If you want to project an image of professionalism to your clients, all the visual elements of your business will need to be in tip-top shape - your logo, signage, website, brochures and flyers, advertisements, building exterior and interior, and so on.

Ideally your visual communications will all be aesthetically pleasing, eye-catching, and memorable. They should function well -your website will be easy to navigate, your brochure will be easy to read, etc.

More than that, though, your visuals should help, in unconscious ways, to communicate what your dance studio stands for, what makes it different from and superior to your competitors. This is done through typography, layout, color, shape, and all the other elements of visual language.

To do this, you will need professional design help. Choosing that help carefully is an important step that can have a big impact on how effectively your design dollars are spent. Here's how you can go about finding the right design partner.

1. Determine Your Needs

What do you need designed? Be clear about the scope of the project, no matter how small or large.

What is your timeframe? What is your budget? Is this a one-time engagement or is it likely you will hire the designer for future work and will want to start a long-term relationship?

Let's say you need two new signs, one for your building and one for an existing kiosk near the street. The design of those two signs may be only partially what you need, however. You may also need the designer to work with your landlord and town zoning board so as to develop signs that will meet local regulations and physical constraints, and to supervise the construction and installation of the signs in the two locations.

2. Determine Your Design and Communication Objectives

What do you need your new signs, in this example, to do for you? Obviously you need them to communicate clearly the name and presence of your studio, as seen from the distance and location of passersby. Possibly the signs may need to indicate direction, such as to parking. Definitely they will need to look similar to other visual materials that are existing or planned for your business - your logo, color palette, other design elements - in order to be recognized as yours, to express those important non-verbal messages about your business, and to project the level professionalism that a coordinated visual identity suggests.

Your design needs and the objectives of your project should be written out in a document that you will later share with your designer and that will ultimately guide the development of his or her work.

3. Seek Out Design Resources

Depending on the scope of your project, you may only need an independent designer, or you may need a full-service design firm with capabilities in many design disciplines.

You are looking for design resources who are large enough to handle your work competently but not so large that your job will be passed on to an inexperienced designer or so large that the firm's overhead costs are disproportional to the services you need.

Importantly, your resources should either have experience with your type of business or demonstrate an ability to appropriately adapt their style of design to different industries.

Look for designers and design firms in the phone book. Use Google to find online directories of designers in your area. You can also look for businesses like yours in your city whose signage (or website or brochures, etc.) you feel is well done; ask the owners for the names of their resources. Look for designers' ads in local newspapers, magazines and online sites. Look for design or marketing organizations where designers may be members or where you may receive a referral.

4. Interview Several Designers

When you have assembled a list of at least three different resources, ask to meet with each of them. Where you meet is not important, but you seek a setting where you can determine your personal comfort level with each resource- you will be a close-knit team for the duration of the program.

Describe in general terms the nature of the job and how extensive it is, but you don't need to give away sensitive information at this point.

The designers should be able to show you past work they have done that is relevant to your project. They should be able to tell you what the design and communication objectives were and how they met them, within budget and time constraints, for the projects they show you. They should be able to tell you who will actually be working on your job.

5. Request a Proposal

After you have met with the designers on your list, identify those whom you feel can do the work well and ask them to give you a proposal. At this point they will need to know all the details about the job that will affect the time they will spend on it. They don't need to know a lot about what they are designing, just enough to estimate how long it will take.

Fundamentally, designers are selling their time, so they have to know enough to be able to estimate that time accurately. How extensive or complex is the job? Is it a design "from scratch" or does it coordinate with existing imagery or build on a previous version? What is your deadline? What are your budget constraints? Do they need to produce special artwork or photography? Do you want them to supervise the production of the end product?

Your prospective designers should return to you with an itemized proposal listing the scope of work, timing, and estimated out-of-pocket costs. Each will give you a plan for executing the program broken down into several steps - and the plans may be quite different from one another. Each step, or phase, of the project may have its own fee, timing, and out-of-pocket costs and the total will be provided at the end of the proposal.

There may also be boilerplate copy at the end of the proposal, clauses that cover subjects such as the extent of revisions the designer will make before charging extra, a confidentiality statement, who pays for travel, who owns the design sketches, etc.

The more the proposal is itemized the better, so that both sides know what is or is not covered by the fee. You will be billed for work not listed.

Your job will be to review the proposals, assessing the logic of their approach and whether or not the designers "get" what you need. Of course you need to look at the costs, but beware of fees that seem too low. It's possible that the designer described a workflow that leaves out important work that he or she will expect to bill for later.

Don't be afraid to challenge the designers' quotes. Estimating the cost of a design program is sometimes very difficult and additional discussions can only help clarify the mission.

6. Select a Design Partner

Your selection will depend on several factors: the designer's approach, estimted fees and expenses, the "fit" of the designer's experience, talent and resources with your needs, your chemistry with the person who will be your every day contact, and references from people who have worked with the designer in the past. It's OK to select a designer because you really, really like his or her work. Just be sure that the work met the client's objectives and that the designer has the design firepower to meet your objectives too.

Providing your designer with clear objectives is the next step in the process of developing professional visual communications for your company. We will describe how to do that in an upcoming article.