcontractor?

Post COVID many firms are choosing to hire external talent rather than employ. That decision made, the first question should be: do we need a collaborator or a subcontractor? There is a subtle but importance difference.

External talent

It’s easy to understand why so many studios choose not to employ. It not only makes good financial sense to expand and contract as needed, but it also makes good creative sense. Importing a fresh perspective to an old problem or hiring a skilled technician to plug a skill gap are both sound solutions. Problem is, hiring for a short term is quite different to employing.


Briefing a salaried design team can be quick. Employed designers know background of the studio and clients. On top of that, they often learn through osmosis – seeing, hearing and sensing a studio’s values and purpose, day in, day out. By contrast, external talent are parachuted in to do a task and often leave at the end of a project. They may know little about the studio and often briefings are focussed on the task at hand.

Briefing external staff is different to managing salaried staff and not a one-size-fits-all solution.


How you brief depends on your relationship with the external talent.

Generally, you collaborate with peers. Peers have the same level of skills but may have a different skillset. They may be strategists or creative directors who will work alongside you and your team. They have the experience and skill to own and take responsibility for a brief. How you interact/negotiate with them should differ to the relationship you have with an artworker hired to rollout press ads based on a template. Both are relationships based on respect, but the artworker will need far more direction than negotiation.

One recent case study

A Sydney studio advertised for a creative director to collaborate on a new campaign with an existing client. They wanted a fresh set of eyes — new thinking for an old problem. And it worked. The creative director totally owned the brief. She assumed responsibility for the deliverables and worked with the inhouse design team to develop a campaign.

Problem was, the new ideas were so radical and so different to anything previously done, the studio owner felt uncomfortable and reluctant to present it to the client. He felt the black humour used in the campaign fell outside his studio’s philosophy and values. Added to that, it was never made clear who would be presenting … the CD had assumed they had client access, whereas the owner assumed concepts would be presented by the existing team.

In this case the collaborator fairly assumed they were hired to bring their talent, their experience and in this case their humour, to the team. The CD took complete ownership of the client brief, without being mindful and accepting of the studio’s philosophy and values. But the fault is on both sides, the studio owner didn’t communicate anything outside of the brief and task at hand.

It’s fair to say, this studio’s philosophy and values are more important than their collaborator’s fresh view, skill and experience, but that wasn’t communicated.

Take away

Develop a methodology to work with external staff. A process to quickly communicate your studio’s mission, vision and purpose, your relationship with clients and your expectations with talent.

Could be an onboarding page on an intranet, could a permanent part of the briefing document, could be a mixture of both. And most probably it’s not one but at least three documents: the first for peers and collaborators, the second for senior designers or those who will be directed and a third for artworkers fulfilling prescribed tasks.

External talent represent your studio just like hired staff, albeit for a short amount of time.
The more information they have, the better expectations will be met.
It’s about delegating with intent


What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

Want more information like this delivered to your inbox every Wednesday?
The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

Want more?

These articles also talk about hiring and delegating:

  1. Another way to get fresh views in a studio
  2. How to rethink your studio and your needs
  3. Whether you need to explain changes in the studio to your clients
  4. Designers adding value

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.