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This is one of several posts I originally made in 2005. Some of the specifics have changed, including the focus of my work from "some design and a some programming" to "full time web development". In general their message remains valid, so they're worth keeping around.

On Hiring a Designer

Hiring a designer, whether for web or print can be a risky proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to do a little homework and invest some time, you will be able find a designer who can help you realize your vision.

Be wary of anyone who will commit to a project by taking a quick look at another site you like and gives you a set amount it will cost.

The first step in the process is to get an idea of what the designer can do. Most designers are incredibly flexible and resilient. They also look forward to a new challenge. So even though a particular designer might be known for conservative work, that designer might want to do a project that stretches their imagination into areas it has never been before. A professional designer knows his limits, but is always willing to explore the outreaches of them.

Whose opinion is right?

Web design, or any design for that matter, is a matter of subjective opinion. I could do the best work in the world, but if you don’t like what I’ve done, you’re not going to hire me. Having an open mind is essential to both the designer and customer. Some designers approach design as if they are giving dictation to the customer: “This is your new logo.” The customer has no input. This is grossly unfair to the customer and usually results in dissatisfaction.

A professional knows the features and limitations of the medium in which they are working and guides the customer appropriately. Professionals seek opinions and attempt to find out the needs of their customers in order to deliver not only what a customer needs, but what they want. Sometimes it is necessary to over-ride a customer’s choices for specific reasons. Professionals know how to explain why a certain way might be better, the pitfalls of the “wrong” way, and help reach a decision that results in a sound design.

Professionals are an investment

If you want professional results, you will need a professional designer. If you need a professional, you will pay for one. Professionals are not kids who learned a little Adobe InDesign or some HTML and CSS running a pirated copy of some web page editing software.

Professionals have thousands of dollars in equipment and software. They adhere to standard practices, and deliver a quality product that another professional with the same skill set should be able to work on it the first is not available. Professionals like contracts, and most work on an hourly basis. They will give a good faith estimate, but things like changes, additional work, etc. that vary from the initial quote are going to cost you. Professionals also know ho to save you money. If I can leverage code and design work I have already done, reusing stuff, then it’s like you get it for free. Pros also know how to use Open Source packages to your advantage, and how to use them properly.

Professionals are also educated. This does not necessarily mean a degree or certification (although that’s a huge plus). This does mean that they know not only the technology, but how and why to use it and even when not to use it. They keep up to date on new technologies and techniques, and they’re not afraid to learn new stuff – on their own time. In other words, it’s a passion for them. Professionals take care of the details so that you do not have to.

Beware of flat rates

Be extra careful of anyone who can design a web site or provide custom work for X dollars. Anyone doing work that way has to limit their time on a project, and typically uses pre-built templates. There’s nothing wrong with that, but individuality and original design are usually the first things sacrificed. If you want individual service and not “cut and paste”, you will pay for it. However, with many things in life, a lot of it is you get what you pay for.

Having a gorgeous web site and lousy cheap business cards or ugly generic invoices sends a mixed message at best.

It’s a lot like asking you to build a car, with the customer wanting you to let them know how much it will cost, but without giving any information about what they want. You will need a lot of information to proceed correctly. Do you want a Hyundai or a Mercedes? What color? Leather or cloth interior? Basic engine or high performance? Without that information, you could get half way through the project and the customer could come in and tell you that is not what they want. At this point, a lot of work got done that someone has to pay for. Could be you, the builder, if you eat the time, materials, and effort. Or it could be the customer. Either way, someone will be unhappy. Getting information is critical.

Web sites are the same way. Be wary of anyone who will commit to a project by taking a quick look at another site you like and gives you a set amount it will cost. A professional will ask a lot of questions, trying to find out what you want, your goals, and your taste. More than half the work involved in getting a design realized is not done in front of a computer, but in front of the customer, finding out, sometimes in excruciating detail, what they want. It also means anticipating their needs and fulfilling them, even if the customer doesn’t know they need it. A pro does this because it’s the only way to make sure they are working efficiently and fairly.

Honesty IS the best policy

You don’t want a designer who will take advantage of you, padding their time, or acting dishonestly. You want one with a proven track record of results and honesty, preferably one with references and a portfolio. A diverse portfolio is a plus. You are also entitled to a very specific breakdown of all efforts and charges. Pros provide this automatically. It’s part of the job. There should never be a question about the efforts a pro puts forward matching the time involved or the results obtained. Pros know this.

Flexibility isn’t just for gymnasts

Your needs will probably vary and increase as your business grows and changes. This means that you will likely need design done in many media. Designers familiar with electronic and physical design can help integrate the two. Even if you are only looking for a web site and don’t plan to have a print presence at this point, you still might need good logo design, incidental business forms (invoices, business cards, etc.). If you plan to look professional, you will want someone who knows how to tie every aspect of your business together into a cohesive package. Having a gorgeous web site and lousy cheap business cards or ugly generic invoices sends a mixed message at best.

The short form

These are the quick steps:

  • Ask around. Find out who did sites you like, or if anyone you know hss had a good experience.
  • Hire a pro. The initial cost will be a bit more, but the overall cost is considerably less. If you cannot afford a professional, you probably cannot afford to be in business yet.
  • Get to know your pro. Make sure they have a portfolio of work you can look at and references to call. Make sure they are honest. Give them a call and find out who they are before giving them your business.

Final Words

Hiring a web designer for the first time isn’t easy. You have to put a lot of trust in that person. You might even have to go out of town to find someone to work with. That’s not as bad as it sounds since the web is usually as close as the nearest computer. You can be anywhere and work with anyone. Even print work is done electronically and files are easily moved around the globe with the click of a button.

Then again, you can save yourself a lot of effort and simply hire me, but that’s probably a bit too obvious. Whatever you do, having an ongoing relationship with a quality designer can only enhance your image and give it the professional polish and attention it needs to succeed.